BREAKING: Senate Hearing Reveals Key Amtrak Details
June 26, 2019
Senate Commerce hearing on next steps for Amtrak produced several noteworthy and significant moments
By Jim Mathews, President & CEO | Rail Passengers Association
Today's Senate Commerce hearing on next steps for Amtrak produced several noteworthy and significant moments, which will no doubt play a big part in shaping intercity rail programs and Amtrak in the upcoming rail reauthorization. While the hearing is well worth watching in its entirety, we’ve highlighted some of the key moments below.
Rail Passengers Association Work Bears Fruit
Our association has been working for a better, more efficient U.S. passenger rail system for over 50 years. We’ve continued the work in the face of tremendous adversity, confident that the facts would ultimately bear out the rightness of our mission.
Today’s hearing was a vindication of that work, and proved that many of our policy ideas -- ideas that our members have worked tirelessly in support of -- now occupy the political mainstream. Our arguments for investing in trains, developed by this Association over the past decade, were coming out of the mouths of Senators of all political stripes, representing Red States and Blue States alike.
The work must continue, but rail advocates should take heart in today’s action.
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Passengers Make The Economic Case for National or Nothing
Jim Souby, President of the Colorado Passenger Rail Association (ColoRail) and a Council Member of the Rail Passengers Association, laid down a clear and direct case for the benefits that come from public support of passenger rail:
“The way Amtrak evaluates long-distance service, or any of its services, is purely based on metrics related to passenger trips. And the greatest value of the long-distance trains are the economic and social benefits they bring to the communities they serve. [There’s] no doubt that rural communities aren’t going to have as many passengers boarding and alighting on the system as you do in a heavy metropolitan area, but the interesting fact is that in the three states -- Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico -- that the Southwest Chief runs through, the economic and social benefits total $180 million per year. Amtrak asserts that it costs $60 million year over all eight states. And so there’s something wrong with that equation when [Amtrak is] not taking into account the value that [the train] brings. It’s a public transportation system.”
The full exchange with Senator Tom Udall is quite illuminating (begins at 1:02:45 in the video). You can also read Souby’s testimony as submitted in its entirety.
Amtrak Reveals Which Long-Distance Lines Are Safe, Stays Mum on Others
When pressed by Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi on a Wall Street Journal article, Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson made clear what the company has been indirectly saying for the past year: Amtrak will study breaking up some long-distance routes into short-distance corridors in the coming reauthorization. Anderson did not specify which routes Amtrak is looking at.
Anderson did reveal that he believes there are several routes that will definitely continue -- the Coast Starlight, the Empire Builder, and the California Zephyr.
One critical caveat: Anderson acknowledged that the ultimate decision lies with Congress, but warned that retaining existing levels of service will require increased funding for new equipment and solving the On Time Performance (OTP) crisis.
[Full exchange begins at 00:46:01]
Senator Tom Udall Draws a Line in the Sand on National Network Service
Last year Congress reaffirmed support for a true national network through my amendment — by 92-6. This support hasn’t waned. pic.twitter.com/T66jIkFq3D— Tom Udall (@SenatorTomUdall) June 26, 2019
Senator Jerry Moran Talks Benefits of Rail Investment, Fences with Anderson Over Southwest Chief
In an exchange with Souby, Senator Moran of Kansas inquired into the source of the $180 million in economic benefits of the Southwest Chief to the three states facing service disruption, and whether that was information Amtrak was required to look at. Souby explained that the number came from an economic model developed by Rail Passengers Association, and that while Amtrak wasn’t required to consider it in any way, he believed Congress should mandate that these benefit play a role in network planning. Senator Moran said he agreed fully with that point.
Senator Moran then pressed Anderson on the SWC, asking him directly whether SWC communities could count on the continued operations of the train. Anderson told the Senator that they would follow the law, delivering key pieces of information for SWC communities:
Amtrak will spend the $50 million that Congress set aside for the SWC, and have leveraged it to $90 million;
Amtrak believes the SWC the route needs PTC, and implementation of the technology on the route will cost $100 million.
Senator Moran closed by saying “I’ll take that you want to increase and improve the service, but that there are no hedge words in that paragraph.”
[Full exchange begins at 1:21:40]
Chairman Wicker, Amtrak Press Freight Railroads On OTP
In response to a question from Chairman Wicker, Anderson laid out a 90-day timeline for reestablishing metrics and standards for OTP protections following a recent Supreme Court decision favoring passengers.
Ian Jeffries of the Association of American Railroads emphasized that host railroads feel they should be able to provide input on these metrics, but acknowledged that the FRA and Amtrak have the legal right to create the metrics and standards to protect the rights of Amtrak customers.
Freights Call for Dedicated Funding for Passenger Trains
Jefferies also laid out the host railroad case for predictable and sufficient public funding for passenger trains:
“[P]roper funding is necessary, especially as Amtrak looks to change and expand service offerings. As laid out in AAR’s surface transportation reauthorization recommendations, policymakers should provide passenger railroads — including Amtrak — with the dedicated funding they need to operate safely and effectively, and to pay for expanded capacity when they require it. It is not reasonable to expect Amtrak to be able to plan, build, and maintain an adequate network that provides optimal transportation mobility and connectivity when there is excessive uncertainty regarding what its capital and operating funding will be from one year to the next. If Congress provides predictable and needed levels of federal funding support, Amtrak and its state partners could better deliver a future of improved reliability, enhanced capacity, more service, and reduced trip times.”
Anderson Describes a Path Forward
While Anderson engaged in testy interactions with several Senators, when pressed on the importance of long-distance routes to rural America, he went out of his way to agree with our argument:
“Intercity passenger rail can play a really important role in connecting rural America to urban American. There is no doubt about it. We see it across the network. And there is a permanent place for the long-distance network. I just don’t think the long-distance network serves a lot of these communities very well. And that we could do a lot better job serving these communities.”
Anderson’s oft-repeated caveat -- that the ultimate decision lies with Congress, but retaining existing levels of service will require increased funding for new equipment and solving the OTP crisis -- should be seen as a path forward for rail advocates. By convincing Congress to finally invest in the national rail network at sufficient levels, we can provide reliable, efficient rail service to all Americans.
"Saving the Pennsylvanian (New York-Pittsburgh train) was a local effort but it was tremendously useful to have a national organization [NARP] to call upon for information and support. It was the combination of the local and national groups that made this happen."
Michael Alexander, NARP Council Member
April 6, 2013, at the Harrisburg PA membership meeting of NARP