Historic Passenger Rail Infrastructure Bill Passes
November 5, 2021
The trajectory of the U.S. passenger rail network has been fundamentally changed with the passage of the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law. We went to sleep last night in one world, and today we woke up in a new one.
By Jim Mathews, President & CEO, Rail Passengers Association
Today is a red-letter day for America’s passengers.
The trajectory of the U.S. passenger rail network has been fundamentally changed with the passage of the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law. We went to sleep last night in one world, and tomorrow we'll wake up in a new one.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about where we’ve been over the past few years. Remember these headlines?
Study: Bisecting Southwest Chief rail service a costly plan – Albuquerque Journal (2019)
Amtrak CEO Has a Plan for Profitability, and You Won’t Like It – Bloomberg Businessweek (2019)
Critics Fear Amtrak Is Using Pandemic to Cut Service That Won’t Return – New York Times (2020)
Those headlines tell the story of a clear and present danger to the viability of the National Network. Make no mistake, there was a real threat that we would see yet another round of service cuts to the U.S. passenger rail network—first from wrongheaded Amtrak leadership, then from a once-in-a generation pandemic.
They also tell of a story of the Rail Passengers Association responding decisively to defend the service of Amtrak communities across the nation.
Rail Passengers Association President & CEO Jim Mathews testifies before the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure (November 2019)
America's passengers couldn’t wait for a bipartisan infrastructure bill to come to the rescue, so Rail Passengers leapt into action. We launched a campaign with allied groups to protect America’s essential rail services. Congress responded by enacting meaningful protections for passengers and Amtrak-served communities:
- $2+ billion in emergency COVID funding, paired with mandates to restore Daily Service across the National Network;
- Statement from the Congress that long-distance passenger rail is an essential part of the nation’s transportation system, specifically for rural parts of the country, and should be retained to ensure connectivity throughout the National Network;
- Requirement to invest in the capital improvements for the Southwest Chief, and a prohibition on the use of these funds to “discontinue, reduce the frequency of, suspend, or substantially alter” the route;
- Return of discounted passenger fares for U.S. military veterans;
- Restoration of station agents to any Amtrak station that had a ticket agent position eliminated in fiscal year 2018;
- Congressional direction to Amtrak to improve communication and collaboration with local partners and take into consideration the unique needs of each community, including impacts to local jobs, when making decisions related to the staffing of Amtrak stations.
Thanks to Rail Passengers’ work—in Congress, with local officials, with stakeholder groups and the public—we didn’t lose a single train.
Now, we stand on the brink of a new era.
Just compare the levels of funding for passenger trains from the prior five years under the FAST Act, to the next five years under the IIJA.
Rail Passengers Association applauds the work Congress put into the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which marks a new era for America’s passenger rail network. This funding will modernize vast stretches of the existing U.S. passenger rail network, undoing decades of disinvestment. Amtrak passengers will see newly refurbished train interiors and brand new trainsets; expanded and upgraded train stations and platforms; additional frequencies that offer more convenient travel options and connections; and new energy-efficient locomotives. Passengers will also benefit from the less glamorous upgrades to our aging rail infrastructure that will eliminate delays, add capacity and reduce trip-times: new bridges, rebuilt tunnels, upgraded signals, additional sidings, crossovers and double-tracking. These upgrades will touch every part of the existing system—and, we hope, lay the foundation for dozens of new corridors across the U.S.
But it’s not just funding. Rail Passengers has also worked with Congressional allies to secure meaningful oversight of Amtrak, with increased opportunities for passengers to have a say in what kind of train service their communities have access to. We’ve ensured better geographic representation and transparency for Amtrak’s board; increased oversight for Amtrak’s long-distance routes; protections for rural Amtrak communities; and the creation of a food and beverage working group for passengers to provide input into the onboard experience.
With the passage of the IIJA, America’s passengers have an opportunity to reshape the U.S. transportation network for a generation to come. Rail Passengers has been developing a vision of what the U.S. rail network could be for over 50 years, and that vision has never been closer to becoming a reality.
Rail Passengers Association looks forward to working with Congress, the USDOT, states, Amtrak, and of course, you the passenger, to ensure that all Americans—from New York City to Hutchinson, Kansas; from Seattle to Jackson, Mississippi—have access to safe, reliable, convenient, affordable, and enjoyable passenger train service.
We wouldn't be able accomplish our mission without your generous support. If you would like to see this kind of work continue, please donate -- $5, $10 or $100. It all goes to ensure that America's passengers have a voice.
"The Rail Passenger Association's recognition of the essential work done by SMART-TD members aboard Amtrak during this difficult period is appreciated. The Golden Spike Award serves as a testament to the compassion and dedication our conductors, assistant conductors and other workers exhibit constantly through times both ordinary and extraordinary."
Jeremy Ferguson, SMART-TD President
December 21, 2021, on the Association awarding its 2021 Golden Spike Award to the Frontline Amtrak Employees.