President and Chief Executive Officer
Submitted to the
Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives
* * *
Thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement. Thank you also for the positive roll that you and your subcommittee have played in providing significantly increased funding for intercity passenger trains. In the 2010 appropriations process, we particularly appreciate your leadership in getting the House to pass $4 billion for capital grants to states, and in securing enactment of $2.5 billion.
Our key requests for intercity passenger trains for FY 2011 are:
• Amtrak’s budget request: $592 million for operations; $1,299
million for capital (including $281 million for Americans with
Disabilities Act compliance work); $305 million for debt service; $7
million for FRA oversight
• Amtrak’s fleet strategy requirement: $446 million
• Capital grants for states: $4 billion, with an appropriate portion designated for rolling stock acquisition
• Funding needed to restore service between New Orleans and Florida, consistent with the PRIIA requirement that Amtrak by July 16, 2009, submit a plan to restart service;
• Funding needed to restore service between Salt Lake City and the Pacific Northwest and between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest via southern North Dakota and southern Montana, as Amtrak studied in response to the mandates in PRIIA.
The Importance of Trains: More and better passenger trains and intermodal connections are crucial to maintaining mobility for our citizens, enhancing the quality of life in our communities, bolstering our nation’s economic competitiveness and energy efficiency, providing good jobs for Americans and reducing our transportation system’s negative environmental impact.
Mobility and quality of life issues become more relevant as the proportion of older citizens dramatically increases, and as young people become more receptive to non-auto transport.
The national interest is well served by enabling as many people—especially older people—as possible to lead a satisfying life with little or no driving. This can improve both safety and mental health, as people in auto-dependent environments who cannot drive suffer from the resulting sense of isolation.
Fewer Teenaged Drivers: At the same time, the Millennial Generation—people in their teens and twenties—is greatly attracted to a less car-dependent lifestyle. They increasingly do not view acquiring a driver’s license as a “rite of passage to maturity” for 16-year-olds. Indeed, my two sons of driving age, now 21 and 19, both got their drivers’ licenses a year or two after turning 16, becoming serious about getting their licenses only after realizing that mass transit served their transportation needs poorly.
WRAL.com in Raleigh reported January 25 that a decline in the number of North Carolina teens getting their full provisional driver’s license “is part of a nationwide trend. Data released [January 22] by the Federal Highway Administration shows 30% of 16-year-olds got their licenses in 2008, compared with 44% in 1988.” On February 11, Tampa’s News Channel 8 reported that FHWA statistics “show that one in every three teens now has a license at 16. It used to be one of every two.” The report cited Florida statistics consistent with that trend.
A February 25, 2008, New York Times report stated: “Reasons vary, including tighter state laws governing when teenagers can drive, higher insurance costs and a shift from school-run driver education to expensive private driving academies. To that mix, experts also add parents who are willing to chauffeur their children to activities, and pastimes like surfing the Web that keep them indoors and glued to computers.”
Ridership and Polls: Americans’ desire for improved train service is demonstrated through increasing ridership on Amtrak and rail transit systems nationwide. Amtrak gained riders for six straight years—from 2002 to 2008. The 2008 run-up in gasoline prices was a big factor in ridership growth of 11% from 2007 to 2008. While Amtrak and transit ridership fell in 2009, due in part to the recession and lower gasoline prices, it was still 5% above the 2007 level, and ridership in FY 2010 through the first four months (October-January) is 2% above FY 2009. This all suggests that many people did not return to their pre-2008 driving habits, and that more people are looking at total driving costs, not just the price of gasoline.
For years, polls have consistently shown strong support for increased investment in passenger trains. A recent one, by Kelton Research—taken February1-7, 2010 for HNTB Corporation—showed 88% “open to high-speed rail for long-distance travel within the U.S.,” according to a February18 report in Metro Magazine, which also cited 83% support for increasing the share of federal funding that goes to public transit and high-speed rail infrastructure. The 88% is down from 94% in March, 2009, presumably due to the fall in gasoline prices. HNTB’s Peter Gertler put it well in commenting on this: “The pain we felt when gasoline was hovering near $4 a gallon has receded, yet we can’t stand by for the next crisis to hit to address the underlying issues of congestion and our dependence on limited fossil fuels.”
Amtrak’s Funding Request: We are concerned that reducing Amtrak’s
other capital items to make way for the ADA funding, which in effect
happened this year, damages the overall system, with detrimental impact
on all passengers including those with disabilities.
Shorting the capital request creates a problem for the effort to let passenger trains assume their rightful place as a primary mode of transportation providing a desirable travel choice for all Americans – as envisioned by President Obama and as practiced in most industrialized countries. While Russia, China and others continue to leap ahead with modern train service, Amtrak struggles to provide high-quality service even on its limited, existing network.
Equipping Trains for Growth: Amtrak did not include fleet strategy funding in its basic request. However, a major factor hurting customer satisfaction and inflating operating costs is the 37-year average age of its locomotives and cars, including 92 long-distance “Heritage” cars that are between 53 and 61 years old.
Amtrak’s fleet strategy assumes ridership growth of only 2%. We think that is too conservative, given the need to increase capacity on existing routes and to add routes, but we appreciate Amtrak’s emphasis on their plan’s “scalability,” that is, the fact that car acquisitions can be increased if the market calls for it and funding is provided. Indeed, many trains, especially those most recently added to the system, are already outpacing similarly conservative ridership projections.
Nonetheless, this illustrates the financial challenge: failure to meet the funding targets Amtrak identified puts us close to a no-growth scenario regarding both additional capacity on existing routes and expanding the network to parts of the country that are not adequately served, a category that includes some of the fastest-growing regions in the United States.
In addition to funding fleet needs directly, consideration should be given to the use of tax credits and/or asset depreciation benefits to encourage private leasing companies to buy equipment and lease it to states and perhaps Amtrak. Part of the goal is to reduce the high up-front costs that taxpayer-supported agencies face when procuring new equipment.
Also of critical importance is the $281 million Amtrak request to fulfill its obligation to bring stations into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act – money that is left out of the Administration’s budget. The Association supports Amtrak’s current ADA policy as set forth in “Amtrak Guidelines on Platform Design” (April 2008). Previously, we joined with Amtrak, the Class I railroads and commuter railroad agencies in strongly opposing a rule that had been under consideration by U.S. DOT that would have required full length platforms for level boarding. In Fiscal 2010, Amtrak was instructed to spend the $144 million for ADA which in effect reduced other vital capital expenditures.
Grants to States: We strongly support the general approach that U.S. DOT took in awarding the $8 billion in capital grants announced January 28. I was privileged to comment on NBC Nightly News on January 30 that I was impressed both with “the amount of funds involved and the intelligence with which it was distributed.”
Operating Grant: This is critical, in part because the big increase in the capital budget (including Recovery Act funds) drives up operating costs, as not all personnel costs associated with capital projects can be capitalized. Moreover, the mandates of PRIIA also create upward pressure on operating costs. The organization is handling more than twice the amount of work of five years ago. This underscores the urgency of maintaining Amtrak’s operating grant at the full requested amount of $592 million.
The Transportation for America Coalition’s “United States of Transit Cutbacks” map vividly portrays the irony of transit agencies from Philadelphia to Phoenix receiving new federal capital funds while withering operating support is forcing consideration of unacceptable service cuts – including the elimination of all service on certain days of the week, bus route terminations, station closures, and dramatic frequency reductions. As Secretary LaHood put it, it doesn’t make sense to buy so many new trains and buses when we can’t afford to pay operators to run them.
On the intercity side, consideration should be given, at least in emergency situations, to allowing operation of state-supported intercity trains on a 50/50 matching basis, without making Amtrak swallow the difference.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory Statistics: The following table, showing 2007 data, comes from the annual Transportation Energy Data Book (Edition 28, released in 2009), published by Oak Ridge National Laboratory under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy:
Energy intensity of each mode (in BTUs per passenger mile):
Amtrak - 2,516
Commuter trains - 2,638
Certificated air carriers - 3,103
Cars - 3,514
Light trucks (2-axle, 4-tire) - 3,946
* BTU = British Thermal Unit; passenger-mile = one passenger traveling one mile
Amtrak and commuter trains are the only modes that showed improvement compared with the 2006 numbers included in my statement a year ago.
Overnight Trains: Ridership on these trains as a group continues to hold up in the face of a weak economy. According to a March 8th Amtrak release, ridership on 15 long-distance trains rose 13% from 2006 to 2009, while on-time performance jumped from 30% to 75% and customer satisfaction scores also rose. We support Amtrak’s initiative, also discussed in the release, to combine the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited into a daily, full-service Chicago-Los Angeles train via St. Louis, Dallas/Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso and Tucson. A connecting daily train between San Antonio and New Orleans via Houston is also planned, and we understand that some through New Orleans-Los Angeles cars will be restored if demand is strong. Currently, New Orleans-San Antonio-Los Angeles service runs three days a week.
We support funding to restore New Orleans-Florida service which Amtrak seems to have permanently discontinued after Hurricane Katrina although the damaged railroad was put back in better condition within six months.
We also support funding to restore the services PRIIA Amtrak studied thanks to PRIIA’s mandate, including the Salt Lake City-Portland via Boise and the Chicago to Seattle via southern Montana North Coast Hiawatha. A reinstated Hiawatha could carry as many as 360,000 annual riders, comparable to Amtrak’s other western transcontinental trains, while a new Pioneer could see as many as 102,000 annual riders. Both trains would serve areas that are lacking in intercity bus and air connections and are also important tourist destinations.
The Gulf Coast Connector from New Orleans to Florida’s east coast via Mobile, Pensacola and Tallahassee serves the fastest-growing travel market in the nation and provides a key link in the national network. Although Hurricane Katrina damaged the tracks the Sunset Limited once used on this route… Congress needs to step in with a mandate and funding to bring back this much-needed service.
Hudson River Tunnels: We continue to be concerned about the
construction of Hudson River rail tunnels that will not connect to Penn
Station but only to a dead-end, deep cavern station under 34th Street.
We continue to discuss this with New Jersey Transit.
Thank you for considering our views.
National Association of Railroad Passengers
505 Capitol Ct., NE, Suite 300; Washington, DC 20002-7706
Phone 202-408-8362, FAX -8287