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Congress Presses Amtrak, Amtrak Leadership Gives Right Answers

May 21, 2018

Senators get answers about Amtrak’s plans for long-distance trains, and increased funding from the House’s proposed budget.

Congress Presses Amtrak on National Network, and Amtrak Leadership Gives the Right Answers

Update as of 5-17-2018

Senators sounded awfully like members of the Rail Passengers Association in hearings last Wednesday on rail safety and to confirm the Trump Administration’s most recent appointee to the Amtrak Board, resulting in some illuminating answers on Amtrak’s plans for the National Network among some other key issues. From what was said on record to congress yesterday, we know now that we’ll need to continue to debate the right kinds of service, but we don’t have to debate whether there WILL be service

“Are there plans to reduce Empire Builder service and does Amtrak remain committed to Long Distance Rail?” Senator Daines of Montana asked Stephen Gardner of Amtrak point blank in a hearing on Rail Safety in response to the recent elimination of station staff at station stops in Havre and Shelby Montana. Gardner responded carefully that they “do not plan to institute tri-weekly service on the Empire Builder.”

Gardner added that Amtrak will not reduce its footprint and “any conversations about the broad future of our network is best placed in our authorization context as we approach our next authorization [...] we will consider any future changes collectively between the congress, the administration, and Amtrak as we look at the network ahead.” Amtrak’s network is currently authorized under the FAST act through 2020.

"Let's talk Gulf Coast.” Said Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi in the confirmation hearing for Amtrak Board potential Joe Gruters. Wicker continued “Anderson wrote to CSX in support of the service. Are you willing to be a strong partner?" to which Gruters responded "As soon as my nomination was announced, the small communities started contacting me. I will do everything I can to make this work."

Submitting our Southwest Chief letter to the record, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado held Gruters to the fire about Amtrak’s failure to honor its commitment to the TIGER grant that will save the route. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas jumped on the issue as well, saying that "You can't reduce service and expect customers to arrive at your door."

If these arguments and concerns sound familiar, it’s because our work is paying off, and passengers are being heard. Best of all, it’s not all talk. The House Appropriations subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development dropped their FY 2019 budget, and the numbers for conventional passenger rail are very encouraging.

  • Federal State of Good Repair: $500 million - DOUBLE the amount awarded this year!

  • National Network: $1,291,600,000 - $200 Million more than requested by this committee last year!

  • North East Corridor (NEC): $650 million - stable with this year’s funding

Of course, this is a House GOP Committee proposal, so there are some things that are questionable:

  • Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI): $300 million, with $150 million reserved for Positive Train Control - which represents half of what was appropriated in FY 2018

  • Maglev: $150 million, which we suspect isn’t significant enough to amount to any meaningful action

And the unfortunate:

  • California HSR is barred from receiving any funds

That said, at a time of year when we’re used to ringing alarm bells, Passengers find themselves in a comparatively enviable negotiation point. For full context, here are some more funding numbers in comparison with prior years and the FAST act: