Happening Now

Government shutdown shouldn't hamper train travel

September 30, 2013

Written By Colin Leach

If you’re planning to travel on Amtrak in the next few weeks, you might be wondering whether or not your trains will run on time, if at all. Fortunately, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Unlike most federal agencies, which are expected to send all non-essential personnel home beginning at 12:01 AM tomorrow, Amtrak will remain in normal service. Passengers across the country, whether on the Northeast or California corridors, or travelling on long-distance services, can count on their trains running as advertised, unless the shutdown lasts for more than six weeks. To quote an Amtrak news release:

Amtrak will continue normal operation of its national intercity and high-speed rail network in the event of a short-term federal government shutdown. Passengers planning to travel on Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor and across the country in the coming days and weeks can be assured that Amtrak will remain open for business.

While Amtrak services are guaranteed in the short term due to the company’s cash reserves, it is not known at this time how long the railroad will continue to operate. It is NARP’s understanding the company can maintain normal operations for at least three weeks and, after taking extraordinary measures “similar to those used by the Treasury,” could likely operate up to six weeks before having to resort to service cuts. However, as the last government shutdown lasted only three weeks, the chances of Amtrak actually having to suspend routes or reduce frequencies are very small.

Although America’s train system may be safe for the moment, present talk of government shutdown offers an opportunity for reflection on how our trains are funded. Like all other parts of the federal government, Amtrak’s operating grant is dependent on Congress completing the normal budgeting process. In the absence of an authorization law (which would contain a recommended level of funding for several straight years), Congress passes continuing resolutions to maintain funding at existing levels. Amtrak has been funded without an authorization law for most of its history, which has been a mixed blessing, as it has sometimes meant that hostile Congressional majorities were unable to enact authorization laws that would harm the railroad by imposing various micromanaging or passenger-unfriendly provisions.

For Amtrak, a continuing resolution has meant just that: the railroad continues to receive the same inadequate level of funding as contained in the last authorization law. These figures, while maintaining existing service, barely allow the system to keep up with rising demand. Americans have consistently proven their preference for passenger trains, whether they live in Missouri, Virginia,Indiana, Colorado, or any of the other states Amtrak serves. Their message is clear: not only do Americans use the trains that we already have, they want more and better trains in the future.

Unfortunately, Congress’s practice of deciding on Amtrak’s funding level through each year’s appropriations process, with no guarantee of adequate longer-term provisions, do not allow for the real investment needed to improve America’s passenger trains. Meanwhile, highways, transit and aviation enjoy trust funds from which money for both infrastructure investment and operations is drawn on a formula basis over which Congress has less direct control of the purse strings. Not only that; employees whose salaries come from the Highway and Airport and Airway Trust Funds will not be affected by this or any government shutdown.

With that in mind, why not take a moment to write your Representative and Senators to demand action towards a reliable source of adequate funding that will allow Amtrak to actually respond to the market for train service? Amtrak cannot be expected to function like a business and reduce its per-passenger subsidy, which requires the ability to fulfill demand for one’s product, without a sufficient flow of capital investment and operating support to allow new frequencies and routes to be served.

Those who choose to fly or drive are reassured that the Interstates will remain open and air traffic controllers and airport security officers will stay on the job in the event of a government shutdown. Train riders deserve the same assurance that Congress’s failure to compromise won’t impair our freedom to travel. This can only come through a passenger rail trust fund that is not subject to Congress’s dysfunction.