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House Subcommittee Looks at Future of Rail

November 30, 2023

The House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials held a hearing on passenger rail this week, focusing largely on the California High-Speed Rail Project and the potential for private sector partnerships in U.S. passenger rail operations.

Titled “Getting on the Right Track: Navigating the Future of Intercity Passenger Rail in America”, the hearing panel featured a variety of voices within the industry, including Andy Daly, Senior Director of Passenger Operations at CSX Railroad; Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director for the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority; Lee Ohanian, Senior Fellow (adjunct) at the Hoover Institution, and Mayor Kirk Watson from Austin, Texas.

The Committee spent the majority of the hearing spotlighting the troubled project development of the California High-Speed Rail system, which has struggled with protracted environmental reviews, uncertain construction timelines, and fluctuating cost estimates. House Republicans pointed to easing permitting requirements and private sector involvement as solutions.

“While the California High-Speed Rail project shows the failures of poor planning and government incompetence, there are promising opportunities to promote intercity passenger rail responsibly,” said Subcommittee Chairman Troy Nehls (R-TX). “Encouraging competition, removing burdensome government obstacles, focusing on areas of high demand, and involving the private sector have proven effective ways of managing intercity passenger rail, and today we will hear from witnesses about those promising efforts.”

One hearing in the House T&I Subcommittee on Rail matters less for the California HSR project in the near term than how it fares in the first round of Federal – State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Program – National Network grants. Those grant awards will distribute $4.5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) funding and are expected to be announced later this month.

But the hearing did emphasize the need for rail programs to show tangible results to Congressional lawmakers as they enter the next surface transportation reauthorization cycle in 2024.

Andy Daly, Senior Director of Passenger Operations, CSX Railroad | Witness Testimony

CSX’s Mr. Daly spoke to the Subcommittee about the company's "four pillars" that it considers when adding new passenger rail service on its tracks:

  • Number 1 - Safety: The addition of new passenger service cannot impact the safety of the line for our customers, employees, existing passenger/commuter service, or surrounding communities.
  • Number 2 - Capacity: There must be adequate capacity to meet our current and future customer needs.
  • Number 3 - Compensation: CSX must be fairly compensated for the use of our infrastructure as well as maintenance costs.
  • Number 4 - Liability: CSX cannot take on additional liability when additional passenger service is brought onto our freight corridor.

Mr. Daly did not mention how the rail industry can establish an objective process for understanding the impact of a proposed service on pillars 2 and 3, which has long been an obstacle to adding new passenger service in a timely fashion, and is something Rail Passengers has long advocated for.

And while House Republicans pointed to private sector involvement as a potential solution to project delivery problems, the liability issue raised by Mr. Daly has historically been an obstacle to getting non-Amtrak operators to bid on running passenger services over shared-use corridors in the U.S.

Ms. Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority | Witness Testimony

Ms. Mortensen used her testimony to highlight the problems in Amtrak’s cost-allocation methodology—problems that Rail Passengers Association has documented at great length.

“Ironically, when a service change negatively impacts California, it does significant harm to the largest Amtrak cost center outside of the Northeast Corridor,” said Mortensen in her testimony. “The double irony for our San Joaquinsservice is that we receive no federal funding. Our state and our riders pay all the operations and maintenance costs, which are now nearing $100 million per year. National decisions have crippled our service without justification, and yet, the established Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) framework sticks us with the check, and we are left with no other option but to foot the bill.”

Ms. Mortensen argued for a “localized decision-making model” that offers greater transparency and gives more power to state agencies that partner with Amtrak on State-supported routes.

Hon. Kirk Watson, Mayor, City of Austin, Texas | Witness Testimony

Mayor Watson spoke about the challenges that have come with rapid growth in Austin, and the pressing need throughout Texas for transportation alternatives to overcrowded highways.

“Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration will be spending a lot of money on infrastructure improvements, facility improvements, and new rolling stock in the coming years,” said Mayor Watson. “As the Mayor of Austin and a resident of the Texas Triangle, I want some of that money to be spent on Texas tracks and Texas stations, and I want some of those shiny new trains running in Texas and providing Texans with a much-needed and long-overdue mobility option.”

He also talked about successful U.S. models that Texas officials are drawing inspiration from as they work to expand intercity passenger train service throughout the Southwest:

“Looking to Virginia, the investments started under a Republican Governor and continued by his Democratic and Republican successors to improve intercity passenger rail travel have paid big dividends. These investments extended the reach of the Northeast Corridor to additional cities, increased frequencies, and reduced travel times. As a result, ridership on state- supported corridors in Virginia has more than tripled over the past decade. The same thing has happened in North Carolina: ridership on its Charlotte-to-Raleigh Piedmont route has increased nearly 350% in the past 15 years due to investments made during the administrations of both Republican and Democratic governors, and has broken ridership records in the past year. Just as importantly, these state investments made with bipartisan support have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants and laid the groundwork for additional investments that will further increase service and reliability and drive additional ridership and economic growth.

“My hope is that Texas can use these models to leverage IIJA to improve intercity passenger rail service between communities along the Texas Triangle.”

Mayor Watson also argued that solving the poor on-time performance of Amtrak trains on freight-owned tracks was key to bringing on more riders.

“[E]ven with only one train per day in each direction that almost always runs behind schedule, ridership at Austin’s Amtrak station increased by 11.19% in FY 2023 over FY 2022,” said Mayor Watson. “Imagine our ridership numbers if we had several trains per day that ran on time.”