TRAINS Act Defends National Network
June 5, 2020
What Is Rail Passengers Doing To Preserve And Expand Long-Distance Service?
By Jim Mathews, President & CEO
"What Is Rail Passengers Doing To Preserve And Expand Long-Distance Service?"
I’m glad you asked.
Your professional staff has worked very hard for more than a year developing allies on Capitol Hill and in Washington, helping congressional staffers with questions and educating legislators and staff about the value Amtrak service brings to all of the communities it serves.
This has had many different results, but one of them emerged this week when the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee released its draft of the new surface transportation bill, called the INVEST In America Act. The INVEST In America Act includes a robust rail title, called the TRAINS Act. This is the long-awaited FAST Act reauthorization we’ve been telling you about for months, and for an opening salvo the news was very good indeed.
This is the beginning of the journey to reauthorization, not the end, but it’s a very encouraging beginning.
As we’ve reported earlier, this bill contains many policy wins for all of us who are fighting for more trains, better trains and better infrastructure investment.
But since most of the follow-up questions I’ve received have centered on long-distance service, I decided I would highlight line by line how patient education and hard work by your professional staff and our allies have strengthened protections for Amtrak’s long-distance services.
The five-year reauthorization bill would modify several sections of Title 49 of the U.S. Code which deal with Amtrak. Title II of the Committee’s proposed TRAINS Act contains a whole laundry list under the heading “Amtrak Reforms.” These reforms include reframing what Congress believes is the purpose of Amtrak, its mission and its goals, as well as clarifying that the railroad’s primary purpose is public benefit and not profit.
Changing the U.S. Code on these issues writes these reforms into binding law.
Section 9201 of the TRAINS Act text would edit and rewrite 49 U.S. Code § 24101, which addresses Congress’ Findings, Mission and Goals related to Amtrak.
Let’s start at the very beginning, Findings. Today, 49 U.S. Code § 24101 starts off with the following number-one finding: “Public convenience and necessity require that Amtrak, to the extent its budget allows, provide modern, cost-efficient, and energy-efficient intercity rail passenger transportation between crowded urban areas and in other areas of the United States.”
The TRAINS Act eliminates qualifications like “to the extent its budget allows” and widens the mission beyond “transportation between crowded urban areas” to make it clear that the mission is truly nationwide. Here’s how the new text reads:
“(1) Public convenience and necessity require that Amtrak provide modern, cost-efficient, and energy-efficient intercity rail passenger transportation throughout the United States.”
Pretty clear and straightforward. But that’s just the beginning.
The TRAINS Act changes the second paragraph, which today simply states “Rail passenger transportation can help alleviate overcrowding of airways and airports and on highways,” by extending and highlighting more specific benefits. The new second paragraph would read: “(2)Rail passenger transportation can help alleviate overcrowding of airways and airports and on highways, thereby providing additional capacity for the traveling public and widespread air quality benefits.”
Paragraph 4 in the existing law creates an opening to push Amtrak to focus on “profitable” routes by declaring that “a greater degree of cooperation is necessary among Amtrak, other rail carriers, State, regional, and local governments, the private sector, labor organizations, and suppliers of services and equipment to Amtrak to achieve a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money.”
The TRAINS Act rewrites that paragraph to make it crystal clear that Amtrak’s mission is public service, putting the focus squarely on the public benefits of these investments to the communities served. Here’s the new language: “(4)A high degree of cooperation is necessary among Amtrak, other rail carriers, State, regional, and local governments, the private sector, labor organizations, and suppliers of services and equipment to Amtrak in order to meet the passenger rail needs of the United States.”
The TRAINS Act also inserts the term “intercity” into paragraph 5, which in the present law only discusses commuter service.
Lawmakers also wrote additional Findings into the list that don’t appear in today’s law, Findings that make it clear that long-distance trains figure prominently in Congress’ assessment of the public purpose of Amtrak and the taxpayer dollars it receives. The additional Findings read:
“(9) Long-distance passenger rail is an important part of the national transportation system.
(10) Investments in intercity and commuter rail passenger transportation support jobs that provide a pathway to the middle class.”
Having beefed-up the Findings, lawmakers then turn to defining Amtrak’s mission. Here again, the bill would make extensive edits and changes to 49 U.S. Code § 24101, which today contains the language spelling out Amtrak’s mission.
Today, the law defines Amtrak’s mission as this: “The mission of Amtrak is to provide efficient and effective intercity passenger rail mobility consisting of high-quality service that is trip-time competitive with other intercity travel options and that is consistent with the goals set forth in subsection (c).”
The TRAINS Act would define Amtrak’s mission as this: “The mission of Amtrak is to provide a safe, efficient and high-quality national passenger rail system, consistent with the goals set forth in subsection (c).”
Notice what’s been added and what’s missing? The assertion of “trip-time competitive” is dropped and a simple clause defining Amtrak’s operation as a “safe, efficient and high-quality national passenger rail system” takes its place. Kay Bailey Hutcheson would be proud.
Both in the existing and the new law, the Mission is linked to goals outlined in subsection (c). Lawmakers changed this language as well, to underscore what Congress believes it is paying for when it appropriates tax dollars to the railroad.
In the existing law, Amtrak’s very first congressionally assigned goal has proved problematic for advocates making the case for public necessity over profit: “(1)use its best business judgment in acting to minimize United States Government subsidies.” The TRAINS Act changes that goal. Under the new law, Amtrak would “(1)use its best business judgment in acting to maximize the benefits of public funding.” Gone is minimizing subsidies, replaced with maximizing public benefit and utility. And that’s exactly what long-distance trains do, particularly for rural communities.
Paragraph 2 in the Goals also includes the admonition to “minimize Government subsidies,” this time by relying on State and local governments, the private sector and others to share costs. The TRAINS Act strikes the entire imperative to minimize subsidies and instead replaces it with the simple phrase “work with.”
The new paragraph 2 goal, without the subsidies language, simply reads: “(2) work with State, regional, and local governments and the private sector, separately or in combination, to share the cost of providing rail passenger transportation, including the cost of operating facilities and improvements to service;”
The paragraph 3 goal gets a similar makeover. In the existing law, Amtrak is required to “(3) carry out strategies to achieve immediately maximum productivity and efficiency consistent with safe and efficient transportation.” Thanks to advocates, the TRAINS Act instructs Amtrak management to “(3) manage the passenger rail network in the interest of public transportation needs, including current and future Amtrak passengers.”
Let’s skip ahead to the goal in paragraph 12, which once again includes a bottom-line tone which can effectively put public-policy benefits last in line for consideration. The existing paragraph demands that Amtrak “(12) maximize the use of its resources, including the most cost-effective use of employees, facilities, and real property.” Thanks to advocates, the TRAINS Act instead instructs Amtrak leaders to “(12) utilize and manage resources with a long-term perspective, including sound investments that take into account the overall lifecycle costs of an asset.”
Advocates also helped to add two more goals to Amtrak’s list in the new legislation:
“(13) ensure that service is accessible and accommodating to passengers with disabilities; and
(14) maximize the benefits Amtrak generates for the United States by creating quality jobs and supporting the domestic workforce.”
MINIMIZING GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES
In case their meaning wasn’t clear, lawmakers and Committee staff used the TRAINS Act to delete an entire section in the existing law devoted to explaining why and how Amtrak should take steps to minimize the role of taxpayer dollars in the company.
Today’s law says: “(d)Minimizing Government Subsidies.—
To carry out subsection (c)(12) of this section, Amtrak is encouraged to make agreements with the private sector and undertake initiatives that are consistent with good business judgment and designed to maximize its revenues and minimize Government subsidies. Amtrak shall prepare a financial plan, consistent with section 204 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, including the budgetary goals for fiscal years 2009 through 2013. Amtrak and its Board of Directors shall adopt a long-term plan that minimizes the need for Federal operating subsidies.”
In the new TRAINS Act, that entire section is eliminated.
We’ve described some of the other provisions elsewhere in the News & Commentary and Hotline, but there is strong language recognizing the role of good food and dining service on the National Network, requiring that Coach passengers have the same access to good food as those in the Sleepers, funding sources set up to ensure procurement of new long-distance coaches, sleepers and locomotives, and changes to the Amtrak Board of Directors to ensure that real passenger input is resident on the Board.
The entire bill is more than 850 pages, so forgive me if I don’t do a line by line comparison for these sections as well.
But I hope you take the point: this team has been working tirelessly for nearly two years to defend the services passengers need, and doing so where it counts, in the Congress which sets policy for our taxpayer-supported passenger rail system.
SO WHAT’S NEXT?
These are the kinds of provisions that advocates have been working very hard to get added to the law. These provisions still have to survive full House scrutiny, as well as finding their way into a separate Senate bill. That’s likely to happen early next year. In the meantime, if you agree that these provisions are valuable and worthwhile, you can help us by contacting your congressional representatives and your Senators and telling them so. Tell them you support the passenger-rail provisions in the INVEST In America Act, and the rail title in the TRAINS Act. Tell them you’re a proud member of the Rail Passengers Association and that these provisions in the TRAINS Act reflect your inputs and needs as an American passenger. Tell them why it’s important to you and to your community.
Help us keep up the pressure!
"I wish to extend my appreciation to members of the Rail Passengers Association for their steadfast advocacy to protect not only the Southwest Chief, but all rail transportation which plays such an important role in our economy and local communities. I look forward to continuing this close partnership, both with America’s rail passengers and our bipartisan group of senators, to ensure a bright future for the Southwest Chief route."
Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS)
April 2, 2019, on receiving the Association's Golden Spike Award for his work to protect the Southwest Chief