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Statement of Jim Mathews to Senate Commerce Committee on Rail Reauthorization

December 10, 2014

Mathews to Senate Commerce Committee

Statement of
Jim Mathews
President & CEO
National Association of Railroad Passengers

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Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security

The Honorable Richard Blumenthal, Chairman

The Honorable John Thune, Ranking Member

U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

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Hearing on the Future of Passenger Rail in the U.S.

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December 10, 2014

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Thank you for your consideration of my testimony on behalf of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) as you consider the current rail reauthorization. Our association is supported by 28,000 members nationwide, and we represent America’s train passengers. NARP is the only national organization speaking for the users of passenger trains and rail transit, and our members represent a broad cross-section of U.S. passengers, ranging from people who use subways to get to work every day in America’s largest cities, to residents of rural communities where a daily Amtrak train may be the only alternative to driving. We have worked since 1967 to expand the quality and quantity of passenger rail in the U.S. Our mission is to work towards a modern, customer-focused national intercity passenger train network that provides a travel choice Americans want.

As your committee begins its work, we urge you to seek a fresh approach that moves beyond old arguments, focusing on legislation that will encourage and support improvement and expansion of service across the national network.

A Pressing Need for More Service

The American people are already voting for more trains with their wallets. Public use of trains is growing far faster than air or road travel or even the population itself. In FY 2014, Amtrak carried 30.9 million passengers – the eleventh year of record ridership in the last 12 years.

Growing congestion in other modes and rapidly dwindling transportation options in small- and mid-sized communities are driving this surge, making train travel more vital than ever to local economies across the nation. As surely as mobility powers economic growth, congestion constrains it. Millions of Americans today face loss of personal mobility: airlines are cutting back the number of flights and have reduced or discontinued service to literally hundreds of smaller cities. Millions more find flying to be too expensive, too inconvenient, or simply too unpleasant. An increasing number of young people don’t own automobiles, either as a personal choice or because they are unaffordable. Many older citizens are unable or unwilling to drive their personal automobiles for more than just a few miles; this population will grow dramatically during the next few decades in the U.S., and their needs must be accounted for.

NARP believes that these people—and indeed all Americans—have the right to choose how they travel. As the U.S. continues to grow, with our population reaching 400 million people by 2050—frequent and reliable train service will be key in maintaining our country’s mobility and prosperity. Many economists, planners and local governments have concluded that a seamless national network, using rail to tie other modes together, is the only way to provide travel options for a growing population. We agree.

Policy Framework for a Seamless Transportation Network

NARP's vision is for an expanded national network of passenger trains (short, medium, and long-distance), putting 80% of Americans within 25 miles of a train station served frequently by fast, modern and reliable trains providing top-notch customer service. NARP members also want to see at least one high-speed rail line with trains operating at a maximum speed of at least 200 mph in operation by 2025. Finally, NARP envisions enhanced connectivity between intercity trains and airports, intercity buses, local transit, cycling and walking, and car rental and sharing service for a seamless multi-modal transportation network, coast-to-coast – connecting “flyover country” to the nation’s larger economy and prospects.

Implementing this vision requires integrating passenger rail into a broader surface transportation program. NARP believes the passenger rail reauthorization should be enacted as a rail title of a comprehensive MAP-21 surface transportation reauthorization. Rail funding should be included in a unified transportation fund, with a predictable, dedicated endowment for investing in the improvement and expansion of the U.S. rail network. NARP is calling for $50 billion in investment over a six year span.

Over the past 50 years, public investment in roadways and airways have been a critical factor in U.S. economic growth. We have reached a point of diminishing marginal returns, and intercity and transit rail is often the most efficient means to achieve growth, mobility, and environmental objectives.Congress should move away from modal funding silos, with states/municipalities granted increased discretion and flexibility in spending existing surface transportation trust funds.

Specific proposals to strengthen intermodal connections include:

  • Authorize the TIGER program launched by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which has proved highly effective in spurring development of intermodal projects that improve passenger rail, transit, and freight rail to generate local economic returns.
  • Establish a national program to encourage the expansion of intercity bus services in coordination with the national high-performance rail network.
  • Allow airports to use airport improvement funds, passenger facility charges and other revenue streams to plan, construct, and operate shared stations serving trains and buses.

Restore Performance Reliability

Sec. 207 of PRIIA 2008 included a provision directing the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak to jointly create performance metrics and standards to ensure Americans enjoy quality, on-time service that provides a real return on U.S. investment. Within months since these Sec. 207 metrics were struck down by a U.S. District Court of Appeals in July 2013, reported freight interference incidents nearly tripled, sending Amtrak’s on-time performance plummeting to 42 percent and crippling rail-passenger growth just at the moment when Americans are embracing rail travel in record numbers. The long distance trains have been the most hard-hit; in a particularly extreme case, the on-time performance of the Capitol Limited plummeted to 1.6% in July 2014.

The practical result of this court decision has been passengers stranded on trains for hours at a time, which often results in physical discomfort, missed connections, and financial hardships. This deplorable performance forced the public back into options they previously abandoned, leading to ridership declines on long-distance routes and state-supported services in FY 2014, of 4.5 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively. In this way, a court order managed to do in a few months what years of misguided public attacks could not – end nearly a decade of steady growth in long-distance ridership.

While the Supreme Court is currently reviewing the lower court’s decision to repeal Sec. 207, NARP’s members believe Congress should immediately begin work to restore these metrics and standards within the next rail reauthorization.

Long Distance Trains

In the last reauthorization, Congress identified the operation of a national system as a “vital and necessary part of our national transportation system and economy” (PRIIA 2008, Section 228). In the coming reauthorization, NARP urges Congress to adhere to this principle, and commit to implementing policy that will support robust train service for all Americans.

Some 173 million Americans—more than half of our total population—live within 25 miles of an Amtrak station that is served by long distance trains. Moreover, in 23 of the lower 48 states, long-distance trains are the only intercity passenger trains. The growth in revenues and ridership on the long-distance trains, impressive in the face of stagnant capacity and elderly equipment, is one indication of strong public support for these trains.

One use of the national network trains which has come to our attention is transporting patients from rural hospitals to major urban medical centers. This involves patients who need specialized treatment or procedures not available in the smaller facilities, and people who must travel with oxygen or other medical machines.

NARP is asking Congress to:

  • Create a Rail Service Improvement Program specifically targeted at long-distance corridors to fund new equipment purchases, improve facilities, and upgrade corridor infrastructure. This program would be a key element of ensuring the continuation of threatened services such as the Southwest Chief, restoration of suspended service along the Gulf Coast Corridor, and significantly reduce operating costs.
  • Fund the implementation of the Performance Improvement Programs Amtrak has already prepared for its current long-distance routes.
  • Require Amtrak to plan expansions that would improve the public utility of all long-distance routes, which in reality are federally supported inter-state corridors. Provide the needed funds to develop those plans.

Looming Equipment Shortage

A robust capital program is essential to maintain existing service and needed expansion. Today, the average age of Amtrak’s rolling stock is older than it was when Amtrak began operations May 1, 1971, with “hand-me-down” equipment from the private railroads. The workhorses of Amtrak’s short- and long-distance fleets now are the first Amfleet and Superliner cars which began entering service in 1974 and 1981, respectively, and so are about 35 years old. Amtrak’s fleet plan reflects a very conservative view of equipment needs going forward, because it provides primarily for replacement for existing capacity and does not provide growth. Our members believe the fleet plan could go much further, and that the plan outlined is the absolute minimum that Congress should consider funding.

New, high-performance train sets will allow Amtrak to increase revenues and reduce costs. New equipment orders will, in conjunction with Buy America provisions, provide a much-needed boost to American manufacturing.

The reauthorization should also continue funding for the Next Generation Corridor Equipment PoolCommittee, established by Sec. 305 of PRIIA 2008, which has proved invaluable in coordinating state procurement efforts, lowering purchasing and maintenance costs.

Fostering Innovation in State Corridors

As part of PRIIA 2008, Congress transferred the operating costs of routes under 750 miles to the states to try to rationalize a legacy funding system and increase the number of engaged stakeholders.

States have responded vigorously, demonstrating a strong desire to improve and expand passenger train service. During two rounds of funding, 39 states, D.C. and Amtrak applied for $75 billion in federal grants as part of the High Speed & Intercity Passenger Rail grant program, demonstrating a tremendouslevel of pent-up demand.

While states have stepped up, the federal government has not lived up to its end of the bargain, failing to provide a steady source of capital improvement funds for state rail agencies.

NARP encourages Congress to provide a dedicated source of funding for the HSIPR program, granting states access to the same federal matching incentives that currently exist for highway and transit projects. This would allow Amtrak and NEC states to immediately begin to address the $52 billion state of good repair backlog; with over 2,200 trains per day moving along a corridor that accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s GDP, the NEC’s operations are vital to the continued health of the U.S. economy.

In the vacuum created by a lack of federal investment, a handful of private companies have stepped up to develop train service without public funding. NARP has endorsed some of these projects—most notably All Aboard Florida, which will connect Miami and Orlando; Texas Central Railway, which will connect Dallas and Houston; and XpressWest which will connect Las Vegas to Palmdale and the state of California’s high-speed rail system. While these 100 percent privately funded projects will be limited to a few high-value corridors, they are instructive in demonstrating the ability of the private sector to contribute to passenger rail development. NARP has collaborated with the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators, and we generally endorse their approach to state services. We encourage the Committee to work with independent operators in ensuring that states have the tools they need to improve and expand these corridors.

Maintaining Amtrak’s Operational Flexibility

There is a tendency—both by outside groups and by Members of Congress—to try to dictate to Amtrak how it runs its railroad, spending more time thinking about Cafe Car operations than the well-being of the network as a whole. However, in Fiscal Year 2014, Amtrak set yet another revenue record, improving its operating cost recovery ratio to 93 percent. It is clear that, just as Congress contemplated in its 1978 Rail Passenger Service Act, Amtrak is “providing efficient and effective intercity passenger rail mobility” while using good business judgment “to minimize Government subsidies” (49 U.S.C. § 24101(b) and (d)). Amtrak has proven to be a conscientious steward of public funds.

NARP believes Congress should maintain its focus on policy choices, and let Amtrak’s management structure the company in a way that best serves its role as a national transportation provider. This includes opposing any effort to artificially segregate the NEC from the rest of the national network. Long-distance trains, the NEC, and state-supported routes share passengers, overhead costs, and ticket revenues. It is important to passengers that they are able to move across a seamless network; NARP urges Congress to avoid putting up internal accounting barriers that hinder operations and cut off travel options to millions of Americans.

Positive Train Control

There is general agreement that the statutory deadline of December 15, 2015, for making PTC operational cannot be met. NARP believes that any deadline extension should include a requirement that PTC be able to prevent low-speed, rear-end collisions. In the past few years, there have been fatal accidents of this type which PTC as currently being installed would not have prevented.