House Rail Subcommittee Looks at Amtrak Service

The House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials held a hearing on Tuesday, June 6 to discuss the challenges and opportunities for improving Amtrak’s efficiency and service. The hearing touched upon several issues, including how IIJA funding is being directed to improve passenger rail infrastructure and service, Amtrak’s use of CRISI grant funding, workforce issues, ridership recovery since the COVID-19 pandemic, and infrastructure expansion projects that Amtrak is undertaking in collaboration with states, freight railroads, and other partners.

Two witnesses testified at the hearing.

Subcommittee chairman Troy Nehls (R-TX), in his opening remarks, noted that Amtrak receives significant federal funding (supported by taxpayers), without which the railroad could not operate. He said that, while aviation and highways also receive similar federal support, they are essential forms of transportation in high use and high demand from the American public. (Ed. Note: highways and aviation transported 860 times and 113 times the number of passenger-miles, respectively, pre-COVID, as did Amtrak in 2019, the last pre-COVID year.)

He further added that Amtrak’s national network and long-distance routes continue to lose money and expressed criticism about Amtrak’s plans to expand that service (which will increase expenses for the taxpayer) rather than focus efforts on attracting customers to existing routes.

Subcommittee ranking minority member Donald M. Payne Jr. (D-NJ) took the opposite tack, saying that it is an exciting time for Amtrak and intercity passenger rail as it finally had guaranteed funding for multiple years, (the $22 billion for fiscal years 2022-2026 from the IIJA). He highlighted other sources of funding that Amtrak is eligible for, especially FRA’s Corridor ID program, which he said has already received numerous proposals and can serve as the template for passenger rail expansion in the coming years.

Full committee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-WA) said that the IIJA supercharged investment in  by providing dedicated and reliable rail funding for the first time ever. He said, “Amtrak and FRA can enact long-term plans for passenger tail expansion and improvement secure in the knowledge that funding will be available in future years.”

Gardner said that safety is Amtrak’s number one priority. He spoke about the promising safety record and recovering ridership. Rate of reportable injuries through March was 20 percent better than the annual projection and fiscal YTD total ridership was 84 percent of the pre-pandemic level. By next year, he said, Amtrak will reach normal level of ridership of 32.3 million passengers annually.

He said that ridership, however, remains impacted because of insufficient equipment and reduced business travel, which are both impacting revenues. Amtrak’s Adjusted Operating Loss (through April 2023) was $433 million, which is already about $53 million better than their plan, and their farebox recovery has increased to 76 percent.

Gardner said that, because of IIJA funding, Amtrak is not just a passenger rail company but also a major construction company executing some of the nation’s largest capital projects. He said that this has created additional operating expenses. “Congress was clear in the IIJA that Amtrak’s goal is to maximize public benefits from federal funding not just minimize our need for them,” he said, adding that Amtrak will continue to balance financial performance with its other statutory goals.

He emphasized that the $10 billion in FRA and DOT competitive grants that Amtrak has applied to, along with its partners, will help advance key projects, including construction of the Hudson River tunnel, rehabilitation of East River tunnel, and construction of Portal North Bridge in New Jersey. He stressed on the need for adequate annual appropriations in the short term and establishment of a long-term funding mechanism (enjoyed by other transportation modes) to support assured and multi-year funding for passenger rail.

Mitch Warren began his testimony by highlighting the significance of the Northeast Corridor, which connects hundreds of thousands of intercity and commuter passengers every day. He thanked the Biden Administration for the IIJA, which provided Northeast Corridor Commission (NEC) the first-ever dedicated, multi-year funding source and the predictability needed to deliver a major capital program.

Warren spoke about CONNECT NEC 2035, which was approved by the Commission in 2019, to support a collaborative effort to define members’ state of good repair needs and sequence those investments over 15 years. NEC is also working on an Implementation Coordination Program that will bring more collaboration, accountability, and transparency to project delivery. He said that this initiative will help NEC track projects and provide an early warning system when there is potential for projects to go off-schedule. While applauding the existing long-term funding made available by IIJA, he said that there is need for even more funding to attend to all the state of good repair needs of the corridor.

Rep. Nehls said that Amtrak should not be allowed to compete for CRISI grant funding program as it already receives billions of dollars of funding from the federal government, arguing that CRISI funding must be set aside for Class II and Class III railroads. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) also raised this issue in his testimony. Gardner, in response to these comments, said that the federal funding that Amtrak receives is focused on state of good repair activities, whereas the CRISI funding has a specific “safety” focus. Amtrak applies for this funding in partnership with states, freight railroads, and other partners to further investments in Positive Train Control (PTC) system and track upgrades. He also added that Amtrak would only use a small portion of the CRISI funding, which largely goes to Class II and Class III railroads.

Nehls also asked about Gardner’s compensation and bonus structure (discovered by the New York Times via the Freedom of Information Act) and said that there must be transparency in these matters as it is taxpayers’ money. Gardner said that the salaries Amtrak provides pale in comparison to those of the freight railroads, and they are trying to make salaries consistent with the private sector to retain employees. (Ed. Note: However, the real question is, should Amtrak, a perpetual ward of the government, be emulating for-profit railroads, or emulating other, government-dependent mass transit agencies like New York City’s? Mass transit agencies don’t pay nearly as well as Amtrak but they move a lot more people by rail in several instances. )

Rep. Babin noted that passenger screening protections on Amtrak are nothing like on-air travel. He spoke about Brightline in Florida that has implemented screening technologies to help prevent people from bringing dangerous weapons onto the train and asked Gardner why Amtrak has not implemented similar screening technologies. Gardner said that Amtrak uses a multi-layered system to protect passengers (which has shown very good results). While agreeing to the need for pursuing opportunities for improved security, he outlined things that Amtrak is currently doing in this regard, including random screening with TSA, using a large fleet of train dogs to detect explosives, and partnership with DHS and Federal Air Marshals to improve security. He said that Amtrak receives relatively little funding from TSA and, therefore, would need increased support to carry out these security improvements.

Rep. Rob Menendez (D-NJ)’s line of questioning to Gardener highlighted the importance of the Gateway program to the future of Northeast corridor. Gardner said that there were about 200,000 trips a day (pre-pandemic) on the 10-mile stretch between Newark in New Jersey and Penn Station in New York City. He said that this stretch, which has the greatest number of trains, is served only by 2 tracks. Gardner further added that, if the existing Hudson Tunnel (which was damaged during superstorm Sandy) closes, there will be a huge traffic meltdown with huge impacts across the region. The core element of the Gateway Program is to build a new $13 billion tunnel while carrying out repair and rehabilitation of the existing tunnel. He said that the project gives the needed redundancy and resiliency into this vital connection in the Northeast corridor.

In closing, Rep. Payne asked Gardner about some of the major obstacles to enhancing and developing rail service. Gardner highlighted four challenges, including developing the right workforce pipeline and training them, finding adequate vendors and suppliers with a domestic supply chain, coordination among different entities to balance construction and service priorities, and partnership with states and other entities for funding.

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