More Details About Bill That Extends FAST Act, Enacts Stopgap Federal Funding for FY2021

September 24, 2020

As reported earlier, the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extensions Act will extend the Fixing America’s Transportation Act for another year and keep federal funding flowing through Dec. 11.

The bill, which was approved by a large margin in the House and is expected to receive Senate approval and be signed by President Trump, had a few items of substance for intercity rail passenger service but excluded much of what many rail passenger advocates wanted.

By extending the surface transportation authorization for a year, it ensured that Amtrak and public transit, not to mention highway construction funding, would continue.

Amtrak is expected to receive through December a prorated share of what it was appropriated in fiscal year 2020.

That means $138 million for the Northeast Corridor and $256.4 million for the national network.

The bill also eliminates a requirement that Amtrak food and beverage service make a profit.

The so-called “Mica Provision” was a legacy of former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica who often railed against the cost of Amtrak’s food and beverage service.

However, Amtrak’s plans to reduce the operation of most long-distance trains to three times a week are not expected to be halted by the legislation.

The Rail Passengers Association wrote on its website that passenger rail largely was shut out by the bill, which it described as protecting the status quo.

The legislation also transfers $3.2 billion in general funds to the Mass Transit Account, which ensure the Federal Transit Agency will be able to process grants to transit agencies.

It also halted a $6 billion across-the-board cut of transit formula funds by eliminating the Rostenkowski Test in FY2021.

But RPA noted that extending the existing FAST Act for a year means there will not be a dedicated passenger rail trust fund and that authorizations for Amtrak funding for FY2021 remain at FY2020 levels.

RPA noted that without higher authorizations it would be unlikely that Amtrak would receive the $5 billion in funding for FY2021 that it sought.

That is the amount the passenger carrier said it needed to continue operating most long-distance trains on daily schedules.

Amtrak’s original funding request for FY2021 had been just over $2 billion.

In its post, RPA said the legislation failed to resolve any of the questions raised by Amtrak’s plan for tri-weekly service and made no changes to the service return metrics that Amtrak has established for a return to daily service next year.

The legislation also transfers $10.4 billion in general funds to the Highway Trust Fund and transfers $14 billion in general funds to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

Amtrak’s FY2021 funding will be hammered out later this year, probably in the lame duck session of Congress after the November elections.

Amtrak Routes to Benefit from CRISI Grants

September 24, 2020

Several federal CRISI grants were awarded this week that will improve routes used by several Amtrak trains.

A Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement grant of $31.8 million grant was awarded to Ramsey County, Minnesota, to be used toward launching a second train between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago,

The funding will be used to complete final design work for infrastructure needed to accommodate the train, as well as construction of track, signal, and bridge improvements.

Matching funds will be provided from Minnesota ($10 million), Wisconsin ($6.2 million) and Amtrak ($5 million.

One existing Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee is expected to be extended to the Twin Cities.

The Michigan Department of Transportation will receive $15.6 million to improve pedestrian safety between Dearborn and Kalamazoo on Amtrak’s Michigan Line.

The funding will be used for fencing and other safety enhancements at grade crossings that have a high rate of foot traffic.

Officials said 12 pedestrians have been struck by trains in the past four years and there have been numerous near-misses.

The Washington State Department of Transportation received a $3.7 million for landslide mitigation north of Seattle in a mud slide-prone area near Mukilteo, Washington.

The area hosts 14 passengers and an average of 21 freight trains a day and has seen numerous service interruptions.

The funding will be used in the third phase of a program that began in 2016.

New Mexico Department of Transportation received $5.6 million to rebuild the route over Raton Pass used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

The work will include 12.4 miles of welded rail, 14,750 new ties, repairs to two bridges, rock scaling in three locations, and rebuilding of three grade crossings.

Total project cost is $11.5 million and includes $1 million in funding from New Mexico and $4.9 million from Amtrak.

In a news release, Amtrak said the latest CRISI grant is the fifth federal grant that has been awarded for rebuilding the route of the Chief in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

In the pending project, work will begin next year to install new ties on a 31-mile section south of Raton Pass and another six-mile segment in New Mexico.

More than 12 miles of bolted rail will be converted to welded rail between Lamy and where Rio Metro’s Rail Runner commuter traffic diverges to Santa Fe.

Although being rebuilt are the decks of two bridges and three grade crossings.

Although it won’t immediately affect any current Amtrak routes, an award of $47.55 million was given to the North Carolina Department of Transportation for the purchase of CSX’s S-Line rail corridor from Raleigh to Ridgeway, North Carolina.

The Buckingham Branch Railroad received $13.67 million to rebuild 70 miles of track, 14 grade crossings and five bridges in Virginia.

The work will also include construction of new drain systems in the Afton tunnel liner to reduce ice buildup; and improvement of clearances in two additional tunnels along the North Mountain Subdivision line between Charlottesville and Clifton Forge, Virginia.

The route is used by Amtrak’s Cardinal.

Congress Moves to Keep Federal Funding Flowing in FY2021, Extend Transportation Authoritzation

September 23, 2020

Congress took the first step on Tuesday toward approving a continuing resolution to keep federal funding moving past the end of federal fiscal year 2020, which concludes Sept. 30.

The House of Representatives approve a continuing resolution on a 359-57 vote.

Included in the measure was a one-year extension of the current surface transportation law, which also expires on Sept. 30.

The extension will assure continue federal funding of highway construction projects as well as public transit and Amtrak.

However, the action by Congress this week also likely means that for now there will be no additional money for Amtrak and the carrier’s plans to reduce the frequency of operation of most long-distance trains to less than daily service will be implemented in October as planned.

Rail passenger advocates had fought to more than double Amtrak funding for FY2021 in order to preserve daily service on most of those routes.

The advocates had been urging Congress to approve additional emergency aid for Amtrak and public transit in another COVID-19 pandemic aid bill.

But political differences have sunk additional pandemic assistance for now, including more aid for the airline industry.

The continuing resolution approved by the House now moves to the Senate where approval is expected.

The resolution also includes provisions to bolster the Highway Trust Fund, including a transfer of $13.6 billion from the general fund.

That includes $10.4 billion to the trust fund’s highway account and $3.2 billion for its transit account.

The House bill also includes a $14 billion transfer to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund from the general fund.

Paul Skoutelas, American Public Transportation Association chief executive officer, said the House action would provide at least $12.6 billion for transit in FY2021,

The continuing resolution will continue federal funding through Dec. 11, meaning that action on FY2021 spending is being deferred into the lame duck session of Congress after the Nov. 3 elections.

It is possible that additional Amtrak and transit funding might be taken up then.

Amtrak No. 303 at Chenoa

September 17, 2020

Although I’ve written dozens of posts in the past years about the project to upgrade Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis route for higher speed service, it has been more than a decade since I visited that line.

On a recent Friday morning I drove to Chenoa, Illinois, to photograph Lincoln Service No. 303, which barrelled through on time.

Much has changed since I last saw operations on this route. The trains travel faster, the tracks have been rebuilt, new signals have been installed and the motive power is SC-44 Chargers.

Many of the grade crossings are no horn zones with barriers and fencing having been installed for safety.

But the consist of Horizon and Amfleet cars was the same as what I saw during my previous visit years ago. Some things have not changed.

New Haven Station Rehab Project Announced

September 17, 2020

The Amtrak station in New Haven, Connecticut, is expected to get $65 million in funding for renovations.

The news was announced last week during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of New Haven Union Station.

Aside from Amtrak the station is also used by commuter railroads.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation and City of New Haven have reached an agreement on funding the station rehabilitation project.

Plans are to renovate the basement, first, and second floors to allow new retail space. The upper floors and restrooms will also be upgraded.

The station was built by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.

Amtrak Board Nominees Sent to Senate Floor

September 17, 2020

Three nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors have advanced to the Senate floor, but a Kansas senator has placed a hold on two of them

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved the nominations of Chris Koos, Sarah Feinberg and Todd Rokita, but Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) is demanding that Rokita and Feinberg provide credible evidence that they support Amtrak’s long-distance services.

Moran’s staff indicated that Koos, the mayor of Normal, Illinois, has provided such evidence, but Feinberg’s statement needs more detail.

Rokita, a former Indiana congressman, did not respond to the senator’s request to provide a written statement.

The Senate committee voted unanimously to advance the nominations of Feinberg and Koos, both Democrats, but advanced Rokitas nomination on a party line 14-12 vote.

All 12 dissenting votes came from Democrats. Rokita is a Republican.

Feinberg is a former head of the Federal Railroad Administration and is currently interim president of the New York City Transit Authority.

Amtrak May Return to Vermont Late This Year

September 17, 2020

A resumption of Amtrak service to Vermont is at least two to three months away, the state’s governor has indicated.

Gov. Phil Scott said state officials have discussed with Amtrak resuming operations of the Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express.

Once state officials decided to resume the service, it would be 30 days before the trains are operating.

Although the Amtrak website shows that tickets for travel on the Vermonter are available effective Oct. 8, similar sales were held for travel in July and September but the trains did not operate.

Vermont-funded Amtrak trains stopped running in March due to Scott’s stay home orders issued during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a news conference this week, Scott cited low ridership of public transportation throughout the state for holding resumption of Amtrak service in abeyance.

However, he said there were promising signs that travel could improve by the end of the year.

“I’ve heard that there’s some news [Amtrak] want to start coming back to Rutland first, maybe in the coming weeks, and we’re engaged with them to do whatever we can to provide for the service into Vermont when it’s safe,” Scott said.

Congress Eyes Stop Gap Funding Bill That is Expected to Extend FAST Act for a Year

September 17, 2020

Congress is expected to take up next week a continuing resolution that would enable the federal government to stay open past the expiration of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.

The bill is also expected to contain a one-year extension of the surface transportation law, known as the FAST Act, which also expires at the end of this month.

News reports from Washington have indicated that the length of time the continuing resolution would cover has yet to be determined.

Some members of the House and Senate have favored a mid-December expiration date while some Democrats have pushed for an expiration date of next February.

Leadership of both parties is said to be in favor of a one-year extension of the FAST Act and neither party wants to see a government shutdown.

Extension of the FAST Act would be needed to continue payments to Amtrak, public transit and highway fuel tax money for road construction projects.

Some transportation trade groups have sought to use the extension of the FAST Act as an opportunity to increase the amount of money authorized for transportation programs.

A coalition led by the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials, and the American Public Transportation Association is seeking $37 billion and $32 billion, respectively.

The Rail Passengers Association has called for Amtrak to receive $5 billion.

Although the House earlier approved on a mostly party line vote a spending plan for fiscal year 2021, the Senate has not acted and has yet to even release its spending proposals.

The House also approved its version of a new surface transportation authorization bill, but the Senate has not acted on its own proposal.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have called for a “clean” CR that extends spending at fiscal year 2020 levels but generally excludes non-appropriations provisions.

That might appear to rule out an extension of the FAST Act, but lawmakers have noted that they are willing to extend authorizations for critical programs that are expiring this fall.

The Office of Management and Budget has sent Congress a list of more than 60 such expiring programs, two of which involve health care.

Pelosi told reporters on Sept. 10 that a continuing resolution would not include any COVID-19 pandemic emergency funding.

If that stands, it would mean including such funding for Amtrak, public transit and other transportation-related programs will fall by the wayside although it could be considered in a separate pandemic aid relief bill.

Action on such legislation has stalled amid partisan bickering with Senate and House leaders on both sides have signaled that emergency pandemic relief is unlikely to be approved before the November elections.

Hurricane Sally Disrupts New Orleans Service

September 15, 2020

Amtrak has canceled service to New Orleans due to Hurricane Sally, with no alternate transportation being provided.

The northbound City of New Orleans that was to depart New Orleans today (Sept. 15) has been canceled.

The southbound Crescent is terminating in Atlanta through today will originate there through Sept. 16.

The eastbound Sunset Limited will terminate in San Antonio today and originate there today as well.

 

Going Inside Flynn’s Congress Testimony

September 11, 2020

Amtrak President William Flynn had a lot to say this week during his first appearance before Congress, which was in large part a plea for more money to overcome the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his prepared statement, Flynn said Amtrak projects it will lose $1.266 billion in ticket sales in federal fiscal year 2020, which would be 55 percent of what it earned in FY2019.

Amtrak’s recovery from the pandemic has been slow and ridership and revenue are still down more than 80 percent compared to a year ago.

“It has become clear that the pandemic’s impacts will extend through, and almost certainly beyond, FY2021 as well, and Amtrak, along with our state partners, are now working to plan for the year ahead,” he said.

You probably have read or heard by now how he said the railroad needs $4.9 billion in federal fiscal year 2021 in order to stave off its planned service cuts to all long-distance trains except the Auto Train.

But buried in his prepared remarks to the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was this comment about the economics of long-distance passenger trains:

“ . . . in normal times they cover most of the out-of-pocket costs such as fuel, commissary supplies, host railroad payments, and wages and benefits for on-board employees that are incurred by each train that operates over a route.

“Therefore, operating service three times a week rather than daily ordinarily would not produce significant and immediate cash saving.”

That, in essence, is what some critics of the Amtrak’s plans to its long-distance network on a less than daily basis have been saying all along.

So why is Amtrak reducing the scope of long-distance service?

Flynn framed it as a matter of diminished ridership and revenue.

“In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hoped that passenger demand would increase appreciably on long-distance routes during what is normally their peak summer season.”

But he said that didn’t happen because of the reluctance of the public to travel during the pandemic.

Ridership of long-distance trains in June and July, excluding the Auto Train, was down by two-thirds compared with the same months of 2019.

“The two-thirds reduction in revenues has had a major impact on long-distance financial performance,” he said.

Flynn said that the long-distance trains lost $475 million in FY 2019 and without providing specific figures said these trains “are incurring huge, additional operating losses for each train we operate –for the benefit of just a third of the normal number of passengers.

“Given that, we felt that it would be irresponsible to continue spending a much larger share of our limited funding to provide the same frequency of service for a much smaller number of remaining passengers, particularly as we entered the fall/winter season when monthly long distance ridership normally declines up to 40 percent from the summer peak.”

The Amtrak president repeatedly in his prepared remarks sought to frame the reduction in long-distance service as temporary.

“One thing I want to make absolutely clear: These long-distance frequency reductions are temporary,” Flynn said. “We are committed to continuing to operate our current long distance network and to improving the service we provide to our long distance passengers.”

He reiterated that another time when he said, “As ridership returns, we intend to restore service frequency to previous levels. We remain committed to our long distance system.”

Not everyone will take that comment at face value. Many skeptics want to believe the service cuts are part of a nefarious strategy to discontinue long-distance passenger routes in favor of corridor services that would be paid for by state and local governments.

The Rail Passengers Association and other rail passenger advocates have been trying to argue that daily operation of long-distance trains is an essential public service during the pandemic.

For now it appears that keeping all of the long-distance trains except the Cardinal and Sunset Limited – which have operated tri-weekly for years – on daily schedules hinges upon Congress giving Amtrak nearly $5 billion for FY2021.

Flynn’s prepared statement suggested that not only does Amtrak want additional money it also seems to want a mandate from Congress ordering it to keep long-distance trains operating daily.

“We will do as directed by Congress,” Flynn said. “If that $4.9 billion instructs us to rescind the furloughs and rescind the service cuts, we’ll do that.”

If no additional funding is forthcoming and Amtrak implements the long-distance train service reductions as planned, Flynn said Amtrak would evaluate ridership and revenue of those trains in February.

He recited in his statement the criteria for restoration of daily service that Amtrak proclaimed in a white paper published about a month ago.

His statement hinted that restoration of daily service would be undertaken on an individual route basis and some trains might not resume daily operation until FY2022.

“If any route is not yet ready to be restored when we conduct our [February 2021] review, we will apply an updated version of the criteria  . . . as part of our FY 2022 planning cycle or sooner, in the event of a dramatic improvement in demand prior to that point,” he said.

It is noteworthy that Flynn also said the future of Amtrak’s long-distance network hinges upon Congress providing capital funding to buy new equipment, saying the equipment used on long-distance trains is more than 40 years old and has reached the end of its useful life.

That equipment must be replaced “if we are to maintain current long-distance service.”

Flynn also called on Congress to give Amtrak the legal tools to argue that passenger trains deserve preference in dispatching over freight trains.

“The greatest threat to the future of our long-distance network is not COVID-19, but rather poor on-time performance that diminishes the value of these services to our customers,” he said.

“The leading cause of delays to our long distance trains is the failure of some of our host railroads to comply with this longstanding legal obligation to provide Amtrak trains with preference over their tracks.”

Amtrak’s host railroads, of course, would have a different view of the matter, but conflict with its host railroads has been going for decades and figures to last a long time.

Flynn was optimistic about Amtrak’s future, but didn’t present much of a vision as to what he sees as the role of intercity rail passenger in America.

Missing from his comments was the sometimes strident and caustic tone that his predecessor, Richard Anderson, sometimes displayed.

He touched on how long-distance trains lose money without dwelling on those losses or villifying those trains. At the same time his commitment to the long-distance network was less a ringing endorsement than a description of something that Amtrak does.

It was, of course, just the first of what are likely to be many statements that Flynn will make to Congress so we should probably avoid reading too much into this statement, which also was delivered under some of the most adverse circumstances any Amtrak head has faced.

As always, though, the fate of Amtrak is up to Congress.