Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman told a Senate Committee on Tuesday that low gas prices and a strong dollar are negatively affecting Amtrak ridership this year.
Boardman told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that other headwinds that Amtrak is facing include a pending Surface Transportation Board on-time performance rule-making proceeding and a strong U.S. dollar that has reduced international ticket sales.
Lower oil prices have sent many would-be Amtrak passengers to their automobiles to travel.
“This will be a challenging fiscal year for us and the rail industry,” Boardman said. “I think these challenges will continue in the years to come, and it’s going to be important that all of us who believe in intercity passenger rail work together to support its development.”
During his testimony, Boardman said the STB rule making proceeding pertaining to on-time performance is needed to prod the freight railroads into working harder to keep Amtrak trains on schedule.
If on-time standard are not approved by the STB, Boardman said, it could negatively affect long-distance and state supported trains and result in higher costs for taxpayers.
Boardman said Amtrak’s long-distance trains are particularly important to smaller communities, not just major metropolitan areas.
“We don’t just leap from city to city — we connect smaller towns and communities with one another, and with the nation’s major urban center,” Boardman said. “These communities pay taxes, too, and we provide them a service they use and depend on. I think the excitement you saw last week is dramatic evidence of just how much we can bring to those towns — and how deeply they appreciate it.”
He was referring to an inspection trip that ran over the former route of the Sunset Limited between Jacksonville, Florida, and New Orleans.
The line has been without Amtrak service since Hurricane Katrina damaged the tracks and Amtrak stations along the route.
“We must be careful not to lose the economies of scale of a unified operation,” Boardman said. “One of the things I have learned in my eight years of service is that a unified system brings not just economies of scale, but a greater understanding of the value that Amtrak delivers for the nation.”
Knox W. Ross, the mayor of Pelahatchie, Mississippi, and secretary-treasurer of the Southern Rail Commission, made a plea in support of long-distance trains.
The commission has been working to restore the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans.
Ross said a strong national network is important for everyone, even communities such as his, which is located 20 miles from the Sunset Limited route.
“The success of our town is directly tied to the prosperity of the region,” Ross said. “For my region to prosper, we must have a transportation system that provides options for residents to connect to opportunity in our region and beyond.”
Ross called supporting Amtrak was a “bi-partisan issue that we can all agree on.”
Timothy Hoeffner, chair of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission and Director of the Office of Rail for the Michigan Department of Transportation, also touted the benefits of long-distance trains even though Michigan does not lie on any long-distance routes.
Hoeffner spoke of the importance of a unified national network and called for better synergies between the long-distance and state-supported routes as well as the critical Northeast Corridor. He said a direct link from Michigan to the NEC would be beneficial to Michiganders by avoiding a “detour” through Chicago.