Committee Says Amtrak Ignoring Congressional Intent

A House appropriations committee has criticized Amtrak for ignoring congress intent on such matters as long-distance trains and station agents.

The committee overseeing the Fiscal year 2020 bill appropriating money for transportation and housing called on Amtrak to maintain a national long-distance network that improves transportation options for rural areas and serves stations staffed with station agents.

The Rail Passengers Association reported that the language was included in a report in advance of a mark-up session for the bill set for today (June 4).

In the report, the committee also took aim at what it termed foot dragging on grants by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The committee said that contrary to congressional direction DOT has set up new Amtrak grant conditions that would give the FRA too much influence over Amtrak’s capital spending decisions.

“[T]he Committee strongly reminds Amtrak that section 24701 of title 49, United States Code, requires Amtrak to operate a national passenger rail system. Further, the Committee directs Amtrak to seek any potential changes to the National Network through the reauthorization of the FAST Act, and urges Amtrak to ensure any such proposals also increase ridership in rural areas and improve service for long-distance customers.”

The report directs Amtrak to “conduct comprehensive outreach and consultation” with a range of stakeholders.

Lawmakers were apparently acting in response to reports that Amtrak wants to chop up long-distance routes into a series of short-haul corridors and/or discontinue service altogether on some routes.

The Trump administration in a budget proposal released earlier this year called for replacing long-distance trains with bus service.

“The Committee rejects this proposal and provides strong funding for Amtrak to continue to provide service through long-distance and state-supported routes.”

The administration has recommended a Restoration and Enhancement Grants program would be used to gut Amtrak’s national network in such a way as to make states pay for intercity passenger rail.

Amtrak has contended that it wants to increase service to under-served areas and start service in areas that now lack intercity rail passenger trains.

The House committee said this “could have unintended consequences for long-distance customers, especially in rural and small communities where passenger rail serves as an important mobility option and economic driver.”

In calling for Amtrak to do a better job of communicating with stakeholders, the committee raised concerns that the passenger carrier “continues to make and implement changes to operations and services without providing the public or its employees adequate time to understand proposed changes and provide feedback.”

It cited changes in rules pertaining to private railroad cars, station ticket agents, call centers, law enforcement, and food and beverage service.

The report calls for Amtrak to provide a station agent in each station that had a ticket agent position eliminated in fiscal year 2018.

It also expressed concerns with the way Amtrak has handled implementing and communicating its guidelines last year for private rail cars, saying the carrier “does not typically inform private car owners when a private car caused a delay to an Amtrak train.”

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