Rail Advocates Got Steamrolled by Congress

Back in early summer when Amtrak President William Flynn told Congress that the carrier was eyeing operating all of its long-distance trains but one on less than daily schedules the reaction of the rail passenger advocacy community was nearly unanimous that that was a bad idea.

Opposition quickly formed and Amtrak’s plans were widely panned on social media and in articles in national magazines serving the railroad and railfan communities.

I remember thinking, though, that more than likely those advocates were going to get steamrolled by the very political process they were banking on to bail out their beloved long-distance trains.

But I didn’t write that because it also seemed there was a fighting chance that maybe, as Trains magazine correspondent Bill Stephens wrote, Amtrak would find a way to avoid pulling the trigger, perhaps citing Congressional action.

But this past week it became apparent the fix is in and less-than-daily service long-distance service seems a foregone conclusion.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved by a wide margin legislation extending the surface transportation law – known as Fixing America’s Surface Transportation – that authorizes spending money on Amtrak and other transportation programs for a year.

That legislation also continues federal funding through December at fiscal year 2020 levels.

This means, in essence, that Amtrak will not receive additional funding to maintain daily operation of all but two long-distance trains.

It’s still possible Amtrak might get emergency funding in another COVID-19 pandemic relief package, but such legislation is mired in partisan bickering and pre-election posturing.

In any event there is no assurance that extra money for Amtrak would be part of that package.

So, those rail passenger advocates who vociferously opposed Amtrak’s tri-weekly service for all but the Auto Train are getting steamrolled.

All of their emails, letters and phone calls to Congress have netted little to nothing.

This didn’t happen because Congress decided tri-weekly long-distance passenger trains are a good business practice.

It happened because Amtrak funding got swamped in larger political tides.

The rail passenger advocates had their say but in the end their arguments proved to be just so much more noise in an already noisy environment.

There are powerful political forces in Congress that do not believe as rail passengers advocates do that public funding for rail passenger service is money well spent.

That has kept Amtrak’s federal funding constrained and at times led to the discontinuance of some trains due to lack of adequate funding.

At the same time there are political forces in Congress who have been willing to continue funding Amtrak just enough to keep the existing network going more or less.

A political scientist would say Amtrak is a typical example of a government program that was created to address a specific need at a given moment but then developed a vocal constituency that is able to apply just enough political pressure to keep it funded under the guise that it provides an essential public service.

In Amtrak’s case, the public service is often expressed as public transportation to largely rural regions and less populated areas.

Senators and House members have often cited the paucity of public transportation to rural regions for supporting continued federal funding of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

But when it came time to commit to making federal funding decisions for fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1, Congress punted that job into the post-election period.

The House passed a budget that contained additional funding for Amtrak to maintain daily service on its long-distance routes, but the Senate engaged very little in the budget-writing process.

Even if it had, there is no guarantee the Senate would have agreed to more than double Amtrak’s federal grant for FY2021 or that such funding would have survived a conference committee formed to reconcile differences between the House and Senate.

It’s still possible that once the elections are past that additional funding for Amtrak will be slipped into a spending bill and the less-than-daily service will be short lived.

But it’s also possible less-than-daily service will be around for a long time.

In the 1990s, some long-distance trains operated three or four times a week for two years before reverting back to daily operation.

Rail passenger advocates have seized upon the lessons of the 1990s in support of their assertion that less-than-daily service is a bad idea.

They’ve noted that ridership fell precipitously and the hoped for savings never materialized because of high overhead expenses, lack of management will, and unexpected costs.

What the advocates have glossed over, though, is that when the less-than-daily service was reversed there were two fewer long-distance trains with the Pioneer to Seattle and the Desert Wind to Los Angeles being discontinued.

At a time when thousands of small businesses have closed or are barely hanging on in a down economic climate triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of whether the Capitol Limited operates seven or three times a week might not seem all that important to those who are not passenger train advocates.

At least all of the long-distance trains are still operating, but Joe’s Diner is closed permanently and the local orchestra hasn’t played a live concert at its home venue since March.

It might seem to many Americans that less-than-daily service is a prudent move given that patronage of all public transportation has fallen off a cliff.

Rail passenger advocates have tried to play up the fact that long-distance patronage has only fallen by 65 percent compared to the 88 percent reduction in patronage of Northeast Corridor trains.

But losing 65 percent of your ridership is still a substantial loss.

The larger picture is the market for public transportation of all types has plunged and there remains much uncertainty as to when or even if demand for rail transportation will return to previous levels.

It therefore might seem reasonable that Amtrak reduce service levels until ridership recovers to more normal levels.

It may be that operating long-distance trains three days a week will result, as advocates say, in even more ridership losses and not save as much money as Amtrak claims it will.

It also may be that that might result in irreversible damage to the long-distance network. It also might be that Amtrak management is using the COVID-19 crisis to transform itself into a more corridor-oriented operation despite its insistence of being committed to the national network.

Even if these things are true, does that justify more than doubling spending federal spending on Amtrak? That is a fair question to ask.

It might be that on social media sites and in the pages of Trains or Railway Age authors are not required to choose between funding rail passenger service versus funding other wants and needs.

But members of Congress are required to make those choices even if of late they’ve done it largely through indecision.

Of course rail passenger advocates think spending $5 billion for Amtrak in FY2021 is worthwhile. Some might even argue that the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic justifies opening the federal checkbook to bolster the economy. There is a case to be made for that. There is also a case to be made for being fiscally constrained.

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One Response to “Rail Advocates Got Steamrolled by Congress”

  1. Clifford Edwards Says:

    The overhead & liability costs, it’s difficult to explain these costs to Joe Public. Anything < 3 trains daily, causes overhead to rise IMO. A minimum of 3 trips weekly helps the rights-of-ways clean & in smooth operating order.

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