Amtrak Sends Wish List to Congress

Amtrak this week informed Congress of its wish list of legislative priorities.

Perhaps the top items is an additional $1.541 billion of COVID-19 pandemic emergency relief.

In a letter signed by Amtrak CEO William Flynn, the passenger carrier said the money is needed “to sustain and restore operations and recall employees” through Sept. 30 and into the next federal fiscal year.

The letter did not indicate how much money Amtrak believes it needs to restore daily operation to long-distance trains whose frequency of service was cut to tri-weekly last October.

In response to a query from a Trains magazine reporter, Amtrak said that restoration of service on long-distance routes hinges on certain public health, future demand, and current ridership performance metrics compared with pre-pandemic numbers for those trains.

In the letter Flynn said specific requests for funding in federal fiscal year 2022, which begins Oct. 1, will be sent to Congress later.

In the meantime, Amtrak’s legislative priorities are primarily a repeat of past requests that have yet to be approved by lawmakers.

These include establishing an intercity passenger rail trust fund, legislation designed to overcome resistance by host railroads to service expansion and increased frequency of service, legislation that would give Amtrak a right to sue a host railroad that subjects passenger trains to excessive delays due to freight train interference, and funding for new corridor services

The trust fund proposal is not new. The late W. Graham Claytor Jr. sought such a fund back in the 1980s when he was Amtrak’s president, suggesting the intercity passenger carrier be given funding from the Highway Trust Fund.

In his letter, Flynn said Amtrak needs a predictable source of federal funding for the Northeast Corridor and national network so it can pursue large, multi-year projects and service expansions rather than relying on annual appropriations.

Flynn did not specify what tools Amtrak wants to compel host railroads to approve service expansions, but indicated it needs changes in federal law.

The corridor service Amtrak is seeking would require amending Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act so that Amtrak could pay the initial startup costs and operating expenses of those corridors.

Under existing, law, state and local governments are required to underwrite corridor services.

Although Amtrak has told several states that it wants to front the costs to develop corridors between urban centers, it also has made clear that in time the states served by those trains will be expected to pay for them.

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