Posts Tagged ‘House Subcommittee on Railroads Piplines and Hazardous Materials’

Pennsylvania Congressman Challenges Amtrak’s Description of How Well it is Doing Financially

March 6, 2020

An Amtrak vice president found himself under fire Wednesday by a skeptical congressman who expressed doubt that Amtrak’s finances are as strong as the carrier says they are.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania) told Amtrak’s Stephen Gardner that he took issue with Amtrak’s description of its finances.

Perry said $235 million that states provide to Amtrak to operate corridor services are subsidies and not passenger revenue.

He also expressed doubt about Amtrak’s claim that it is close to breaking even on an operating basis.

In particular, Perry said Amtrak’s net revenue figures fail to account for $870 million in depreciation in 2019. “This represents a loss of over a billion dollars,” Perry said.

In response, Gardner, who is a senior vice president and chief operating and commercial officer, said the payments are “very transparent.”

He said depreciation is “a cost primarily associated with our vast Northeast Corridor infrastructure funded by the federal government.”

A analysis posted on the website of Trains magazine said Gardner was in effect admitting that the full costs of operating trains in the Northeast Corridor don’t enter into the profit-loss equation that Amtrak presents.

The exchange occurred during a meeting of the House Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee.

The committee heard from six witnesses as it continues to work toward approval of surface transportation renewal legislation. The current surface transportation law expires on Sept. 30.

Rep Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) continued to complain about Amtrak’s onboard dining services, saying he still hasn’t received any survey data from Amtrak that justified food service downgrades on eastern trains.

That comment was in reference to Amtrak’s replacement of full-service dining cars on overnight trains in the East, Midwest and South with a service now known as flexible dining.

Sleeping car passengers are served food prepared off the train in lieu of meals freshly prepared aboard the train.

Cohen said all he has heard from Amtrak passengers is that they don’t like the food, which is heated in a microwave oven.

“Millennials may like to look at their phones, but they don’t like bad food either,” Cohen said. “You need to put that back and attract more customers.”

In response Gardner said Cohen should receive the survey information by the end of the week.

“We have a variety of different services, and that requires us to experiment and try new ways to meet the requirements and needs of our traveling public,” Gardner said.

“We will continue to experiment to find the right mix, the right balance. For sure we know passengers expect a much broader set of food options — healthier choices than the historic railroad menu that had been offered. We also know people prefer a variety of different environments to eat in; it’s become quite clear that many people prefer to be served in their own rooms or to be able to use the dining car in a more flexible way.”

During his testimony Gardner appeared to contradict the feasibility of a plan put forth recently by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao that Amtrak should repair the tunnels leading into New York City from New Jersey beneath the Hudson River before building a new tunnel.

Amtrak and various public agencies in the two states have been seeking federal funding for a massive multibillion project to upgrade infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor.

The Gateway project includes building new Hudson River tunnels.

But federal officials have been resisting giving the project federal grants and have suggested the states need to greatly increase their financial contribution to the project.

Gardner initially tried to duck being critical of Chao’s proposal before finally acknowledging during questioning that he didn’t think rebuilding the existing tunnel before building a new one was a viable idea.

“We have to be able to excavate the current track structure, repair the drainage underneath, and inspect the tunnel lining — which hasn’t been looked at, frankly, in 109 years,” Gardner said.

“To do that during a four-hour slot in the evening or on a 55-hour weekend outage scenario could present incredible difficulty … which is why we have always proposed to do a full rehabilitation of the tunnels once new tunnels are in place, allowing us to maintain all of New Jersey Transit and Amtrak service.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Massachusetts) ripped Amtrak for using non-union contractors at a Chicago worksite.

“It shakes my confidence in Amtrak … With all the challenges we have,” Lynch asked, “do you really want to pick that fight to try to save a couple of bucks by bringing in workers who don’t have ongoing regular training on rail systems? As an iron worker, it’s a very different environment when you’re working on a live transportation system.”

Lynch is a former iron worker and organized labor official.

House Committee Gets Earful about Amtrak Practices

November 14, 2019

A House committee that held a hearing to consider the future of Amtrak got an earful from witnesses who were critical of the passenger carrier’s practices.

But Amtrak’s host railroads also came under fire for poor dispatching of passenger trains in the hearing held by the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

That led committee chairman Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) to observe that most witnesses seemed to favor giving Amtrak a right of action in dealing with its host railroads to force them to provide better dispatching so that trains are not habitually late.

Among those appearing before the committee were Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, representatives of three railroad labor unions, the president of the Rail Passengers Association, an Oregon state legislator, and a California corridor operator.

“The bottom line is we need [on-time performance] standards and metrics completed by the FRA with a real enforcement mechanism and we need a private right of action because freight railroad delays are our biggest single threat,” Anderson said.

Anderson said Amtrak could grow its national network if it could partner with its host railroads and co-invest to rebuild tracks for higher speeds while removing congestion bottlenecks.

“If you allow us to operate at 125 mph in a 100-mile zone, you’ll take a lot of cars off the highway,” Anderson said.

Amtrak’s onboard service was a frequent topic addressed during the hearing.

Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) was critical of crowded lounge cars on the Coast Starlight since Amtrak removed from service the Pacific Parlour car on the Seattle-Los Angeles run.

He also told Anderson that Amtrak is at risk of losing its high-end passengers because of changes in onboard food and beverage services.

RPA head Jim Mathews said comments his organization has received from Millennial age passengers is, “the idea of sitting at a table with no tablecloth, a plastic bag, and plastic trash, is not what they were looking for and certainly not what they paid for.”

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) called Amtrak meals “paper sack food” and strongly disagreed with Anderson’s contention that it changed food and beverage service in response to market survey data

Anderson had said Amtrak doesn’t make changes based on anecdotes.

“That wasn’t true,” said Cohen, adding that he hopes Amtrak executive will “consider the humanity, the romance, and the appeal of train travel with food, and not do it like Delta Airlines that took all the meals away.

“I hope you don’t continue that on Amtrak,” Cohen said.

RPA head Jim Mathews held up what he termed a “survival pack” that he takes with him while traveling on long-distance trains.

It included duct tape, plastic and wooden shims (to stop rattles), Velcro (to hold curtains together), hand sanitizer, and a power strip.

“Everyone has their own version of this,” he said.

Anderson said Amtrak is replacing the P42DC locomotives that pull long-distance trains with new Charger locomotives and it is taking other steps to improve service.

This includes replacing pillows and bedding in the sleepers, and refurbishing Superliner II coaches at the Beech Grove Heavy Maintenance Facility near Indianapolis.

San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Stacey Mortenson expressed frustration with Amtrak’s lack of information about why it makes changes, saying her agency often can’t get a rational explanation of why Amtrak has made those changes.

She compared that with working with Herzog, the company that operates the Altamont Commuter Express.

“We are able to work with Herzog but have no control over what it costs to maintain our own equipment with Amtrak,” she said.

Mortenson said part of the problem is Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act allows Amtrak to hide what it considers proprietary information while pushing costs on the states to “treat everybody the same.”

House Committee to Discuss Amtrak Today

November 13, 2019

Amtrak’s future will be discussed today in a hearing being conducted by the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

Witnesses appearing before the committee are expected to express their concerns about how Amtrak’s management is doing business.

This includes changes in food and beverage service that have been made in the past year aboard overnight eastern long-distance trains, removal of ticket agents at some stations, the stated desire of Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to transform long distance routes into disconnected short corridors, and Amtrak’s imposition of mandatory arbitration in lieu of the ability to sue the carrier following catastrophic events such as derailments.

Anderson is scheduled to speak to the committee at the hearing that begins at 10 a.m. and be live streamed online.

A statement released by subcommittee chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-Illinois) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said the hearing will review recent Amtrak service changes and ponder the needs of the carrier “to sustain and strengthen its existing network.”

Among the witnesses who have been reported as scheduled to testify before the committee are Oregon state legislator Nancy Nathanson, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Stacey Mortenson, Rail Passengers Association President and CEO Jim Mathews, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department Secretary-Treasurer Greg Regan, Transportation Communications Union National Vice President Jack Dinsdale, and Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation Division Illinois Director Bob Guy.