Posts Tagged ‘pandemic relief aid’

Stimulus Money Conveyed to Amtrak

April 28, 2021

The U.S. Department of Transportation said this week that it has conveyed to Amtrak $1.69 billion in economic stimulus funds authorized by the American Rescue Act of 2021.

The funding includes $728.6 million for Amtrak’s long distance and regional trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak was directed by Congress to allocate $174 million of that total to offset what the carrier charges states for corridor services.

However, the law does not require states to restore their Amtrak corridor services to pre-pandemic levels.

Most states reduced their corridor services during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a plunge in ridership.

Several states have begun restoring suspended services but others have yet to announce their plans.

Among the routes yet to be fully restored is the Wolverine Service between Chicago and Detroit (Pontiac).

The route had three roundtrips pre-pandemic, but since March 2020 the level of service has been a single daily roundtrip.

Some Illinois and Missouri routes also continued to operate below pre-pandemic levels.

The directive also mandated that Amtrak return long-distance service to daily operation if they operated as such before last year.

Amtrak has said daily operation will be phased in over a three-weekly period beginning May 24.

The Northeast Corridor will receive $969.4 million of which $109.8 million will go to states and commuter railroads to cover their share of capital costs Amtrak charges them for using the Northeast Corridor.

Another $100.8 million will be used for debt relief that Amtrak incurred before the legislation was adopted on March 11.

Amtrak Begins Recalling Furloughed Workers

March 16, 2021

Amtrak was to begin the process of recalling furlough employees on this week.

An internal memo said 1,250 furloughed workers would be recalled between March 16 and 29 while noting that it would take 90 days to get all of them back to work.

During that 90-day period the furloughed workers will be tested and requalified as needed in their respective positions.

The recalls were mandated in the recent $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that was approved by Congress and signed by President Joseph Biden.

The legislation appropriated $1.7 billion in supplemental funding for Amtrak to, among other things, restore daily service to 16 long distance trains that operated daily until last year.

The restoration of daily service is to take place on a rolling schedule on May 24, May 31 and June 7.

The Amtrak memo indicated that the first employees to be recalled would be those in train and engine service followed by onboard service personnel.

The affected workers will be contacted by a phone call that will be followed up with a certified letter.

In the memo Amtrak indicated that although workers are expected to respond to the recalls within the time frame outlined in their craft’s collective bargaining agreement, the carrier is seeking to provide some flexibility so workers can take care of personal matters before reporting back to work at Amtrak.

Amtrak Long-Distance Trains to Resume Daily Service

March 11, 2021

Amtrak said Wednesday it will reinstate daily service on 12 long-distance routes starting in late May.

Trains on those routes shifted last year to tri-weekly or quad-weekly service in the wake of steep ridership declines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement of expanded service came hours after the U.S. House of Representatives approved a pandemic relief package that contains increased funding for Amtrak.

The legislation also contains a mandate that routes that had daily service until last year resume daily operation and that furloughed employees be recalled.

President Joseph Biden is expected to sign the $1.9 trillion bill on Friday.

Two routes, the Chicago-New York Cardinal and New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited will be unaffected by the changes because those routes have operated on tri-weekly schedules for years.

Amtrak has already resumed selling tickets for the expanded days of operation on the 12 routes.

Trains returning to daily service on May 24 include the Chicago-Emeryville, California, California Zephyr; Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight; Chicago-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, and the Chicago-San Antonio-Los Angeles Texas Eagle.

Daily operation returns May 31 for the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited; Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans, Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited, and the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Resuming daily operation on June 7 will be the New York-New Orleans Crescent, New York-Savannah Palmetto, and the New York-Miami Silver Meteor (via Savannah) and Silver Star (via Raleigh).

In a news release, Amtrak said new Viewliner II sleeping cars will be making their debut on the Silver Service trains.

The Auto Train had continued to operate daily and its operations will remain unchanged.

Amtrak will receive $1.7 billion in emergency pandemic aid, which will help fund restoration of daily service on long-distance routes.

Senate Increases Aid for Amtrak, Public Transit

March 9, 2021

The U.S. Senate last Saturday increased COVID-19 relief funding for Amtrak and public transit.

The changes were made during consideration of H.R. 1319, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was approved by the Senate by a vote of 50-49.

The Senate increased by $1.25 billion the funding for public transit over what the House approved on Feb. 27 and also increased the funding for Amtrak over the House-passed levels.

The bill now goes back to the House for further consideration. The House passed a modified version of the legislation providing $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 emergency funding.

Although some senators proposed amendments that would have cut, transferred or removed the aid to public transit, few of those amendments received a roll call vote and note were approved.

However, the Senate did approve an amendment to make 23 public transit programs eligible for federal Capital Investment Grants.

The House is expected to take up the amended version of the bill today and if approved it would go to President Joseph Biden for his signature.

The American Rescue Plan Act includes $1.7 billion for Amtrak. That is a $200 million increase in funding from what the House approved last month.

Under the Senate version of the legislation $970 million will go toward the Northeast Corridor while the national network will receive $730 million.

The bill also provides $285 million to Amtrak “in lieu of commuter rail and state-supported route payments.”

The bill includes $166 million “to restore service on long-distance routes and to recall and manage furloughed employees.”

The breakdown of other public transit funding in the bill includes $26.09 billion for transit systems in urban areas and $317 million for grants in rural areas.

Also approved was $50 million in grants to benefit services for seniors and those with disabilities, $2.21 billion for operating assistance grants  pertaining to addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and $250 million for Small Start projects that are recipients of a CIG allocation or an applicant in the project development phase.

House Committee OKs Pandemic Aid for Amtrak

February 14, 2021

A congressional committee on Wednesday approved transportation funding for a COVID-19 relief bill.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved a plan put forth by committee Democrats to provide $1.5 billion for Amtrak and $30 billion for public transit.

The committee also approved a policy rider directing Amtrak to restore without 90 days daily service for long-distance trains that operated daily before last fall.

The Amtrak funding had to survive two efforts by committee Republicans to eliminate it.

The committee defeated a motion by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania) to cut the Amtrak funding from the bill.

Another committee member, Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas) withdrew an amendment to transfer the Amtrak emergency funding to a highway-rail grade crossing program.

Crawford withdrew his amendment after Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) agreed to work with Crawford on the grade crossing issue in the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization bill.

The bill now advances to the full House. The Senate is expected to consider a counterpart COVID-19 pandemic relief bill.

Amtrak funding as approved by the House committee would be broken down to $820,388,160 for the Northeast Corridor and $679,622,840 for the national network.

The bill directs that not less than $165,926,000 of the combined amounts of the NEC and national network is to be used to restore all long-distance service in effect as of July 1, 2020, and to recall all workers put on furlough on or after Oct. 1, 2020.

Another clause provides that not less than $109,805,000 from the combined amounts of the NEC and national network shall be used in lieu of capital payments that the state-supported routes and commuter authorities were required to pay.

Amtrak is to use $174,850,000 from the national network funds to offset amounts required to be paid by states for covered state-supported routes.

The $30 billion earmarked for public transit is to be used to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus pandemic and includes eligibility for operating expenses to prevent layoffs and avoid cuts to service.

The legislation includes mandates for how the funding it to be allocated among urbanized areas, rural areas and for services for seniors and those with disabilities.

Some of the public transit emergency aid can also be used for planning purposes.

COVID-19 Transportation Aid Levels Proposed

February 9, 2021

Democrats in the House of Representatives have reportedly settled on funding levels for transportation that would be included in a proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

Under the proposal, transit agencies would receive $30 billion, Amtrak would get $1.5 billion, airlines would receive $14 billion and airports would get $8 billion.

The COVID-19 aid funding for transit falls short of the $39.3 billion that transit systems were seeking.

Amtrak funding would nearly match the $1.541 billion that the intercity passenger carrier is seeking from Congress.

However, it exceeds the $20 million that President Joseph Biden had proposed.

Biden’s initial proposal contained no funding for Amtrak or airlines.

A House committee is expected to begin working this week on the COVID-19 pandemic aid proposal.

Amtrak Sends Wish List to Congress

January 27, 2021

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.

‘Amtrak Joe’ Offers a Reality Check

January 18, 2021

President-elect Joseph Biden has yet to take office and already has disappointed some rail passenger advocates.

His $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic relief plan released last week contains not a dime for additional Amtrak funding or, for that matter, airlines or intercity bus companies.

All of those modes of transportation received some funding from a pandemic relief bill adopted by Congress in late December.

At the time, the incoming Biden administration had said it considered that package to be a prelude to another round of pandemic relief in the spring.

We’ve now seen what that next aid package will involve. The Biden proposal does contain $20 billion in assistance for what the president-elect has described as the hardest-hit public transit agencies.

Although those were not named, they are likely to include systems based in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The plan noted that these systems have been devastated by lost ridership and revenue.

Of course a similar scenario has played out with intercity rail, air travel and intercity bus travel.

The Rail Passengers Association issued a statement in response to the Biden plan praising it for proposing aid to public transit.

However, RPA stopped short of criticizing the proposal for ignoring Amtrak.

Instead RPA called for amending it to including funding to enable the intercity rail passenger carrier to resume operating its long-distance trains on daily schedules by next summer.

The Biden proposal is just that, a proposal and not a guarantee. It will be up to Congress to approve the plan, which is subject to change as it makes its way through the House and Senate.

There is no guarantee that Congress will adopt another pandemic relief plan at all. Biden’s Democratic Party controls both house of Congress by thin margins.

There will Republican opposition and not all Democrats will necessarily be on board with everything the new administration is proposing.

Biden, who is known by some as “Amtrak Joe” because of how he used to commute to Washington by train has just given rail passenger advocates a reality check.

Some advocates, including RPA, have hailed the possibilities of what might happen with a president who supports passenger rail.

A letter I received from RPA last week claims Biden has a vision for a “second rail revolution” and “will be looking far beyond just paving roads to secure our transportation future.”

That was last week. This week RPA was writing on its website that the Biden plan falls far short of the “resources needed to tackle the immediate crisis.”

By that RPA means a billion dollars to restore long-distance trains to daily service.

The Biden administration has signaled that it will release another plan a few months from now that will propose infrastructure improvements.

Presumably, that proposal will benefit rail passenger service by providing capital dollars for such things as new equipment and route development.

In the meantime, Amtrak and the rest of the transportation network looks to remain much as it has been of late with fewer flights, fewer intercity bus services and less-than-daily Amtrak service in many places.

Airline industry observers have been writing for months that they expect it will take up to four years for the air service network to return to the level it was in early 2019 before the pandemic took hold and the travel market all but collapsed.

Rail passengers may not like it, but the Biden pandemic relief plan has shown them that restoration of suspended Amtrak services may be following a similar track.

Less-than-daily trains and fewer corridor services are likely to be with us for a while longer and maybe quite a while.

The Biden administration might be thinking that public transit has higher priority because it enables people to get to work. For some workers, it is their only option to get to work.

Much of the Biden aid package is oriented toward bolstering state and local governments. The thinking appears to be to take care of that first and as the economy recovers and the pandemic is tamed then travel will recover as business travel resumes and pent-up demand for leisure travel explodes.

Only then will we be seeing more flights, more bus service and more daily Amtrak trains.

Rail Passenger Future Gains Some Clarity

December 29, 2020

With the signing of legislation this week granting another round of federal stimulus funding and giving final approval to federal spending for fiscal year 2021, we now have some clarity on what the nation’s rail passenger system will look like over the next several months.

It is likely to look a lot like it does today, meaning it will be more Spartan that it was a year ago with long-distance trains continuing to operate on less-than-daily schedules and reduced levels of corridor service trains.

Amtrak was granted $1 billion in pandemic emergency funding, which Amtrak CEO William Flynn characterized as a band aid that will get the passenger carrier through to the spring when he said additional funding will be needed.

That’s the same level of emergency funding Amtrak received from the CARES Act adopted last March in the early weeks of the pandemic.

The latest emergency aid given Amtrak bans it from furloughing additional workers or reducing services further, but that is not the same thing as a mandate to restore service that has already been suspended or recalling workers who have been furloughed.

In a statement, Flynn tied service restorations, employee recalls and moving ahead on capital projects to Amtrak receiving additional funding next year.

As for FY 2021, Amtrak received $2.8 billion of which $1.3 billion is for the national network and state-supported corridor services.

That is not much more than the $2 billion the passenger carrier sought back in February before the pandemic began and well short of the $4.9 billion for FY2021 that it sought last October.

The legislation contained a policy rider expressing the sense of Congress that Amtrak is to operate long-distance routes in order to provide connectivity throughout the intercity passenger carrier’s network and provide transportation to rural areas.

That is far from being a mandate to restore daily operation to trains that shifted to less-than-daily operation, primarily tri-weekly, last October and July.

The rail passenger advocacy community may be united in believing that less-than-daily long distance trains are a bad idea, but Amtrak management is doing it anyway.

The downsides of less-than-daily service have received a lot of ink and bandwidth from railroad trade publication and railfan magazines, but that hasn’t moved the needle of Amtrak management’s behavior much if at all.

Amtrak has shown some sensitivity to the accusation that reducing long-distance trains to less-than-daily service is part of a larger plot to eliminate those trains.

In interviews and congressional testimony Flynn has tried to frame the service cuts as a temporary response to plunging ridership triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic that has also devastated ridership of airlines and buses.

He and Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia have sought to underscore that Amtrak is committed to having a national network.

That is not necessarily a commitment to operating that network at the same level of service that existed at the beginning of 2020 or even operating that network in perpetuity.

Flynn’s most recent statement about the latest emergency aid said nothing about when daily service will return to long-distance routes.

He told Congress in October that daily service might be restored in May “when financially possible.” That is hardly an ironclad promise.

In looking back at the fight over the past few months over rail passenger service cuts a couple of conclusions come to mind.

First, without public funding there are not going to be passenger trains of any kind. That particularly has been illustrated by the service cuts in state-supported corridor service.

The Chicago-Detroit corridor went from three trains a day to one, which reduced service to the lowest level it has been in the nearly 50 years of Amtrak operation.

Other corridors that had multiple daily frequencies saw service cuts as well and a few state-supported corridors that were suspended have yet to resume operations.

Second, passenger train advocates continue to lack the political clout needed to realize their visions of an expansive intercity passenger rail network.

Advocates have done well at keeping Amtrak funding at a suitable level to maintain a skeletal level of intercity rail passenger service but have failed to prevent Amtrak and its state partners from making service cuts when ridership and revenue plunged during the pandemic.

Congress has not shown a willingness to unlock the federal piggy bank to open-ended levels of financial support for intercity rail passenger service.

Getting intercity rail passenger service back to where it was in early 2020 is going to be a long, hard slog.

The end of the pandemic may be in sight, but it might take much longer to get there than many want to believe.

Although it seems likely that significant numbers of people will want to travel again, airline industry observers have talked about a four-year time frame to get air service travel back to where it was before the pandemic took hold.

It is not unrealistic to think intercity rail service might be operating under a similar time frame.

It may be that pent up demand will move that up slightly in the next year or two but that is going to hinge on how quickly the economy grows and how soon larger numbers of people feel confident that traveling and unfettered social interaction are safe again.

Pandemic Aid May Maintain Amtrak Status Quo

December 23, 2020

Although a bill adopted by Congress on Monday provides $1 billion in emergency pandemic relief aid to Amtrak, it remains unclear whether that will be enough to restore service suspended due to steep ridership declines.

Amtrak’s $1 billion pandemic relief grant includes $655 for the Northeast Corridor and $345 million for the national network.

Amtrak CEO William Flynn in a statement characterized the aid as a “temporary band-aid that will help Amtrak and our state and commuter partners.”

Flynn’s statement suggested that Amtrak will need additional financial assistance so that it can restore services cut during the pandemic, recall furloughed employees and move ahead on capital projects.

The statement did not indicate if any service restorations are likely between now and March.

The tenor of the statement suggested Amtrak intends to maintain the status quo, which would mean that all but one of its one-distance routes will continue operating on less-than-daily schedules.

Also in doubt is any restoration of state-supported corridor services that have been suspended during the pandemic due to steep ridership declines.

If anything, the statement hints that Amtrak will tie service restorations to receiving future emergency aid in the spring.

Flynn’s statement also resurrected the prospect of network expansion along the lines of that proposed by his predecessor Richard Anderson.

“This near-term support, coupled with significant new investments through our infrastructure or stimulus bill to expand the Amtrak network through new corridor routes, would create thousands of new jobs, reduce our nation’s carbon footprint and help the economy recover and flourish in the years ahead,” the statement said.

The legislation also included $14 million in pandemic emergency funding for public transit. Funding was also provided for bus companies, airlines and airports.

The transportation aid was part of $900 billion in pandemic relief aid.

The Rail Passengers Association on its website reported that the Northeast Corridor funding has a provision that not less than $109.8 million is to be used by Amtrak in lieu of capital payments from states and commuter rail authorities.

The funding for the national network includes $174.9 million to be made available to Amtrak in lieu of Section 209 payments from states to the passenger carrier for state-supported corridors.

The legislation bans Amtrak from making further employee furloughs or further reductions in frequencies on long-distance trains.

Currently furloughed Amtrak workers will be entitled to be recalled to the same seniority and job classification that they held prior to being furloughed when intercity passenger service is restored.

The bill prohibits Amtrak from contracting out any services that were performed by a furloughed worker.

The grant to public transit comes with a stipulation that no recipient may receive more than $4 billion when combined with money received in the CARES Act.

The bill also directs that the pandemic aid be shared with paratransit providers and rural transit providers.