We are getting our daily trains back! Congress spoke, delivering funding for Amtrak to restore the long-distance trains that had been cut to tri-weekly service to daily operation.
That’s great news, at least for now. Amtrak has also assured us that it does not plan to cut service again when the current fiscal year concludes at the end of September and has started the process of recalling the roughly 1,250 employees who were furloughed when the cuts were implemented in October 2020.
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari told me: “We are selling tickets normally, which means you can book travel into early 2022. We have no plans at this time to revert to less-than-daily on these routes. As you know, we are subject to annual appropriations and Congress can direct us, as can our Board of Directors.” He is right in a very important respect. It’s up to Congress to support Amtrak with enough money to keep running the trains every day. It is also up to the riding public to keep riding, and to the riders’ advocates to keep pushing for an improved, and even an expanded, Amtrak National Network.
Last year, the House passed HR-7616, a comprehensive COVID-19 relief package that included enough funding for Amtrak to keep running all its daily long-distance trains. The Republican-controlled Senate wanted nothing to do with the overall package, even though Amtrak would have gotten only a tiny portion of it. Republican Senators unanimously voted against the bill, but it passed 50-49, with no need for Vice President Harris to break a tie.
By now, anyone who is even mildly concerned about politics knows that the bill squeaked through the Senate because it was a budget reconciliation bill, which can pass with a bare majority. Whether we like it or not (and polls show that many Americans don’t), the threat of a filibuster can enforce a Senate custom that requires 60 votes to pass almost anything else. Practically all Democrats support Amtrak (many are from the Northeast, where Amtrak is strong), including the fiscally-conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats, and a few Republicans have typically voted for Amtrak funding. Many advocates have called the magnitude of the Amtrak line in the federal budget “a rounding error” (it is less than 0.1%, or precisely 895 parts per million), and they have repeatedly pointed out to Congress that Amtrak trains benefit the residents and the economies of the cities and towns those trains serve. Amtrak’s trains are indeed popular around the country, often more so than in the halls of government.
The point of this discussion is that a future bill that would require daily operation must be a self-contained, stand-alone bill. That means nothing about highways, nothing about transit, nothing about health care, nothing about defense—really, nothing about anything else. Congress must avoid the temptation to tack unrelated provisions onto legislation that should pertain only to Amtrak.
“America’s Railroad” enjoys unanimous support from Democrats, most visibly President Biden, but also from a few Republicans, so it should be possible to keep all of Amtrak (including state-supported trains and corridors, and the NEC and its branches) going on a permanent basis, at least as long as unrelated provisions don’t impart confusion to an Amtrak bill.
What should a useful Amtrak bill contain? First, it must include a clear and unequivocal requirement that Amtrak operate all long-distance trains every day, and it must also authorize funding that would enable Amtrak to perform that specific directive. Second, it must mandate accounting practices that would make it clear how much Amtrak needs to spend to operate the trains in question. Third, Congress must repeal 49 U.S.C. §24102(7)(C), which froze the long-distance network where it stood in 2008. Fourth, Amtrak must be required to recruit Board and senior management people experienced in passenger railroading. The need for statutory reform is pressing.
Amtrak is part of the public sector, since the U.S. Department of Transportation owns all of Amtrak’s voting shares, which under Amtrak’s unusual statutory charter are preferred shares. Accordingly, it is reasonable to hold Amtrak to transparency requirements that comport with other public-sector entities that also provide transportation to the public.
If Amtrak’s national network is to grow, in response to future increased demand for service, Congress must make a change. The current definition of the National Network (at 49 U.S.C. §24102(7)(C)) is so restrictive that there is, literally, no room for growth. It limits the network to “long-distance routes of more than 750 miles between endpoints operated by Amtrak as of the date of enactment of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008.” Any other route longer than 750 miles, no matter where it might run, is not part of the National Network. That would even include routes that were part of the Amtrak network in 1971, but were discontinued later. If Amtrak’s National Network will ever have a chance to grow and develop, Congress must remove that limitation on the size of the National Network. That includes the 750-mile limitation, as well as the straight-jacket that does not allow the network to expand beyond its size of 13 years ago.
Finally, Congress should require that members of the Board of Directors and senior managers at Amtrak be familiar with passenger railroading. That concept speaks for itself and should be obvious. Nobody represents Amtrak’s riders on the Board, either. Congress can change that, and for the sake of the riding public, it should.
With the long-distance trains returning to daily operation in time for Memorial Day, or shortly thereafter, it is time to think about restoring Amtrak in its entirety. It is also time for Congress to think about expanding the nation’s passenger rail network generally, for which Amtrak is now strongly pushing, bolstered by President Biden’s ambitious plans to “Build Back Better.”
It is great that daily service is coming back on most of our long-distance Amtrak trains. It’s time for Congress to get busy, to start looking toward a better future for Amtrak and its riders. It’s time for those riders and the advocates to push for that future. I know that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg will help. Time will tell, hopefully soon.
David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.