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Will Congress hold Amtrak accountable for providing essential passenger rail service?

14 Sep 2020 | Posted by | 3 Comments | , , ,

Communities large and small, urban and rural, are served by Amtrak’s national network of long distance routes, providing essential connections to jobs, services, and the broader economy. Amtrak is threatening to dramatically cut these services, severing essential connections despite clear directives from Congress. Here’s a rundown from a recent hearing on this issue in the House Transportation and Infrastructure’s railroad subcommittee. 

An Amtrak train in Grand Rapid, MI, this past July. Photo by Russell Sekeet on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Amtrak has been hard hit through the pandemic. Ridership has cratered—especially on the Northeast Regional and Acela services—but the railroad has continued to operate nearly all its routes especially as many places have cautiously reopened. Reduced ticket revenues, combined with extra costs for cleaning and protective equipment, have led the company to a point where they are considering cutting many daily long-distance service down to just three-days-a-week in many places and making significant cuts to its workforce. 

These massive cuts would have an outsize impact on rural communities and take away valuable lifeline services that often are the only connection between smaller areas and bigger cities, connecting thousands with vital services. Noting that ridership is actually down the least on the long-distance routes, T4America chair John Robert Smith told the Daily Yonder that rural communities consider these services essential, and that “you greatly limit communities served by 7-day a week service when you go to three.” (Read more from the Rail Passengers Association about the impact of these cuts)

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have expressed deep concern about these perhaps penny wise but definitely pound-foolish plans. This week the members of the House’s main rail subcommittee held a hearing this week to understand Amtrak’s decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic—and ask some pointed questions. 

T4America worked to educate committee staff about the consequences of Amtrak’s planned cuts to long-distance services from daily to three-days per week on most routes. T4A provided resources to committee staff with sample questions and expected responses based on Amtrak’s recent and past assertions. 

Opening the hearing, Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) echoed many of the same priorities we share. Lipinski affirmed past lessons from deep cuts made back in 1994, that cutting long-distance trains from daily to three-days per week doesn’t work for passengers or taxpayers, as utility of the service collapses, and subsidies per rider increase. He praised the work of former Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) to restore daily long-distance services, and emphasized Amtrak’s role as a national public service rather than a purely profit-making enterprise.

No member of the committee sided with Amtrak in its position that cutting service and furloughing staff was necessary or prudent. To the contrary, many members, including Republicans and Democrats alike, criticized the railroad for first taking supplemental funding, then planning to still lay off staff and cut services. One of the biggest critiques is that the massive service cuts and layoffs would only save Amtrak a marginal amount of money in the end, especially when the costs are factored in to restore service and train new staff down the road.

Some members took issue with Amtrak’s plans to restore a 7 percent employer 401k match for management employees, that is timed to coincide with the railroad’s service cuts and frontline staff furloughs. Amtrak’s CEO Bill Flynn defended the decision as necessary to retain management personnel, especially at the lower levels, after making cuts earlier in the pandemic. Flynn also went on record saying that executive bonuses and incentive pay would be suspended for three years, but it was not immediately clear when the three-year prohibition began.

When asked about continuing the long-distance services long term, Flynn said Amtrak would run services as directed by Congress, but that he “100 percent supports” the long-distance trains as part of Amtrak’s future. Flynn cited Amtrak’s recent purchase of 75 new locomotives for the long-distance services as proof of this commitment. However, locomotives can be reassigned to other services, and his statement made no mention of allocating specialized equipment for long-distance service like sleeping and dining cars which the railroad has recently taken delivery of but still does not fully utilize. 

Rail Passenger Association President and CEO Jim Mathews testified powerfully about the impact of  service cuts not only on long-distance riders, but to the hundreds of communities served by Amtrak trains across middle America. “It is not — it is only required to minimize subsidies,” Mathews said. “A conversation about [Amtrak] profit ignores the benefit that communities receive.”

Mathews outlined a study that we helped the RPA produce which estimates losses in visitor spending of over $2.3 billion to station communities and regions if Amtrak’s planned service cuts last for nine months. The study uses a methodology T4A helped develop as part of our longstanding work to restore service to the Gulf Coast, in partnership with the Trent Lott Center at the University of Southern Mississippi.

When it comes to those who are on the frontlines of providing Amtrak’s service, members from two of Amtrak’s unions focused on the sacrifices they and their members have made to maintain service across the Amtrak network, and the public health dangers Amtrak workers are still facing.

Arthur Maratea, National President, Transportation Communications Union (TCU/IAM); and Amy Griffin, President of America Local 1460, Transport Workers Union of America spoke on behalf of Amtral’s frontline workers. They also addressed a shortage of coach cleaners on the railroad, and say Amtrak is not hiring to fill open positions despite the increased need for sanitation, endangering workers and the traveling public.

One of the best perspectives came from an urban Democrat from Massachusetts, who understands that service for people in states far away from his district is what’s at stake, but that a unified national system is vital for everyone. From Trains Magazine:

Near the end of session, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) told Flynn, “I fully support using money you make on the north end of the Northeast Corridor to provide service to some of those rural areas — the ‘red’ states. Those lines don’t necessarily benefit my district but they benefit the country. … I hope you take very seriously the credibility that you will lose by engaging in these furloughs, and the representational damage that comes to Amtrak management. I’m asking you to reconsider that [because] it is not going to save the day.” Cutting 2000 employees, Lynch said, “is going to reduce service and spiral that bottom-line deficit. You’re going to lose the faith of members of Congress like me, who are behind you, because of this decision.”   


  1. David J Cooper

    4 years ago

    I agree 100%. Amtrak management readily accepted billions in additional funding authorized by the Congress. Cutting back on long distance service during a pandemic is not only short-sighted. It’s hypocritical to maintain Acela, the northeast corridor and the autotrains, when ridership is down for all of them as well.

  2. John Guidinger

    4 years ago

    I ride the long distance trains many times in most years and have done so for most of my 78 year life. These trains are essential. The people riding them are using them for basic transportation in many areas of the country. The trains are very important.

    I have lived in areas where these trains were tri-weekly and they are useless. They is always running the wrong way either coming or returning to or from your destination.

    Amtrak recently stopped publishing the train schedules. I recently set a trip to visit family and I could not find the schedule anywhere. How can anyone plan a trip without a timetable? How is this saving money or related to the virus in any way! In the 1960s not showing trains in schedules was a trick that the old Southern Pacific did to discourage passengers. This is simply obstinate on the part of Amtrak!!

  3. Mary Stahl

    4 years ago

    I agree, grew up riding trains as my Dad worked for Frisco RR and we could travel on his free pass. Late 50’s early 60’s, the railroads were wanting to get out of passenger service, but still kept the train running. Amtrak was created to fill that void and offer to service to areas all across the country not just NEC. Cutting back to 3 days a week will seriously hurt business, they had their best year in 2019 and many will not return even if they restore service later I will but I love riding trains, many just do it because it is convenient and less of a hassle than flying today. So they will be shooting self in foot to cut service, I was on a couple of day trips recently and heard sleepers were sold out, and there were a decent amount of people in coach, so people are riding. If they want to save money, do some salary cuts at the top, have heard upper management gets over $400,000 a year so they can afford it. They tried this in the 90’s and did not work, so why bother trying it again. Hard to make connections with the way 3 days is set up, and valuable employees will lose jobs and maybe never return, and have heard they might have trouble getting their slots back with freight railroads for the track rights. Bad idea and hope Congress does not let them do it, Amtrak was created as a national passenger service for all. Thanks for keeping the pressure on them and I have written my Congressman and have signed the petitions you and others have circulated.