House GOP Wants Amtrak Out of the Commuter Rail Business

At a highly politicized hearing on Tuesday, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica slammed “Amtrak’s failure to compete with the private sector,” arguing that the national rail company should stop bidding to run commuter rail services.

Congressional Democrat Corinne Brown, of Florida, said the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is no longer bipartisan. Image: House T&I

The hearing centered around a new report from House Republicans [PDF] criticizing Amtrak for competing with private companies for commuter rail contracts. “Amtrak is a highly subsidized, Soviet-style rail system,” Mica said, “but despite every ticket being underwritten nearly $50 by the taxpayers, Amtrak is an absolute failure in competing with the cost-effectiveness and level of service provided by the private sector.”

But it also seems that Republicans would prefer to see Amtrak become even more of a “Soviet-style” operation. One of the report’s major conclusions is that Amtrak should stop trying to compete for commuter rail contracts awarded by local governments. “Amtrak wastes the taxpayers’ money bidding on commuter rail contracts that it cannot win,” Mica said in a press release. The report cited seven instances where Amtrak entered competition for these contracts and lost or withdrew.

Meanwhile, Florida Democrat Corrine Brown pointed out that Amtrak makes a profit of $15 million annually on its commuter rail service. Brown accused Republicans of orchestrating the hearing to punish Amtrak for suing Veolia Transportation, which nabbed a contract for commuter rail service in Florida after hiring away three Amtrak employees. A jury faulted Veolia for the hirings, but said Amtrak would not have kept the contract even if they had retained those employees.

The Republicans’ report concluded that Amtrak should be barred from suing private rail providers over contract disputes, calling the litigation anti-competitive and wasteful.

Another major conclusion of the report is that all states that pay for Amtrak services should consider awarding the contracts to Amtrak’s competitors. The report found that states could save $91 million annually by choosing private contractors. Currently, 19 states contract with Amtrak for this service, according to testimony.

Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, called the report a “senseless attack,” following 11 consecutive monthly ridership records for the rail service. Johnson said Republicans have an “ideological obsession” to “destroy Amtrak,” pointing out that getting rid of Amtrak is part of the 2012 Republican Party platform.

Brown criticized Republican leadership for failing to offer the report to Democratic committee members before its release. She said the House T&I “is not a bipartisan committee anymore.”