Rail Advocates: House Bill Would Kill Amtrak

The Pacific Surfliner train service, with its 240,000 annual passengers, could get zero federal support if the House gets its way. Photo: ##http://www.wired.com/autopia/2008/07/the-people-are/##Wired##

The 2012 transportation budget passed by a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee yesterday cut all high-speed rail funding and slashes Amtrak’s operating grant by 60 percent. What’s more, it forbids Amtrak from using that money to fund short corridors.

Ridership on those short corridors grew five percent in the last year [PDF]. Twenty-seven train lines, including several in and out of Chicago, would suddenly see their federal funding disappear, if the House budget were to becomes law. That would only leave the Northeast Corridor and a handful of cross-country routes; half Amtrak’s ridership would be cut instantly.

According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a rail advocacy group, the danger goes further than just the short corridors. The organization asserts that “the bill really would kill all of Amtrak because loss of the short corridors would cut revenues and balloon costs for Northeast Corridor and national network (overnight) trains… Overhead costs—such as for station facilities and maintenance back shops—which now are shared among routes would be dumped on the surviving trains. For example, the Texas Eagle would become the sole user of the St. Louis and Fort Worth terminals and six Illinois stations. And Amtrak’s Chicago terminal costs would be borne solely by eight overnight trains.”

NARP says this bill overrides “ongoing negotiations among states and Amtrak aimed at complying with Amtrak’s 2008 reauthorization law—and overrides that law’s October 2013 target date for “equal treatment” of all states as to what they must pay for short corridors.”

The House GOP proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor has a section devoted to “state-supported” or short corridors. One plank of the plan involves “redirecting funds from Amtrak to state DOTs.” It seems that without any other elements of the plan in place — from initiating a competitive procurement process to holding negotiations with host freight railroads — the House is trying to move forward with just one piece: the part about de-funding Amtrak. A haphazard approach like this will certainly violate the first goal laid out in the privatization plan: to maintain current levels of service.

Meanwhile, the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program, one of President Obama’s signature initiatives, which he hoped would extend high-speed rail to 80 percent of the country in 25 years, was zeroed out. Thirty-nine states have applied for funds, but much of the attention has focused on the three states – Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida – which have rejected them. NARP said the elimination of this program is devastating to the effort to bring U.S. interstate transportation up to the level seen in the rest of the developed world, setting that movement “back by decades” and “severely undermining America’s ability to stay globally competitive.”

Luckily this bill — like just about everything else introduced in Congress these days — appears destined for gridlock. If the two houses and the president ever agree on a 2012 budget, you can be sure that some of the programs that the House is trying to cut will make their way back into the final budget.

8 thoughts on Rail Advocates: House Bill Would Kill Amtrak

  1. While I recognize that the subcommittee’s recommendations won’t actually become law, it’s worth teasing out what would likely happen.  The immediate reaction from Amtrak, while understandable, was probably wrong.  Not all corridor trains would die.  The North Carolina trains, for example, lose about $1M/yr above the present NC subsidy.  Pat Simmons has enough flexibility on rail funding to cover that.  The Virginia trains, on current accounting, generate a surplus.  In the PRIIA 209 negotiations, Amtrak has claimed that surplus is generated because revenue is allocated to Virginia service that should be allocated to NEC service.  But on either interpretation, either the NEC is subsidizing Virginia or it’s self sufficient, it isn’t being subsidized by Federal operating funds.  Vermont and Maine both undersubsidize their services by around $3M/yr.  That’s a number which can be covered.  There would be problems in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, but the East Coast as a whole would be able to function under the “no federal subsidy to short corridors” rule.

    So, too, the West.  Caltrans has some flexibility; Brown a bias towards rail.  There may be service reductions, but Amtrak California would continue.  Equally, Amtrak Cascades is currently partially funded by Oregon and Washington.  Service might be reduced, perhaps concentrated between Portland and Seattle, but would continue.

    It is the Midwest that would suffer the death spiral.  The Hiawathas lose a lot of money and  Wisconsin has an anti-rail administration.  Illinois has too many money losing services.   Michigan is broke.  The fixed costs of the Chicago infrastructure (which includes maintenance facilities) shared among a diminishing number of services would kill all of them.

    Then there is the tiny operating subsidy.  $263M for long distance services which today lose more than twice that sum.  Routes would have to be cut, some entirely, some in part.  The transcontinentals are very vulnerable.  It will be very hard to justify three NEC-Chicago routes or two NEC-Florida routes.   It is very conceivable that Amtrak would end up with two or three disconnected parts.

    In some ways, the reduction is subsidy is more damaging than it being confined to long distance trains.

  2. Why do you assume states – which continue to slash their budgets and still have deficits – will opt to add millions to their budgets to save rail?

  3. I don’t.  On the unlikely event that something like this language ends up in the Continuing Resolution (there’s unlikely to be an actual appropriations bill), some States will, some won’t.  NC has only a small shortfall in its existing subsidy, has a dedicated revenue stream for rail and has been robustly expanding it.  It surely will cover its shortfall.  On the other hand, the Heartland Flyer runs an equally small shortfall in its existing subsidy, but I can’t imagine the present governor of Texas authorizing an increase.

    It’s the details that matter.

  4. alwaysjamtoday, I agree with you, in some ways focusing rails into 2 separate systems, east coast and west coast system could even help funding, right now CA is not going to be willing to subsidize Amtrak’s midwest line, but system that focuses on  just California, “caltrain” could get additional funding from state if it broke away from the national Amtrak system. This country is too big for 1 system, EU doesn’t have one rail system, why should US.

  5. The GOP wants rail to be the ONLY form of transportation in America that makes money. I say all transportation should so all freeways, airports, city streets and the FAA/TSA should make money. If they can’t shut them down too.

    Some trains CAN make money as shown by the TGV high speed lines in France which make more than a billion euros a year. However, the low speed lines (TER) that go to every little town loses money and is partially subsidized by the TGV. Overall rail even in France loses money.

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