Don’t Look Now, But the House Amtrak Bill Actually Has Some Good Ideas

The House's rail authorization proposal is harsh, but not as harsh as it would have been under the previous chair. Photo: ## Transportation Committee##
The House’s Amtrak proposal isn’t going to transform American passenger rail, but it might actually help around the margins. Photo: House Transportation Committee

Tomorrow, the House Transportation Committee will consider a bill that changes the nation’s policies on passenger rail. The proposal, while it includes some cuts, is a departure from the senseless vendetta many House Republicans have waged against Amtrak in the past. The National Association of Railroad Passengers, NARP, says the plan contains “commonsense regulatory and governance reforms.”

In an encouraging act of bipartisanship, the bill was crafted and introduced jointly by Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA), Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV), and the chair and ranking member of the rail subcommittee, Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Corrine Brown (D-FL). You can read the bill summary here [PDF] and the full text here [PDF].

The Republicans’ talking point that the House bill cuts Amtrak funding by 40 percent is being widely reported, but the reality isn’t so draconian. The bill does reduce the amount authorized for Amtrak, but Congress wasn’t appropriating nearly that much in recent years anyway. Congress was authorized to spend $1.96 billion on Amtrak in 2013, for instance, but the House only appropriated $1.41 billion. The authorized amount in the PRRIA bill is actually a slight increase over what Amtrak got in 2013.

The bill stops short of pushing for full privatization of the Northeast Corridor, the main part of the network that turns a profit, which Shuster and Amtrak Hater-in-Chief John Mica had pushed for previously. It does further separate the Northeast Corridor from the rest of the system, requiring Amtrak to reinvest NEC profits back into the NEC. House Republicans say the idea is to “eliminate Amtrak’s black-box accounting,” in which Amtrak (quite transparently, I may add) subsidizes money-losing long-distance service with the profits from the NEC.

Meanwhile, the bill continues the very long-distance services that come under constant fire from the GOP for inefficiency. After all, key GOP constituencies live in rural areas whose only long-distance transportation option may be Amtrak. Brookings has recommended that Congress take an honest look at the costs and benefits of these routes, but so far Congress has preferred to play politics instead.

The bill does require Amtrak to bring in an independent entity to evaluate the worst performing routes with an eye toward finding ways to “improve its services and reduce costs.”

“We want to have transparency,” Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) told reporters. “We want Amtrak to run more like a business.” Shuster echoed this language, saying the bill compelled Amtrak “to operate like a true business should.”

The idea that Amtrak should run more like a business has been a common refrain for years. But the same Congress that berates Amtrak for losing money on unprofitable long-distance lines prohibits the company from cutting those lines. So representatives’ insistence that the rail company run “like a business” sounds hollow.

On the plus side, the House bill has hit upon a good way to satisfy Republicans’ thirst for getting the private sector more involved in passenger rail: It compels Amtrak to see whether developers are interested in building near its stations. This could bring station areas to life while generating new revenue streams for the railroad.

Although Amtrak ridership has broken records for 10 of the last 11 years, there are no ideas to stabilize or increase direct funding for rail over the long term in this bill, instead just “accept[ing] the investment gap as the status quo,” as NARP’s Sean Jeans Gail wrote in an email.

But it does propose reforms to the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program, whose $35 billion in lending power goes largely unused because of cumbersome and confusing requirements. NARP applauded these changes, which include the creation of a $14 billion loan fund within RRIF to invest exclusively in the Northeast Corridor.

High-speed rail doesn’t even get a mention in the bill.

On the pure customer experience side of things, this bill has one reform that will please Vox reporter Matt Yglesias and Streetsblog’s own Steven Vance, who’ve noted Amtrak’s frustrating practice of forcing passengers to queue up for trains like they’re boarding an airplane, rather than allowing them wait on the platform and enter through any door, the way trains around the world and in most parts of the U.S. are boarded. The PRRIA bill takes this concern into account and demands an evaluation of boarding procedures at the 10 most popular stations.

The bill comes into play at a strange time in the legislative calendar. House members have only a few days left in Washington before returning to their districts to campaign for votes. They won’t be back until after the election — that magical lame duck period when anything can happen. But the Senate isn’t even anywhere close to being ready to vote on this. Senators have told Politico reporters that they’re “always” working on an Amtrak bill but it isn’t finished yet, that a surface transportation bill has to come first, and that there’s only so much that can be done during the lame duck anyway. 

  • neroden

    This is a pretty dopey definition, but it basically consists of “the lines Amtrak owns”.

    It should extend to Schenectady, NY as well, now that Amtrak has leased that line.

  • 42apples

    Yet there’s no plan to shut down any of the most hopeless routes.

  • 42apples

    Sorry, I don’t think that Amtrak is very good at providing data. Here are some numbers:
    “For example, they find that Caltrain (a system similar to Amtrak, averaging 155 passengers per train) produces less than half as many greenhouse-gas emissions or particulate matter per passenger mile compared with driving a sedan (average passengers: 1.58).” Caltrain is pretty popular at peak hours, so I would imagine many Amtrak routes are worse. And there are definitely going to be fewer passengers late at night.

  • Bobberooni

    Never be built, really? Remember that the next time you mail-order something from the West Coast and expect it to be delivered by UPS in less than 3 weeks. Intermodal freight has its place, but we’d still have to make some serious sacrifices if we tried to ship everything that way.

    Remember that the transcontinental railroad also required government support to be built. And that gas tax is a more efficient way to raise money for roads than tolls.

  • Bobberooni

    Oh I see, “run it like a business,” like the Port Authority. In this case, “fair market rate” means “whatever the market will bear when you’re a monopoly.” If there were any serious competition for Hudson River crossings, tolls would go down. I know that because the GW Bridge turns a big profit, which is used for all manner of pet projects (including a bit of transit funding) that should probably have been funded some way other than on the backs of Hudson river commuters.

  • Bobberooni

    Please show me the commuter rail between New Haven and Boston. And even if Newark to Perrysville is not far, it kind of puts the kibbosh on using commuter rail to go between New York and DC.

  • Bobberooni

    Yay, let’s hear it for Christy. And now he’s pandering to the far right, denying climate change in an effort to get a national GOP nomination. Christy’s already shown his true Jersey Bully colors, when will this guy disappear?

  • Bobberooni

    What is the point of plane-free living? The plans are fast, and also amazingly fuel-efficient. Is there any serious environmental benefit to taking a long-distance Amtrak instead?

  • Alex Brideau III

    Actually, plane pollution doesn’t do our atmosphere any favors. Rail travel is the most sustainable of our current mainstream transportation options, and we should be moving in the direction of sustainability, not the opposite.

  • Brad Kort

    Most interesting to me was that this bill would open a $14B loan fund to Amtrak. That would be fantastic as it would enable Amtrak to invest in the infrastructure needed to rebuild ancient infrastructure and pay for much needed equipment. I hope it comes to fruition.

  • DTurner

    They make sense for trucking and that’s about it, why the Feds believe that truckers need a huge subsidy is beyond me, though.

  • DTurner

    Agreed, but that’s all CSX infrastructure. It still boggles my mind that NEC trains have to switch locomotives at Union Station if they are travelling to Richmond and beyond.

  • Bobberooni

    According to Amtrak’s own figures, Amtrak is only 14% more efficient per passenger mile than the airline industry. That is not a big difference, it’s like the difference between 30mpg an 34mpg. But the airlines are getting more efficient all the time. Currently, they do about 60-100 passenger miles per gallon.

    More interesting is their comparison with automobiles. They used an “average” automobile with “average” occupancy of 1.1 people per vehicle. But it is well-known that long-distance automobile occupancy is significantly higher (after all, who road trips alone?) Which brings automobiles in line with energy efficiency of plans and Amtrak, if not better, for long-distance travel.

    If you REALLY care about saving energy, you’ll be buying a Prius. Which uses about 2400 BTU / mile. That means that even if you drive it alone, you will be about as efficient as Amtrak and far more efficient than the average automobile on US streets. And if you take a buddy alone on your road trip, you will find it is more fuel-efficient than Amtrak or the airlines.

    Sorry, Amtrak. Not the most sustainable. At least not without major improvements in fuel economy (which are possible, but would require serious changes and capital improvements).

    PS: The most fuel-efficient way to travel long distances is intercity bus. It does about 150 passenger-miles per gallon with real-life load factors, blowing away everything except a fully-loaded Prius.

    By sustainable, maybe you didn’t mean “fuel efficient,” maybe you were talking about running out of the liquid fuel needed to power jets. I don’t think this will be a big problem in the future. Air travel is growing, but it will always be just a small fraction of the transportation energy pie. I don’t think will have a problem figuring out ways to make those quantities of liquid fuel in a sustainable way.

  • lop

    The tunnels that would have dead ended in a deep cavern like ESA? It was a bad plan that would have served zero Amtrak trains. If they want to run more trains just take back a couple slots from njtransit. If nj commuters don’t like it then they can complain to their governor, get a new tunnel built for them.

  • Anandakos

    There are a few trains per day between New Haven and New London on “Shore Line East”. MBTA provides hourly service between Boston and Providence. So, like Perryville to Newark, there’s gap of about thirty miles between existing commuter services.

    One can ride a Northeast Regional between Providence and New London for about $12. On the Washington-New York trip one has to use NER between Wilmington and Baltimore since there are no Amtrak stops between them.

    There is no law saying that the individual states have to subsidize every one of your train journeys.

  • Alex Brideau III

    [sigh] Where to begin?

    “Amtrak is only 14% more efficient per passenger mile than the airline industry.” Fourteen percent may not be important by your standards, but 14% is still significant. All things being equal, if I were choosing between buying a 30mpg and 34 mpg car, I think most folks would choose the latter.

    “But the airlines are getting more efficient all the time.” Well, most/all fossil fuel-powered vehicle manufacturers are constantly striving to be more fuel efficient than their competitors (including both plane and train manufacturers), so I’d say this is a wash. Except that a plane trip is more likely to include mandatory car trips at either end of the journey. Rail and bus travel typically allow passengers to travel between city centers, where the highest concentrations of lodging are.

    “(after all, who road trips alone?)” Most of my 1,000+ mile road trips have been taken alone, as are most of my long-distance Amtrak trips. Since I can’t and wouldn’t want to drive non-stop, replacing my rail travel with long road trips will require additional hotel stays. And, since road travel is one of the most dangerous travel modes, there’s also increased risk. (Air and rail travel are far safer, though I feel the latter is more stress-free and comfortable.)

    “If you REALLY care about saving energy, you’ll be buying a Prius.” Well, if we’re going down that road, if one “REALLY” cares about saving energy, one would not own a car at all, and instead rent a hybrid when a car trip is unavoidable. That said, my household is not car-free yet. We already have a hybrid and I hardly think buying a second one would help with efficiency. Despite my wife’s willingness to bike to work on occasion, I’m not sure she would take kindly to me monopolizing the car for extended periods of time. 🙂

    “The most fuel-efficient way to travel long distances is intercity bus.” That’s great, but Greyhound doesn’t go everywhere. Neither does Amtrak, for that matter. The two modes complement each other. But I think Amtrak is a far more comfortable way to travel.

    “By sustainable, maybe you didn’t mean ‘fuel efficient’…” Well, fuel efficiency is an element of sustainability, but I was primarily referring to pollution. Most transportation modes create some pollution, but ground-based transportation (and fossil fuel-based power plants that power our electric grid) emit their pollution on or near ground level, whereas airplanes emit their CO2, NOx, sulfates, and particulate matter directly into the stratosphere, compounding the pollutants’ negative impact upon the atmosphere.

    NOTE: Of course, air travel is all but mandatory for some journeys. For those actually still reading this post, purchasing carbon offsets while not a cure-all, can help somewhat.

  • Bobberooni

    “Fourteen percent may not be important by your standards, but 14% is still significant. All things being equal, if I were choosing between buying a 30mpg and 34 mpg car, I think most folks would choose the latter.”

    Actually, most people seem to choose something worse than the former. People who really care about fuel efficiency choose a Prius, which beats the socks off the any transit system out there.

    “Except that a plane trip is more likely to include mandatory car trips at either end of the journey.”

    Once you’ve blown a couple tons of carbon on going 1000 miles or more, what difference does a local car trip make. Not that this is relevant anyway, since most airports have frequent bus service to nearby destinations, if not rail.

    “Since I can’t and wouldn’t want to drive non-stop, replacing my rail travel with long road trips will require additional hotel stays.”

    That is why most people fly. Plus, the airlines are about twice as efficient as your car. (I don’t know where Amtrak got its airline numbers from, they are suspiciously inefficient).

    “whereas airplanes emit their CO2, NOx, sulfates, and particulate matter directly into the stratosphere, compounding the pollutants’ negative impact upon the atmosphere.”

    And how is this any better or worse? Sulfates emitted into the atmosphere actually work against climate change.

  • lop

    Energy Efficiency Data Source: U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge National Laboratory Data on Fuel Efficiency – Transportation Energy Data Book (Edition 30), Table 2.12

    It said so in your link.

  • Alex Brideau III

    “People who really care about fuel efficiency choose a Prius, which beats the socks off the any transit system out there.” A Prius wouldn’t “beat the socks off any transit system” as its five-person capacity is nowhere near the capacity of most transit systems. If you instead meant “any private vehicle”, then I’d agree with you … with the exception of all-electric vehicles and certain plug-in hybrids(?) and alternative-fuel vehicles.

    “Once you’ve blown a couple tons of carbon on going 1000 miles or more, what difference does a local car trip make.” As with most conservation issues, every little bit counts.

    “most airports have frequent bus service to nearby destinations, if not rail.” In many (but not all) cases this is true, but I prefer to travel direct from city center to city center, as do a good number of my fellow passengers. Of course this is a travel choice, but one we’re fortunate to have the option of making. Having a choice of travel modes is another reason not to give up on Amtrak’s national network routes.

    “(I don’t know where Amtrak got its airline numbers from, they are suspiciously inefficient).” If you read the emissions report, the source data for Amtrak’s numbers are cited.

    “And how is [polluting the stratosphere] any better or worse [than ground-level, or troposphere, pollution]?” I’m just a layman, but in short, the stratosphere is much more sensitive to these pollutants than the troposphere. This is pretty well documented on the Interwebs.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Well, being a fairly frequent rider of the Coast Starlight, I think it’s quite a stretch to call it “hopeless”. Perhaps “almost useless for most commuters” would be more accurate. But worth noting is that long-distance routes are generally intended for long-distance use.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Unless I mis-read the article, there’s no specific empty-train example given. But as a fairly frequent Amtrak rider, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an empty train (which I guess would technically be impossible if I was riding on it, but anyway…). And, FWIW, Amtrak’s not really similar to Caltrain in that Amtrak runs both regional and national trains, and Caltrain only runs the former.

    But most notably the Slate article does make it very clear that “as long as those [off-peak] buses and trains are kept running, it’s better—environmentally speaking—to take public transportation, since the marginal impact of your trip will be very low.” I would say the Slate article actually argues against your point.

  • 42apples

    I agree with that point. I’m saying that it’s not necessarily best for the environment to expand off-peak service if there isn’t the demand for it. Most trains are ridden by people who already own cars (and drive to the station), so it’s not going to do a lot to decrease car ownership either.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I guess the $64,000 question is how do we determine when there is “demand” for off-peak rail service? When localities increase late-night and other off-peak transit service, ridership counts don’t always skyrocket, but that travel mode is generally viewed as a more viable option for those who might otherwise drive. I think the key here is getting the word out. If Amtrak increased the frequency of the thrice-weekly Sunset Limited to daily, but didn’t advertise it, it would probably take much longer for ridership to increase along that route.

    And speaking of transit, it’s worthwhile to note that (depending on the time of day) not all train riders drive to the station. Those living in urban areas are more likely to take local mass transit to a train station, while those near suburban stations are indeed more likely to drive.

  • Kevin Love

    A lot of off-peak service is temporal network building. In other words, if the service doesn’t work for them all the time, many people will buy a car and launch lethal cancer poison attacks against their fellow citizens.

  • Bolwerk

    Huh? The feds don’t pay for commuter service. They sometimes pay for capital investments for agencies,* but they never pay to operate it. That once fell to ConRail,but now falls to VRE, MARC, NJT, SEPTA, MTA (MNRR/LIRR), MBTA, etc.. These agencies, in turn, sometimes buy/sell track access from/to Amtrak. Some may even contract with Amtrak to run their commuter services (I think VRE does this).

    I suppose you may have a kinda point about regional/long distance Amtrak service. The Feds do pay for at least some of that, perhaps in a less-than-balanced way. Hardly a less balanced way than highway funds though, since the money at least goes to the places that rationally need it.

    * No, the northeast is not special in this regard.

  • TomD

    The federal government DOES provide a major “backdoor” (hidden) capital subsidy to Northeast commuter railroads.

    The vast majority of Northeast Corridor trains are commuter, not Amtrak, trains, yet Washington treats all (or almost all) of the federal NEC capital subsidy as “Amtrak” subsidies.

    Those commuter lines can operate at very high speed (over 100 mph in NJ, for example) thanks to this “Amtrak subsidy”. If the commuter trains did not use the NEC, the NEC capital needs would be much lower (because 2 of the 4 tracks would be unneeded if the NEC were used only by Amtrak). At the very least, this additional subsidy (the cost difference between 2 and 4 tracks) is truly a commuter rail subsidy that is hidden because it is entirely recorded as “Amtrak subsidy”.

    Yes, the northeast is special in this regard, because this is the only place where commuter rail capital subsidies are treated as subsidy for Amtrak.

  • andrelot

    The Transcontinental Railway doesn’t follow the Colorado gorges in UT and CO. The first rail link built in 1869 goes though Utah (north of the Great Salt Lake), Wyoming and Nebraska.

  • andrelot

    But it worked well in all other big European countries (France, Germany, Italy and Spain).

  • Bolwerk

    The capital situation may be different, though he specifically said the Feds pay for those states’ “corridor and commuter service.” (Even if that were true, he didn’t get the dynamic right: the states pay the feds who deign to give them some of their own money back in the form of service. :-O)

    As for the capital situation, I’m not saying I don’t believe there is a disparity, but I’d love to see it quantified. The commuter railroads buy access to that trackage. I don’t know if that is something Amtrak breaks even on, but the idea that it represents the kind of sucking sound on the federal budget that red states cause? A bit silly. Whatever the subsidy turns out to be, it’s almost certain to be low compared to the average subsidy the rest of the country gets for rail because usage is higher.

  • Chris

    It actually works fine now. The disaster in Britain was their attempt to privatize the infrastructure, which led to insane cost cutting. Now that they renationalized the infrastructure they actually have a very sound operation.

    Separation of infrastructure and operation is actually implemented EU-wide, although the details differ. Most countries implement a scheme where the infrastructure is owned by the government, and operations are private in principle, although at least for commuter operations usually tendered out by the government to private operators.

  • Bob Watts

    i hear tell that the bill decouples meals and sleeper accommodations.
    Say it ain’t so?
    if it is so whom do we have to thank for that terrible call?
    John “Kill Amtrak” Mica?

  • Claude

    No one seems to be noticing the hidden danger in the bill: the requirement for transparent accounting. At best that could include making more reports to congress on how Amtrak sees their made up numbers.
    At worst it could result in replacing the practice of dividing up the big bucket of expenses by route miles and replace them with an actual accounting system that measures where the money is being spent.
    What happens if this shows that the half empty trains of the NEC are really losing money while the overflowing long distance trains are turning a strong profit? What happens to plans to make the states pay for the imaginary losses?

    Politics doesn’t rely on real numbers!

  • kevin

    Sadly as it is, we no longer know how to PASSENGER railroad from a logistics standpoint.

    They gutted all the people who actually knew this stuff in favor of an all new platform which Amtrak was and in that they have NOT YET reached the ridership at its highest point that the supposed gutted and bad service was in 1970 the year prior to the Narional Passenger Rail Act.

    Amtrak answers to 27 different regulatory agencies ALL with different agendas. On top of that they always go in the same defunct circle: new engines, new cars, infrastructure.

    AND YET, since 1971 aka DAY 1 AMTRAK…..

    all that has been 100% reworked SEVERAL COMPLETE TIMES.

    In the 40s and 50s, railroads would have greatly stablized passenger rail had they had the FUNDING to do that.

    AMtrak needs to shut down and reform as a PASSENGER BOOKING AND MANAGEMENT PLATFORM and be a clearing house for all rail bookings and station managment USA and then allow THE ACTUAL RAILROADS to pick up and reintroduce their classic trains.

    BNSF, NS, CSX all have been pushing for some time to be able to do this. It could be a huge breakthrough in the trafficking issue through the corridors as the actual railroads know this far better then Amtrak does as a 3rd party operator.

    The issues you cited as far as routing was always a tough go for the FEW railroads that used that route: Western Pacific, and DRGW both of whom always struggled with speed on their timetables.

    Lest we never forget how Santa Fe screamed at having to ax the CHIEF in 1970. There is no way thats a high cost route from LA to Chicago and its one of the fastest train rides end to end in the US.

    Also, USA is not well geographically speaking for HIGH SPEED RAIL. Paris to Lyons aka the fastest ride in Europe is about like Philly to Boston, short and regional.

    If we could adopt to train changes then all would transform in that regard.Then really great train stations could be designed along the old classic styles and feel that would be congregating places for people…….

    but then that would make the US alot more like Europe and God help if that were to happen. GEE.

  • kevin


    And it didnt break anybodies bank either. OMG all those close cut tunnels are all OPEN TOPPED NOW. Wow.

    Its not a matter of that, its a matter of ROUTING. There was/is the river route and the bypass.

    Historically ALL the day trains took the RIVER ROUTE and the night trains took the BY PASS and were faster.

    There is also a matter of rail maintenance. For ALL the boasted technology improvements…..

    traffic speeds are not even ONE HALF What they were circa 1950. Volume doesnt show this due to the size of the tonnage per car which is now 100 tons.

    There were steam FREIGHT routes where 70+ mph was EVERYDAY. Look Up NKP (Nickel Plate).

    Its of note that the named trains that remain in Amtrak ON NON geologically challenged routes like say…..

    The SIlver Meteor and the Silver Star…

    are much longer rides TODAY than they were at the time Amtrak took them over.

    That was ALWAYS a huge traffic route for n-s shipping so that hasnt changed.

    Dont forget to hit those guys also with the fact that Santa Fe TOTALLY upgraded and rerouted the Mohave line to a grade totally different at most places and another famous route via Tehachapi was also totally rerouted.

    Those 2 are perhaps the 2 most challenging of all to do and when the “Rat Hole” is included: they already did what these guys are telling you cant be done.

    Climb off your steam locomotives guys. Todays Rail Corps are far into routing tech and I have been blown away by some of these feats.

    Saluda Moutain was bypassed successfully after how many decades of “cant be done”?


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