What’s New in the House Amtrak Bill?

Advocates for bikes aboard trains consider this bill a victory. Image via Adventure Cycling Association
Advocates for bikes aboard trains consider this bill a victory. Image via Adventure Cycling Association

In what’s being called a “rare burst of bipartisanship,” the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill yesterday reauthorizing Amtrak funding for four years at its current levels.

Despite a last-minute, Koch brothers-backed push to eliminate funding for the railroad completely, the House advanced its bill to provide Amtrak with $1.7 billion annually for four years. It’s not the funding boost rail advocates were hoping for, but it’s not a setback either, keeping funding fairly steady.

The bill also contains a few interesting amendments that seek to make the nation’s intercity rail carrier more efficient and passenger-friendly.

The Northeast Corridor Can Reinvest Its Profits

The Northeast Corridor, running between Boston and Washington, is Amtrak’s most profitable service, generating a combined operating surplus of $205 million in 2011, according to the Brookings Institution. More than 35 percent of all Amtrak trips are on these tracks. But those operating profits have been sunk back into Amtrak’s money-losing routes — mainly long-distance ones serving inland cities.

The new bill will allow profits from the Northeast Corridor to be reinvested in its infrastructure, which is infamously decrepit.

Pressure for Roll-On Bike Service

Advocates were excited about this one, but it’s not quite as exciting as some have suggested. An amendment offered by Congressman Dan Lipinski will force the Amtrak Office of the Inspector General to study and consider passengers using “non-motorized” transportation. Bike advocates around the country pushed for this because they hope it will pressure the agency to allow standard roll-on bike service, so travelers can easily bring bikes with them. Most routes currently require passengers to disassemble bikes and transport them in a special box.

A growing number of routes, under political pressure, have begun offering roll-on service. Amtrak announced last year that it was adding new baggage cars on its long-distance routes equipped for transporting assembled bikes, but most routes still do not offer the service.

Full-Cost Food Service

Score one for fiscal conservatism. House Republicans made hay a few years ago when an audit revealed that Amtrak had lost more than $800 million on its food service in the span of a decade. An amendment from Republican Congressman Paul Gozar of Arizona will require the agency to include the price of labor in its food sales. That means coffee and those fancy sit-down dinners should be getting more expensive. And the GOP will have to find a new punching bag.

16 thoughts on What’s New in the House Amtrak Bill?

  1. I’m definitely not a conservative by any stretch (quite the opposite) but I actually think the “full-cost food service” provision is a good thing. Amtrak’s food service operations should pay for themselves. It’ll be interesting to see how this affects the on-board food prices, though. Last I looked, they were already pretty steep – $5.75 for a microwaved cheeseburger, for example.

    The rest of the provisions seem like positives, too. Maybe Amtrak not having to reinvest its profits in money-losing long-distance routes will give it more leverage to demand that states pay for more of the cost of those routes. Many states pay nothing for the service they get at the moment, despite it being enormously costly to provide.

  2. “… demand that states pay for more of the cost of those routes.”

    By the same logic, states should pay for more of the cost of highways. 100% works for me.

    “Amtrak’s food service operations should pay for themselves.”

    By the same logic, you should also favor charging for the toilets on the train. If the food service should pay for itself, then why shouldn’t the toilet service pay for itself?

  3. The reality is that converting from being a car driver to a train passenger delivers huge positive externalities.

    We create a virtuous circle of increasing these positive externalities by encouraging more people to be train passengers. One way of doing this is by returning part of the benefit of these positive externalities to the passenger in the form of low fares, high-quality inexpensive food, and, yes, clean toilets.

  4. Maybe states in the Northeast Corridor can start paying for their service, instead of relying on the federal subsidy for propping up the infrastructure that mostly supports commuter trains? If California, or other states want a “corridor” we have to pay for it ourselves. The NEC is a drain on the national system, not the other way around.

  5. “That means … those fancy sit-down dinners should be getting more expensive.”

    I hope that’s a tongue-in-cheek comment because I’d hardly call the plastic plates, paper cut-inducing “tablecloths”, and microwaved food of your average Amtrak Dining Car “fancy”. The Dining Car is essentially a Denny’s on rails. Nothing fancy about it, but it does allow passengers to travel on a full stomach. Raise the menu prices, and we’d further discourage Coach passengers from dining there.

  6. I can’t believe they didn’t increase funding. Keeping funding steady is the same as cutting funding as costs keep increasing (and ideally demand too). I’ve met so many helpful, kind Amtrak employees in my travels and I wish they could be paid more. Also, the food is already crazy expensive in the dining car if you don’t have a meals included ticket (cafe car is reasonable). I do see a lot of food waste, so maybe they should just cut portion sizes and allow people to check off what sides and extras they want. Also, full bars would make some money – just saying! People who want to drink already bring their own booze, so it wouldn’t increase on board drunkeness.

  7. We are impressed to see that Amtrak is responding to “customer demand” and making accommodations (a bicycle rack in a luggage car) available on each train which will alleviate the need to disassemble the pedals in order to store the bike in a box. That is wonderful. This is encouraging progress toward the accommodation of bicycle tourists (and bicycle commuters) on trains. Especially since next month a person from our group (bikecar101.com) is taking a bicycle on an Amtrak train from LA to Northern California in order to attend a conference — and is not looking forward to altering his bicycle for the trip. We hope to see better accommodations for bicycle commuters and tourists in the future — especially since, there seems to be an organic growth of people who choose to use a bicycle rather than a car. Thank you for the update (article).

  8. 1 — The sit-down dining service is probably going to be shut down at this rate. In response to the GOP grandstanding about it (and no, it hasn’t lost as much as they claimed, they’re misallocating overhead), Amtrak has cut quality and raised prices, which has driven customers away, which creates a death spiral. The Republican idea here is to kill train service by making it hard for people to get food on the trains. This won’t work because the cafe cars are very profitable and will be kept, but it should hurt the western long-distance trains.
    2 — The new baggage cars are only just being deployed as we speak, so we might expect roll-on bike service sometime in a couple of months. The old baggage cars are horrifying OSHA-noncompliance nightmares at this point and Amtrak doesn’t want any passengers walking into them.
    3 — The big news in the reauthorization bill is a mandate for Amtrak to have a “pet car” (where small dogs & cats in carriers are allowed) on every service shorter than 750 miles.

  9. That’s exactly what Amtrak is doing (raising the menu prices and losing coach passenger patronage). Amtrak is also cutting quality to the point where sleeper passengers — whose meals are included with their tickets — are starting to avoid the dining car food too. 😛

    Because of total lack of support for people with any allergies, I have to avoid the dining car food entirely already.

    Expect the dining cars to be gone in less than five years if this madness isn’t reversed. Some “long-distance” trains will do OK even with the loss of dining cars (the NY-Chicago and NY-Florida trains, for example). The trains which run through Republican-voting states such as Texas and Kansas will bleed riders and lose even more money than they already do, however.

  10. When you say “Most routes currently require passengers to disassemble bikes and transport them in a special box.” That’s not entirely accurate.

    You can’t bring a bike at all unless you have baggage service end to end and at both originating and terminating stations. I can box a bike and travel from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC, but I can’t even bring a bike if I’m only going to stop at Cumberland, MD. Alternatively, both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have checked baggage stations, but Amtrak doesn’t allow boxed bikes or checked baggage on the Pennsylvanian route, so I can’t take my bike there either.

    RORO service could allow bike access at intermediate stops, which would be a huge change from the current system and open up many more opportunities for traveling with bikes that were not feasible before.

    Another reason it’s important is that this is the most feasible long distance travel method that can allow bikes. Megabus doesn’t allow bikes, Airlines can charge $100 each way for transportation of a bike, and greyhound may allow bikes for a fee, but in practice this could also be painful on busy routes.

  11. In FY 2014, the NEC reported an operating profit of over $480 million. It does this by charging much higher fares than, say, in California.

    For example, the one-way fare for Los Angeles-San Diego (129 miles) ranges from $37 to $56. The one-way fare for Wilmington, DE to NYC (116 miles—13 fewer miles than LAX-SAN) ranges from $62 to $259.

    (Fares are for departures on Thursday March 12.)

  12. California already pays a significant sum to Amtrak for rail service in the state under the Amtrak California brand. The state even owns the trains used on routes like the Pacific Surfliner and Capitol Corridor.

  13. Some of those states (primarily conservative and more rural than the Northeast) may just respond by dropping Amtrak funding, limiting travel options for many and/or increasing car traffic and damage to the road network (which results in very expensive road maintenance costs or dilapidated roads if the roads aren’t fixed).

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