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Amtrak CEO Flynn sets company priorities for legislation

WASHINGTON —Amtrak CEO William Flynn has outlined his company’s “top five priorities that we ask Congress to address” in a letter sent to legislators last week. The letter, released by Amtrak, says those priorities are:

Emergency funding: $1.541 billion of COVID relief this year “to sustain and restore operations and recall employees” through September 30 and into the next fiscal year. The letter did not mention whether that amount would be sufficient to restore all long-distance trains to daily operation. In response to inquires by Trains News Wire, Amtrak officials have reiterated over the last several months that restoration of each route continues to depend on certain public health, future demand, and current ridership performance metrics, compared with pre-pandemic daily trains [see “Amtrak releases performance criteria for long-distance service,” Trains News Wire, Aug. 11, 2020]. Flynn says the company’s needs for fiscal 2022 will be outlined in a forthcoming Legislative and Grant Request, which typically is released after the President’s State of the Union Address.

Establishing an intercity passenger rail trust fund: “Congress must create a predictable source of federal funding, like a trust fund, for both the Northeast Corridor and National Network” so Amtrak “can pursue large, multi-year projects...and service expansion across the nation” instead of relying annual appropriations. The company has been hoping for inclusion in a trust fund since Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. began floating the idea in the 1980s of diverting an “Ampenny” out of every dollar of gas tax money raised by Highway Trust Fund. Sweeping new transportation legislation would be required that now, as then, would be challenged by well-funded highway and auto industry lobbyists.

Access for new service and more frequencies: Flynn’s letter says, “We are seeking support and updates to statute to ensure the Amtrak network can grow and serve more of your constituents,” but does not specify how host railroads would be compelled to approve passenger service expansion plans, even with federal and state financial support attached. Efforts of the Southern Rail Commission illustrate the problem. It was almost five years ago a commission-sponsored inspection train ran from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla., as a prelude to restoring service east of the Crescent City along the former route of the Sunset Limited. However, host railroads and their consultants have yet to set a price tag for infrastructure improvements they will require to allow two daily round trips between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.

Preference enforcement to counteract delays: Amtrak continues to demand the right to sue host railroads if passenger trains are subjected to extensive freight train interference, “when our [legal] preference right [over freight trains] is violated.” The letter does not mention the Federal Railroad Administration decision requiring Amtrak and its hosts to agree to schedules that deliver 80% of a train’s passengers at stations within 15 minutes of the published time [see “FRA publishes final rule setting Amtrak performance standards for host railroads,” News Wire, Nov. 16, 2020, and “Analysis: FRA seeks Amtrak, host railroad scheduling cooperation,”News Wire, Nov. 20, 2020]. The rulemaking attempts to sidestep quantifying delays, which was problematic when Amtrak tried to enforce previous on-time performance metrics in Surface Transportation Board filings against Norfolk Southern and Canadian National. Flynn’s letter indicates that despite the FRA rule, Amtrak does not want to give up on a legal remedy to penalize hosts for delays.

Facilitating new corridors: Pushing to develop state-supported routes “typically less than 500 miles,” Amtrak wants Congress to fund expansion in such corridors “by allowing us to cover most of the initial capital and operating costs of new or expanded routes” before state partners begin cost-sharing required under Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.” The idea is to defray expenses at startup while patronage develops, but preserve later state payments that the act requires. Throughout the company’s 50-year history, service ended when state funding dried up; this happened most recently when Indiana declined to keep the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State running.

This week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Democrats and Republicans announced their new committee and subcommittee members, many who have Amtrak trains serving their rural and urban districts. Now leading the Rail Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr., (D-N.J.), while Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) continues as the Ranking Member. Any Amtrak legislative changes will go through this subcommittee. And the Senate Commerce Committee, under Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) will likely be hearing presidential nominations to Amtrak’s Board of Directors in the coming months.

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