[Updated with comments from Ranking Member Graves.]
At a hearing held today by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, rail operators from across the nation spoke of the opportunities and challenges they face in leveraging $66 billion in guaranteed federal funding from the bipartisan Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act to expand and upgrade the U.S. passenger rail network. Witnesses also talked about the ongoing challenges of running sprawling transportation companies during a pandemic.
Amtrak President Stephen Gardner offered the clearest timeline yet for potential service interruptions flowing from workforce disruptions. These include retirements, management-mandated furloughs, separation payments executed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as resignations resulting from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Importantly, Gardner sketched out a timeline for service restorations in addition to when passengers will be informed of schedule changes:
- “[Amtrak is] currently determining what service reductions will be necessary and intend to communicate them publicly by next week in order to ensure that we can rebook customers to the remaining frequencies we feel confident we can fully staff.”
- Amtrak projects that, if disruptions were to take place, full service will be restored in March 2022, or “as soon as we have qualified employees available.”
The announcement drew the displeasure of the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), who pointed out the irony of cutting service immediately in the wake of passing a bill $66 billion in guaranteed funding over five years for passenger rail. "Taxpayers will be paying more money for less service.”
Rail Passengers has been covering this story since October, so many of the underlying details will be familiar to our supporters. However, today was the most public venue in which a top Amtrak official has offered this level of detail about the operational mechanics driving potential disruptions, and why those impacts will be unevenly felt across the network:
“This impact is primarily felt across our long-distance services because of the relatively small crew bases at intermediate points along multi-day long-distance routes where conductors and engineers report to work. At some of these crew bases across our network, we have a relatively high percentage of unvaccinated employees. If those employees chose to not get vaccinated by the deadline, we will not have sufficient trained staff to support current service frequency on affected routes, as engineers and conductors must undergo extensive training both when hired or promoted and to become qualified on the characteristics of each route on which they work. We are currently determining what service reductions will be necessary and intend to communicate them publicly by next week in order to ensure that we can rebook customers to the remaining frequencies we feel confident we can fully staff. Our goal, of course, will be to have as few impacts to service as possible as we take these vital public health steps to help end the COVID-19 pandemic and reduce the spread of the new Omicron variant, and we will be prepared to reinstate frequencies as soon as the number of available employees permits.”
In a statement filed for the record, Rail Passengers outlined our original concerns with Amtrak management’s decisions to implement furloughs and voluntary separations in spite of the likelihood of federal aid packages, and the need to fully return service in a smooth and timely fashion:
In 2020, Rail Passengers warned Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, and members of Congress that the railroad was making a mistake with decisions to furlough employees and temporarily mothball rolling stock, cautioning that dismantling the people and equipment needed to recover to normal service levels would be a real problem when it was time to resume operation.
With that being said, we do wish to recognize the concrete steps Amtrak has taken to avoid any disruptions to service. This includes extending the deadline for vaccinations to Jan. 4, giving the company time to educate workers on the vaccination process and preventing disruptions during the critical holiday travel period. As of the last public communication, Amtrak stated that 94 percent of employees that it expects to be available for service in December had gotten at least one vaccine shot.
Regardless of how we arrived at this point, an extended disruption of Amtrak service on corridors affecting hundreds of communities, mere weeks after the passage of the IIJA, would surely undermine public confidence in these promising new passenger rail programs. We hope Amtrak will be able to avoid any disruptions to service. If cuts do take place, Congress must leverage its oversight powers and the FY22 appropriations bill to ensure that any such disruptions are brief.
Uncertain Impact of Recent Decision by U.S. District Court
The timeline presented by Amtrak at today’s hearing may be thrown into doubt by news that a nationwide stay of President Joe Biden’s Executive Order mandating federal contractors to require their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine, issued by U.S. District Court judge in Georgia.
“The Executive Order applies to millions of federal contractors, including some freight railroads, Amtrak, defense companies and airlines,” reported Railway Age today. “Amtrak, BNSF, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific are among those requiring employees to be vaccinated, and have been in court battles with unions over implementation.”
Opportunities for Growth of the Rail Network Abound
There was also plenty of positive, forward-looking proposals discussed at today’s hearing. When asked by Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) where Amtrak sees near-term opportunities to add service in the near-term, Gardner pointed to several long-time goals of our association, including a Heartland Flyer extension north to Wichita and Newton, Colorado's Front Range, a second daily train between the Twin Cities and Chicao, and the Baton Rouge – New Orleans corridor.
Additionally, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) asked a series of pointed questions about the problem of freight trains interfering with Amtrak trains, causing persistent delays for passengers, as well as the need for Class I railroads to be transparent in granting access to Amtrak trains on new corridors. Knox Ross, the Mississippi Commissioner and Chair of the Southern Rail Commission, provided a persuasive response: freights need to follow the law in granting Amtrak passengers priority dispatching; and while it’s important to respect proprietary information, there’s a clear distinction between private financial data and things that anybody with time on their hands can go discover with their own eyes, such as the number of trains that utilize a specific corridor.
Rail Passengers is pleased to see congressional attention focused on these issues, and Ross’ argument aligns with comments made in our statement for the record:
It is self-evident that the success of the IIJA outside of the Northeast Corridor (NEC)—that is to say, whether it will result in meaningful expansion of the number of Americans who ride passenger trains every year—hinges on the ability of the federal government, states, Amtrak, and regional rail authorities to collaborate successfully with the owners of existing rail rights of way.
Rail Passengers is encouraged by the experiences of rail entities like the Los Angeles – San Diego – San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor Agency, which has utilized coordinated cap-ex planning, service enhancement agreements, and collaborative structures such as the LOSSAN Working Group to forge a productive and sustainable partnership. We encourage the FRA, states, Amtrak and other Class Is to look to this partnership as a model. It is important that transportation officials identify the requisite characteristics of a mutually beneficial relationship between passenger rail carriers and host railroads—e.g., minimum levels of passenger train service, freight throughput, existing infrastructure, political engagement, etc.—to understand where this partnership can be readily replicated and where that replication will be more difficult.
However, Rail Passengers remains concerned about the unreasonably high levels of freight train interference affecting Amtrak passengers. Too many of Amtrak’s State-supported routes have On-Time Performance (OTP) hovering at 70 percent, with OTP for routes like the Cascades and Pennsylvanianat 64 percent and 68 percent, respectively. Long-distance passengers have it worse, with trains on-time only 51 percent of the time. Poor service from many host railroads has caused chronic and excessive delays for millions of riders who rely on the Amtrak system, and they threaten the long-term viability of the service in dozens of states. America’s passengers are asking Congress to hold host railroads accountable for freight train interference, and we ask that this subcommittee works with the FRA to ensure the Metrics and Minimum Standards for Intercity Passenger Rail Service enacted last year are used vigorously to protect the rights of passengers to on-time trains.
Rail Passengers has also been actively taking part in the dispute between Amtrak and CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway that is currently being mediated by the Surface Transportation Board (STB). Our organization filed a letter in May 2021 in support of Amtrak’s petition for an interim order compelling CSX and Norfolk Southern to permit Amtrak timely and sufficient access to facilities and data to move forward with the preparations needed to restore passenger rail service between New Orleans, LA and Mobile, AL in early 2022 (the STB recently ordered CSX to let Amtrak survey its Choctaw Yard in Mobile, so that Amtrak may determine the feasibility of rebuilding the West Stub Track, previously used to layover passenger trains, until the planned Mobile station is completed). We believe that the overriding principle in this instance is Amtrak’s legal right to access freight railroad tracks for a fair and reasonable cost. CSX has said it will take $2 billion to accommodate a single train every 12 hours; that is not reasonable, and it is not fair.
There is a larger concern at play, centered on the potential precedent this behavior sets for future passenger rail expansion elsewhere in the U.S. If a freight railroad can operate in bad faith to draw out the process to restore passenger train service along a single corridor for longer than a decade, as has happened with the Gulf Coast, there is little hope for new passenger rail projects anywhere in the U.S.
We encourage Congress to engage with host railroads and the STB to ensure that congressional intent in the IIJA is not being thwarted by obstructionist tactics.