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RPA Begins Preparing for Long-Distance Study
January 6, 2023 by Jim Mathews

The Federal Railroad Administration has started scheduling its first round of workshops around the country to begin hashing out how best to restore previous long-distance services and possibly how to launch new ones...and I’ve already RSVP’d ‘yes’ to the first three.

Under Section 22214 of the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (now known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) FRA is required to “evaluate the restoration of daily intercity rail passenger service along any Amtrak long-distance routes that have been discontinued, and any Amtrak long-distance routes that, as of the date of enactment of this Act, occur on a nondaily basis.”

Since President Biden signed the new law in November of 2021, FRA has been working hard to develop a study process that involves not only the obvious participants – Amtrak and the Class Is on whose territories any service will operate – but also local elected and appointed officials, departments of transportation, planning agencies, and “stakeholder groups” like ours to ensure that the Voice of the Passenger is heard loud and clear.

Everyone is now on a tight timeline. The study has to be finished in time to report to Congress by this Fall. And that’s why I’ll be spending a lot of January and February rolling up my sleeves with our colleagues in at least five different regions of the country, making the case for new or expanded long-distance service with data, facts, and hard evidence. Most of the data-driven workshops will have to be wrapped up by late Summer or early Fall if the report is to be on time. And that means a lot of work will get done very quickly!

Section 22214 began as our attempt to persuade Sen. Joe Manchin to help us write in a requirement to restore Amtrak’s Cardinal to daily service from today’s anemic three days per week schedule. You can read more detail about how that came to be at this link. But ever since those conversations started in 2020, everyone involved recognized that we can – and should – do better than that. “Routes that...occur on a nondaily basis” expanded the study’s scope to include the Sunset Limited.

But it gets even better. A generous reading of the legislation allows examination of any number of long-distance routes which could make our network better. And FRA has committed to doing just that. Read what they’ve said below:

“In evaluating intercity passenger rail routes, FRA may evaluate potential new Amtrak long-distance routes, including with specific attention provided to routes in service as of April 1971 but not continued by Amtrak, taking into consideration whether those new routes would...link and serve large and small communities as part of a regional rail network; advance the economic and social well-being of rural areas of the United States; provide enhanced connectivity for the national long-distance passenger rail system; and reflect public engagement and local and regional support for restored passenger rail service.”

The Association’s professional staff has been working very closely with congressional staffs and with FRA staff to make this a reality. One FRA staffer early on in the process ruefully acknowledged to me that the last time FRA did a study it was the Mercer evaluation that led to cutting service rather than expanding it or making it better; their pledge to me last year was that this time around FRA hopes to make amends by finding ways to expand the network rather than shrink it.

That’s encouraging stuff. Together with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Section 22210, “Protecting Amtrak Routes through Rural Communities,” it’s clear that Congress has every intention of keeping Amtrak’s long-distance trains going for the long-haul.

The study team has set up its own website at this link, where you can keep tabs on progress and sign up for their email list. I’d urge every member, supporter, and rail advocate to do so. And of course we’ll be sure to keep everyone up to speed in the Hotline, on our website, and through our social-media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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