Commentary

Amtrak’s Current Situation

With the failure on September 10th in the Senate to pass a “skinny” stimulus package, the outlook for any stimulus legislation is bleak.  The stimulus legislation, as passed by the House, was the vehicle that was to be used to deliver a supplemental appropriation to keep daily service, state funded corridor routes, commuter rail and transit operating as the new fiscal year began.  It also contained a mandate and funding for daily long-distance service.


So what is next?  A must pass is a continuing resolution to keep the Federal government in operation starting October 1st.  No one in Congress wants a shutdown just before an election, risk for both parties is too high.  The thrust right now is for a “clean” continuing resolution that continues the FY20 appropriation levels with no changes.  That said there are at least two must pass add-ons, a continuation of Federal flood insurance (it is hurricane season) and a reauthorization of the highway bill so that the Federal gas tax can continue to be collected.  Given the broad based threat to transportation – airlines, Amtrak, commuter rail and transit – could there also be a broader transportation add-on?  That is an unknown and, except among transportation advocates, no discussion as of yet.  


Some things we do know is that the shutdowns and layoffs will be very visible and cutting transportation is not the best strategy to stabilize the economy.  So this will not come quietly.Without additional funding there will be substantial layoffs in the airline industry along with a reduction in service to smaller communities.   With lower revenues and without supplemental funding Amtrak will, with a cash burn of $250 million a month, be headed toward bankruptcy.  Capital and non-safety maintenance spending will be slashed with perhaps the closure of the shops at Bear, DE and Beech Grove.  Nothing will be fixed, the fleet will be “consumed” to maintain service.   Once a week service (or once a month) on long-distance routes may be standard.  Keeping some service is preferred since labor protection payments apply if a service is totally discontinued but don’t if some service is retained.  Without funding to back-fill the states for payments to Amtrak for state funded trains, expect the termination of many state funded routes.  Without funding for commuter rail and transit, expect a substantial reduction in service by these providers. 


Finally, on August 24th Amtrak submitted a revised request for FY21 Supplemental spending and outlined spending opportunities if there is a stimulus package that goes beyond just stabilizing FY21 operations (click here to download pdf).  Amtrak’s revised FY21 Supplemental request keeps all long-distance trains daily and eliminates layoffs.  Please note the chart on page two is in two parts.  The top part totaling $4.88 billion is the supplemental request to stabilize FY21 operations.  The second lower part is an overview of projects Amtrak could fund as part of an economic recovery proposal.  Note that it includes funding for the replacement of the Superliners. 


What to do now?  Email your Senators and Representatives and ask for funding to stabilize Amtrak FY21 operations and maintain daily long-distance service.

The next two weeks are critical in getting funding for intercity, commuter and transit either in a Continuing Resolution or attached to the FASTACT extension (needed to extend the gas tax).  It is critical that RailPAC’s members and followers contact their Senators and Representatives directly or via:
https://www.votervoice.net/NARPRAIL/campaigns/77006/respond

https://www.commoncause.org/find-your-representative/


Steve Roberts, President Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada.

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