Key Takeaways from the Senate Hearing on Amtrak
October 22, 2020
Yesterday the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing titled Passenger and Freight Rail: The Current Status of the Rail Network and the Track Ahead, that looked at how cuts to Amtrak service are affecting communities across the U.S., and the path to restoring this service once we finally bring Coronavirus under control.
There’s plenty of worthwhile information that came out, and we recommend you take the time to watch the full archived video of the hearing. However, our staff has highlighted the key exchanges between senators and the panel, featuring Amtrak President and CEO William Flynn and member of the Montana Economic Developers Association Paul Tuss.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA): “Our two long distance Amtrak lines, Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder, serve 15 communities, the majority of them small and rural communities. And in some areas, Amtrak is the only means of public transportation providing a direct line for economic success in rural communities and across the state. And I know our colleague Senator Tester, and I see our other colleague here, Senator Daines, that Mr. Tuss is going to testify from Montana—Well I remember being in Glacier National Park in the—I’m a big outdoor person, and definitely sitting there in our National Park hotel there and all of a sudden, here comes all these people. And I'm like, ‘where are these people coming from? Oh, they just got off Amtrak.’ So, if you don't have Amtrak service to Glacier National Park, you're going to have a problem.”
Our take: In her opening statement, Sen. Cantwell established the stakes -- these trains are economic lifelines to hundreds of small towns and rural communities.
It’s no coincidence that this is the same message our staff and our members have been delivering to Congress for the last six months. It turns out, if you spend the summer delivering almost 15,000 messages to hundreds of Senators and Representatives, the message sticks!
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT): In Montana, the Empire Builder is essential to the local economy. Providing folks along the highland the only access to the National transportation Network. Like Paul, I'm deeply concerned about the impact of Amtrak's reductions of staff and service will have across this network. I led a bipartisan effort opposing those reductions in June which included a Democrat member of this committee and we had strong support from both labor unions and passenger associations. I also filed an amendment to prohibit those reductions. As I noted in a letter to Senate leadership just last month daily service on the Empire Builder is essential to providing Montanans access to healthcare and is critical to our local economy as Senator Cantwell articulated bringing thousands each year to visit our communities, our pristine wilderness, and our national parks.
Our take: Sen. Daines is referencing the bipartisan letter to Amtrak from Senators Daines (R-MT), Udall (D-NM), Heinrich (D-NM), Bennet (D-CO), Cramer (R-ND), Braun (R-IN), and Hoeven (R-ND) that we helped spearhead. He also references an amendment filed by his office that we helped support (Majority Leader McConnell never brought the amendment to the floor for a vote).
Rail Passengers and our members have worked to develop a truly bipartisan coalition in support of the National Network -- an even more impressive feat in the face of the increased partisan rancor of this year’s presidential election.
Tuss: “In 2019, the twelve Amtrak stations in Montana served 121,429 passengers, who either boarded or disembarked on the Empire Builder. This level of activity is significant, especially for a rural state. According to the Rail Passengers Association, the Empire Builder contributes an estimated $327 million to the economies of the states in which it operates, and the federal government pays approximately $57 million a year to keep it running. This $270 million net positive is a return on investment that is noteworthy, significant and clearly validates the federal government’s investment in this route.”
Our take: We were quite pleased to see the work done by our staff and volunteers get this sort of recognition at the highest level, and it goes to show that our message is resonating both with local and national leaders.
Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS): “I was glad to hear you say these cutbacks, the kind that Mr. Tuss spoke about, and the ones that we are concerned about with our two long-distance routes in Mississippi are not permanent. I just want to give you an opportunity to reiterate that and to make sure I understood you correctly: what has been done in recent months and recent days is strictly temporary based on the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Flynn: “Yes, Senator, I want to be very clear on that and I mentioned that in my oral remarks here just a moment ago. We at Amtrak, the management team and our board of directors, are very clear that these are temporary reductions and we want to restore them to 7 days a week service. We are in the business of carrying passengers and it's obviously very important to all of us that we are able to do that.”
Our take: Chairman Wicker established what would become a drumbeat throughout the hearing: the Senate has clear and unambiguous expectations that daily service will be restored as soon as the infection rate drops.
Mr. Flynn responded in an equally clear and unambiguous fashion: he and the Amtrak Board understand Congress directives on this matter, and will act accordingly.
Senator Jon Tester (D-MT): “We can talk about how Amtrak is truly a gateway to [Montana] and brings in families, business, tourism. From your perspective, as an economic developer in North Central Montana, do you expect the cuts to Amtrak to have an economic impact in a place like Havre and how significant do you think that's going to be?”
Tuss: “Senator, thank you for that question. Having served as an economic developer here on Hi-Line as you mentioned along the Empire Builder for the last 25 years, I know personally how significant it is to Montana's economy. I think it's going to have a significant and detrimental impact. Our folks are just not going to be able to use Amtrak as they have in the past and once that service becomes less reliable it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that they're not going to use it. If they can't go see their grandkids or their great-grandkids, or if they can't get to Seattle for a doctor's appointments they will find some other way to get there and unfortunately the numbers for Amtrak are going to slide further.”
Tester: “Let's talk about that for a second. In your experience with economic development, as people move to other modes of transportation they tend to stay with the mode they moved to. In other words if Amtrak doesn't have the service, they can't depend upon that service to get them to where they need to go. They will either go to airplanes, or buses, or cars and for them to come back is a heavy lift.”
Tuss: “Senator, I believe that to be true. Absolutely.”
Our take: Again, these are the very points our staff and our members have worked for years to educate policymakers at all levels about. While none of us could have predicted that we’d need them to battle service cuts induced by a pandemic, it’s a testament to the work of our coalition that these facts are understood from the Northern Great Plains of Montana to the halls of power in Washington.
Sen. Tester: “So, Mr Flynn, I want to give you an opportunity here to talk about the money, because you talked about reestablishing the routes. How important is additional dollars, through any sort of covid package we might pass here in Congress, dedicated to Amtrak? How important is that to reestablishing these routes?”
Flynn: “It's very significant, Senator, it's essentially the situation we're in as I talked about; we have very low level of funding, we have a cash burn right now of about $250 million a month, and absent additional funding to support long distance services -- I know there's been discussions about the employees that have been furloughed and bringing them back -- but it's going to be very difficult for us to do that.”
Our take: In one of the day’s biggest disappointments, Mr. Flynn declined to take full advantage of the opportunity offered by Sen. Tester’s question.
Senate inaction in the face of the pandemic has pushed many U.S. industries to brink, including passenger rail, transit and aviation. While we appreciate keeping a cool head in a crisis, there is also value in being blunt about the potential for the catastrophic collapse of critical U.S. infrastructure.
It is clear that Rail Passengers will have to take the lead in creating a sense of urgency about the dire consequences that face this country if we do not take action in response to this crisis.
Sen. Cantwell: "The reason I'm bringing this up [how long it takes to fly over the state of Montana] is because this cohesive region, as Mr Tuss was mentioning, is also a healthcare delivery system. There aren't flights, there aren't to these rural communities enough flights, and yet the region has to cohesively operate economically, for healthcare, for tourism - all of these issues that allow us to have an agriculture footprint, to be obviously a home to many of the things Mr Tuss mentioned."
Our take: The Ranking Member is (perhaps unwittingly) is referencing a white paper spearheaded by former Rail Passengers Board Member Jim Loomis. Titled National Network Trains - A Medical Lifeline, we gathered stories from users of the national network who depend upon Amtrak to connect to health care services. It’s yet another example of our association ensuring that passengers’ voices -- your voice -- is being heard in Washington.
Sen. Cantwell: “Are you saying that you will make a decision, in February of next year, and that'll be the final decision for the entire next year on whether the service that was just cut is going to be restored because of it is then you're going to base it on some ridership while still in the middle of pandemic. That seems like a pretty hefty penalty to pay for those communities not to have that additional service.”
Flynn: “We're going to evaluate the services, when we do, on an ongoing basis. We pointed to February for a June startup because as we go to recover it's probably a 90-day period of time. If we made it in December…”
Cantwell: “That wouldn't be the final decision you make February”
Flynn: “That wouldn't be a final, forever decision. I'm sorry I didn't answer you clearly”
Cantwell: “I just want to be clear, if you make some decision in February it's not going to be for an entire year.”
Flynn: “It is not our intention, Senator.”
Our take: While our staff has heard this from Amtrak, this is the first confirmation in a public venue that the decision to restore service will be based upon a rolling evaluation.
While this is not as good as simply establishing a fixed date of return for daily service -- the policy Rail Passengers is advocating for -- it is a positive sign that a region that is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak in February won’t be punished with 3x service for the entirety of 2021.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS): “Chairman, thank you. It's nice to team-up with the Gulf and the Pacific West on a topic of importance to all of us. Mr. Flynn, thank you for being here and for your leadership at Amtrak. Let me begin by asking a basic question: what is the obligation of Amtrak to provide long-distance passenger rail service in America?”
Flynn: “Amtrak is the intercity passenger rail company in the United States. We have two core elements of our Network that are established by the FAST Act: the Northeast corridor and our national network. And long-distance services are an essential part of the national network.”
Moran: “So is it fair to say -- don't want to put words in your mouth because I expect you to agree with me, but I'd like to know -- it's a priority, it's an obligation, it's a requirement that long distance passenger rail service be provided in this country by Amtrak?”
Flynn: “Yes, sir.”
Our take: It’s no surprise that Sen. Moran -- recipient of our Golden Spike Award -- came out with guns blazing in the defense of the National Network. With a strong opening line of inquiry, the Senator from Kansas won an unambiguous recognition of the essential nature of the National Network and the statutory requirement to run the routes as defined by Congress.
Sen. Moran: Your indication is that because that obligation is so real that it exists that should things continue to be dire, in regard to passenger ridership, Amtrak would take additional steps to keep passenger rail service, long distance running. But they're not good options -- but there are options that you, because of the obligation, would have to pursue.
Flynn: There aren't any really good options. Thank you, Senator, there aren't any good options
Moran: ...Well you mentioned capital improvements
Flynn: Some of the funds that we have are specifically directed to certain capital projects, so in terms of our cash balance we don't have freedom to put the cash balance anywhere we want because there's direction that exists.
Moran: And maybe the point you were making that you would need Congress to authorize that transfer of money from capital improvements to maintaining long distance passenger service.
Flynn: ...I wouldn't recommend it though. Congress may direct it, but it's not something we would recommend.
Our take: This is the most explicit argument Amtrak has made that they would need a Congressional directive to transfer funds from its capital accounts for the purposes of funding day-to-day operations. Flynn appears to be referencing the Administrative Procedures Act (for those interested in an explanation of this law, Georgetown’s GIA provides a good walkthrough).
All things being equal, we agree with the argument Mr. Flynn is making: Amtrak shouldn’t have to rob Peter to pay Paul. That is why we have worked tirelessly to support the many funding bills that have passed the U.S. House. These bills would not only preserve daily service, but fund new equipment for the National Network and accelerate infrastructure upgrades along the NEC, the Midwest, and the South. We hope the bipartisan expression of support for passenger rail in this hearing translates to meaningful action in the Senate.
Sen. Moran: Mr. Chairman, I'll wrap up with two things. I would ask for consent that the study by the Rail Passengers Association and Transportation for America regarding the consequences to community economics be admitted to the record.
Wicker: Without objection
Moran: And finally Mr. Chairman, I would indicate to Mr. Flynn -- I appreciate what he had to say today -- part of the skepticism that occurs at least with me and maybe my colleagues is that previous CEOs of Amtrak were less committed to long-distance passenger service. That's not that long ago, and so when the 'three-day' arrives, it raises concerns that this is another circumstance in which we're just being played -- that this is the continuing efforts to eliminate or diminish long-distance service. Part of that comes from the Southwest Chief and a desire by one of your predecessors, at least the suggestion, that we replace a significant number of train miles with bus service. It just sends signals that there's not a commitment at Amtrak. I don't have that feeling with you, and I appreciate that.
Flynn: Thank you, Senator and I’ll just state and I touched on this earlier, our Board of Directors also asked me to convey very clearly to the committee their commitment as well in their direction to me.
Our take: Sen. Moran is no doubt speaking for many passengers who have had their trust in the good intentions of Amtrak’s management completely stripped away by the actions of former-CEO Richard Anderson and the Southwest Chief saga.
While Mr. Flynn’s words may not be enough to restore that trust, the fact that elected officials like Sen. Moran are minding the store gives us confidence that the pressure will continue. Sen. Moran also ensured that the results of our economic-impact study will be included in the record.
Udall: It is always good to hear you Mr. Chairman, and also to hear Senator Moran talk about capital improvements on Amtrak, and to hear Senator Moran's tough questions of Mr. Flynn. Identifying the fact that there is a very strong bipartisan group who is interested in seeing this passenger rail continue, I would associate myself with Senator Moran's comments regarding Amtrak and the possible threats to its existence. As many of you are aware, the Southwest Chief is vitally important to many of the Senators on this dais and to the communities we represent. I am grateful for the work of my friends on this committee and others. A bipartisan coalition of senators proves that we can work together on the issues of issues of common interest to our constituents.
Our take: In what will be one of his final hearings before his retirement at the end of the year, Sen. Udall beautifully captures a sentiment that has become depressingly rare in the U.S. We highlight this passage for our readers, and the hope that the next generation of elected officials arriving in Washington in a few months take note.
Markey: I wrote to Amtrak, it was right after Amtrak introduced new change and cancellation fees for it's two most affordable class of tickets. We expressed concern that this decision reflected a disturbing move towards the same kind of anti-consumer business practices that are all too common in the airline industry. Where unfair fees have historically been sky-high. Although Amtrak, like the airlines, subsequently waived these fees during the pandemic I believe that a temporary waiver is insufficient. Instead, Amtrak should actually take another more recent page from the airline playbook -- and I don't say that often -- but by permanently eliminating change fees I'm proud that an increasing number of airlines including Delta, United, and American are finally listening to my advocacy against these fees. These airlines have begun to recognize that eliminating change fees is a pro consumer policy, and that helps travelers and businesses. It generates goodwill, it increases booking by giving consumers the flexibility they need to feel confident buying tickets. So Mr. Flynn, I ask you now will you commit to permanently eliminating all of Amtrak's change fees?
Flynn: Thank you, senator, we certainly did temporarily suspend the change fee. That's something that we are considering to make permanent and evaluating now. We haven't reached that decision. I would just offer that overall and more broadly our terms and conditions and fee structure for our riders for our customers are much more generous, much more forgiving than what we've seen in the rail industry, but your point is taken and that's something that we will evaluate.
Markey: People don't know when it will be safe to travel again, so eliminating change fees should increase your bookings by allowing consumers to buy tickets worry-free. I would recommend that to you. It's a pro-consumer policy that even the airlines now recognize as good for business.
Our take: All we can say to this is: hear hear!
"The Rail Passenger Association's recognition of the essential work done by SMART-TD members aboard Amtrak during this difficult period is appreciated. The Golden Spike Award serves as a testament to the compassion and dedication our conductors, assistant conductors and other workers exhibit constantly through times both ordinary and extraordinary."
Jeremy Ferguson, SMART-TD President
December 21, 2021, on the Association awarding its 2021 Golden Spike Award to the Frontline Amtrak Employees.