Senators are paying attention to Amtrak’s national network, but is it enough?

August 02, 2018
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Recently, Amtrak quietly suggested it may suspend train service over the Raton Pass portion of its Southwest Chief route and replace it with a bus, citing concerns about track maintenance costs. Local officials and their federal representatives immediately geared up for battle. A bipartisan group of senators began by sending a letter to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson. Now, these senators have passed a FY2019 appropriations bill with an amendment that requires Amtrak to dedicate $50 million of its existing appropriation to the Raton Pass route.

The other battle underway now is about station staffing. Amtrak removed ticket agents from a number of stations this year, reasoning that the majority of passengers are now purchasing tickets online, by app, or by phone. However, these ticket agents were the lone staff person at these stations and provided other helpful services, including answering questions and directing passengers during boarding.

In response to the de-staffing of the Charleston, WV station, Senator Joe Manchin proposed an amendment that would require Amtrak to have at least one staffed station in each state. A new amendment from two Ohio senators would require a ticket agent in any station with at least 25 passengers per day, on average. (Amtrak’s current threshold for station staffing is a minimum of 40 passengers per day.) Neither of these amendments come with any additional funding.

It’s encouraging to see senators paying attention to Amtrak, and more should be engaged in improving or bringing train service to their communities. But, elected officials should not only be asking themselves what they can do to maintain train service. Rather, they should ask what they can do to improve it.

For the Southwest Chief and the Amtrak national network as a whole, $50 million is a drop in the bucket. It will allow for maintaining the status quo, but not running more trains, or buying desperately needed modern train equipment.

With the mini-crisis that was created by throwing the route’s future in question, why not identify new funding? An additional $50, or $500 million? Then you could make improvements to other routes, or start to pay for that new, modern train equipment that allows more frequent service. (Adding more trains is the best way to get a better return on necessary investments in infrastructure. For the Southwest Chief’s Raton Pass route, the maintenance cost is largely the same whether there’s one train a day or several.) Or, you could invest in improvements to stations and restore some of those lost ticket agents.

Perhaps the reason Amtrak isn't getting an additional $500 million or even $5 billion is because it isn’t making its needs clear. Amtrak isn’t being bold enough in its appeals to Congress. Before elected officials can do their part to improve train service for their constituents, Amtrak needs to lay out what it needs to "do it right." That means asking for more than what it needs to maintain the minimal national network it operates today. It needs to present a vision for a more complete network with more frequent trains and modern equipment, because we need this network as a base to build high-speed rail upon.

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