Happening Now

Cantwell Is Right: No More Messing Around

October 6, 2022

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

A few developments in recent weeks make it hard not to wonder if Amtrak only read the Cliffs’ Notes version of last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Alongside all of you, your Association’s staff worked tirelessly to get important reforms into the Law, reforms designed to make Amtrak more responsive to the traveling public and to the needs of the taxpayers who pay each year to keep Amtrak alive. And yet, at least from where I sit, a few important reforms would seem to be taking a back seat to internal priorities.

Under the heading “Amtrak Reforms,” Section 22201 replaces Amtrak’s ambiguous profit goals with this paragraph: “Use its best business judgment in acting to maximize the benefits of Federal investments, including – (A) offering competitive fares; (B) increasing revenue from the transportation of mail and express; (C) offering food service that meets the needs of its customers; (D) improving its contracts with rail carriers over whose track Amtrak operates; (E) controlling or reducing management and operating costs; and (F) providing economic benefits to the communities it serves.”

I encourage you to read that paragraph closely. Did you find any references to profit? I didn’t. I certainly saw explicit language about competitive fares, decent food, controlling management costs and fulfilling its role of supporting economic development in the communities it serves. But not even a hint of “profit” anymore.

Our friends at Trains In The Valley in Massachusetts went through the trouble to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the minutes of Amtrak’s Board meetings. I’ve been perusing the May 2022 minutes for a few days now, and this one jumped out at me: Amtrak President Roger Harris “also reported that Long Distance service is above plan for revenue because sleeper pricing is more than 50% higher than pre-covid.”

It sure is. Any sticker-shocked passenger in a sleeper this year might be surprised to read that Congress last year rewrote Amtrak’s mission to focus on competitive fares and taking care of served communities. Today it costs almost twice as much to travel three days between Chicago and San Francisco (OK, Emeryville, but work with me here) in a Roomette as a five-night Caribbean cruise from Miami to Bimini and back: $1,052 to Amtrak or $577.50 on Virgin Voyages with five dinners, five breakfasts, five lunches, all tips, and all aboard a gleaming new ship.

Most of you who know me know how much I hate it when people compare an Amtrak trip to a cruise sailing, but in this instance the comparison is both legitimate and sobering. Congress has made significant investments in Amtrak, including long-distance services. They did not do this to create a luxury cruise line for vacationers but to support essential transportation in areas where private industry cannot profitably provide it. That’s why during the depths of the Covid pandemic Congress rescued both the airlines AND Amtrak – coughing up $3.7 billion in emergency supplemental funding for Amtrak as well as topping up appropriations. Congress said the idea was to “sustain operations and the workforce in order to continue to provide critical intercity transportation services.”

So today because Grandma is too frail to fly and can’t bring her wheelchair and supplemental oxygen, she’s going to pay 50% more for a Roomette than she did before the pandemic. “Competitive fares” doesn’t really describe it.

And sure, she can get a roundtrip coach seat for less than $300 if she plans right. But that’s 52 hours in a seat each way, and all summer long we’ve seen on-time performance scrape the bottom of the barrel (mostly the host railroads’ fault, to be fair). And Amtrak can’t blame hosts for passengers inexplicably booted from sleeper rooms to coach, trains cancelled or annulled with little notice, and basic amenities like observation cars pulled from long-distance trains like the Texas Eagle. None of this is what we fought for years to achieve, and it certainly wasn’t what Congress had in mind when it wrote the rail title in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

We agree with Senate Commerce Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell: no more messing around. We’re past the point where Amtrak can excuse not having enough conductors, baggage handlers, and maintenance crews to run its trains properly, at any fare.