What a Gov't Shutdown Means for Passengers
September 28, 2023
A message from your Rail Passengers team in Washington, D.C.:
As the likelihood of a government shutdown climbs, many of our members have been asking what it would mean for trains and transit (an especially relevant question for people taking the train to RailNation: Meridian on October 7th and 8th!).
What it Means for Amtrak and Intercity Rail
The simple answer: your Amtrak trip won’t be affected by the government shutdown. As we’ve seen during previous government shutdowns, Amtrak has enough cash on hand to keep the trains running and workers paid in the near term.
The full answer: it depends on how long the government shutdown goes on. Amtrak can’t operate indefinitely without receiving payments to its operations account for the Northeast Corridor and National Network. Based on prior experience, it is very unlikely that the shutdown will last long enough to affect Amtrak’s day-to-day operations.
However, the USDOT has warned that grantmaking and rulemaking work will halt across its entire transportation portfolio. Given the robust ecosystem of passenger rail programs created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, delays could be costly. At-risk programs include:
- Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail – Northeast Corridor project selections (Sep/Oct);
- The inaugural Corridor Identification Program selections (Sep/Oct);
- Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail – National Network project selections (Nov/Dec);
- Interstate Rail Compacts selections (Nov/Dec); and
- Final route selection for the FRA’s Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study (Winter 2024).
What it Means for Transit
Like Amtrak, transit systems will have enough cash on hand to keep trains and busses moving. However, given the financial cliff faced by many transit agencies across the U.S., the financial cushion may well be slimmer, depending on where you live.
As with intercity rail, the more likely cost of a shutdown would come in delaying important work to advance projects to enhance and expand transit service.
What it Means for U.S. Transportation, Generally
The biggest near-term impact of a shutdown will be felt in the aviation industry, which depends heavily on the government to coordinate flight operations and oversee airport security. The effects of the shutdown will be compounded by the simultaneous expiration of the law that authorizes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate and collect ticket taxes. And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, the FAA is forecasting the busiest air travel day of the year on Thursday, October 5th, with 54,204 scheduled flights
In the near term, the people who will bear the brunt of this will be aviation and airport workers -- 13,000 air traffic controllers and 50,000 TSA baggage screeners would be forced to work without pay. An extended shutdown would undoubtedly lead to staffing shortages, cancelled flights, and longer airport security lines.
However, even a short shutdown could have a long tail for air travelers. The USDOT stated that 1,000 air traffic controllers currently undergoing on-the-job training at centers nationwide would be furloughed during a government shutdown; even a shutdown of “a few days” will mean the FAA won’t be able to meet hiring goals for 2024.
Based on prior government shutdowns, it is unlikely that this shutdown will last long enough to negatively impact rail passengers.
However, the short-term fix Congress is currently considering only runs through November 17th, which means we could be back in this same spot in less than two months.
The simple fact is, until Congress confronts this annual dysfunction and returns to normal order—built upon a foundation of bipartisan compromise—our infrastructure programs will be forced to limp along. That means longer project delivery times and higher costs.
We should also be clear about the main culprit: House Republicans. While the U.S. Senate has its problems, it has also managed to maintain a functional level of bipartisanship. In the U.S. House, however, the fight between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and a tiny fraction of his caucus is hurting passengers across America.
In light of that fact, we’re particularly grateful to the House Republicans who stood up for their constituents and defended Amtrak against the radical cuts proposed by House GOP leadership. These Republicans joined a letter led by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) asking leadership in Congress to include robust funding for Amtrak and intercity passenger rail programs in this year's budget. In addition to 70 Democrats, the letter included the following GOP support:
- Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA)
- Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE)
- Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY)
- Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-NJ)
- Marc Molinaro (R-NY)
- Michael Lawler (R-NY)
- Andrew R. Garbarino (R-NY)
Rest assured, your Rail Passengers staff is working hard to keep passengers informed. Stay tuned for further details, and we hope to see many of you at RailNation: Meridian!
- Jim Mathews | President + CEO | Rail Passengers Association
- Sean Jeans-Gail | Vice President, Gov't Affairs + Policy | Rail Passengers Association
"I’m so proud that we came together in bipartisan fashion in the Senate to keep the Southwest Chief chugging along, and I’m grateful for this recognition from the Rail Passengers Association. This victory is a testament to what we can accomplish when we reach across the aisle and work together to advance our common interests."
Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)
April 2, 2019, on receiving the Association's Golden Spike Award for his work to protect the Southwest Chief