Happening Now

Statement on FY2016 House Transportation Appropriations

May 29, 2015

Statement of

Jim Mathews

President & CEO

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Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development,

and Related Agencies

The Honorable Mario Diaz-Balart

Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives

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Fiscal 2016 Department of Transportation Appropriation

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March 31, 2015

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement. Thank you also for your work to ensure the continuation of intercity passenger train service.

Funding Request

1.) NARP is asking Congress to enact mandatory, multi-year funding of at least $8.5 billion per year over the next four years for the national passenger rail network. Our association is requesting lawmakers to include a passenger rail account in the Transportation Trust Fund (renamed from the Highway Trust Fund) as part of the multi-year surface transportation reauthorization, with funding not less than that requested by U.S. DOT.

2.) Absent a reform of the surface transportation program, NARP is asking appropriators to provide at least the $4,775 million the U.S. DOT has requested for passenger rail in FY 2016 for the following:

  • Current Passenger Rail Service - $2,450 million
    • Northeast Corridor - $550 million
    • State Corridors - $225 million
    • Long-Distance Routes - $850 million
    • National Assets & Amtrak PTC - $475 million
    • Stations & ADA compliance - $350 million
  • Rail Service Improvement Program - $2,325 million
    • Passenger Corridors - $1,300 million
    • Commuter Railroads – PTC compliance - $825 million
    • Local Rail Facilities & Safety - $125 million
    • Planning & Workforce - $75 million

This represents a meaningful increase from the $1.39 billion enacted for Amtrak for FY 2015, but falls far short of the $7 to $9 billion a year recommended by the National Surface Transportation Policy & Revenue Study Commission, appointed by President George W. Bush. Futhermore, as evidenced by NARP’s United States of Underinvestment, it is the bare minimum needed to address the more than $208 billion in projects identified by states and Amtrak in grant applications and rail plans [Appendix A].

A Pressing Need for More Service

The American people are already voting for more trains with their wallets.

Public use of trains is growing far faster than air or road travel or even the population itself. In FY 2014, Amtrak carried 30.9 million passengers – the eleventh year of record ridership in the last 12 years.

Growing congestion in other modes and rapidly dwindling transportation options in small- and mid-sized communities are driving this surge, making train travel more vital than ever to local economies across the nation. As surely as mobility powers economic growth, congestion constrains it. Millions of Americans today face loss of personal mobility: airlines are cutting back the number of flights and have reduced or discontinued service to literally hundreds of smaller cities. Millions more find flying to be too expensive, too inconvenient, or simply too unpleasant. An increasing number of young people don’t own automobiles, either as a personal choice or because they are unaffordable. Many older citizens are unable or unwilling to drive their personal automobiles for more than just a few miles; this population will grow dramatically during the next few decades in the U.S., and their needs must be accounted for.

NARP believes that these people—and indeed all Americans—have the right to choose how they travel. As recognized by the House Committee on Transportation itself: “By 2039 the U.S. population will exceed 400 million and the population concentration in our urban areas is increasing. Transportation solutions for these people are paramount in order to support an expanding U.S. economy. The costs of congestion and poor transportation infrastructure continue to rise for commuters: almost $121 billion each year is wasted in time and fuel, up from only $24 billion in 1982. In addition, Americans spend a staggering 5.5 billion hours annually stuck in traffic.”

Many economists, planners and local governments have concluded that a seamless national network, using rail to tie other modes together, is the only way to provide travel options for a growing population. We agree.

NARP's vision is for an expanded national network of passenger trains (short, medium, and long-distance), putting 80% of Americans within 25 miles of a train station served frequently by fast, modern and reliable trains providing top-notch customer service. NARP members also want to see at least one high-speed rail line with trains operating at a maximum speed of at least 200 mph in operation by 2025. Finally, NARP envisions enhanced connectivity between intercity trains and airports, intercity buses, local transit, cycling and walking, and car rental and sharing service for a seamless multi-modal transportation network, coast-to-coast – connecting “flyover country” to the nation’s larger economy and prospects.

This idea has been endorsed by number of different economic groups, including a coalition of 42 individual State Chambers of Commerce: “One of America’s greatest strengths is our ability to create diverse networks of transportation infrastructure to cheaply and efficiently move goods and services around the nation. In order to compete with our economic advantage, other nations are making historic investments in their own transportation infrastructure. China, India, and Europe spend about 9%, 8%, and 5% of their gross domestic product, respectively, on infrastructure investment. Meanwhile, infrastructure investments in the United States have declined to a mere 2.4% of GDP.”

Keeping the Trains Running

A robust capital program is essential to maintain existing service and needed expansion. Today, the average age of Amtrak’s rolling stock is older than it was when Amtrak began operations May 1, 1971, with “hand-me-down” equipment from the private railroads. Most of these so-called “Heritage” cars were built in the 1950s and so less than 20 years old in 1971. Indeed, some Heritage cars were built in the 1960s – many Santa Fe High Level cars date from 1964 and so were only seven years old at Amtrak’s inception; the Metroliner cars were three years old.

The mainstay of Amtrak’s short- and long-distance fleets now are the first Amfleet and Superliner cars which began entering service in 1974 and 1981, respectively, and so are about 35 years old. Amtrak’s fleet plan reflects a very conservative view of equipment needs going forward, and the absolute minimum that Congress should consider funding.

Energy Efficiency

The most recent data released by the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book, released in July, 2014, and based on 2012 data, indicates that Amtrak on average is 36% more energy efficient per passenger-mile than automobiles, 46% more efficient than personal trucks, and 11% more efficient than commercial aviation (BTU per passenger-mile).

The National Network (Long-Distance) Trains

One use of the national network trains which has come to our attention is for transporting patients from rural hospitals to major urban medical centers. This involves patients who need specialized treatment or procedures not available in the smaller facilities. Overall, based on Amtrak’s 2010 ridership profile research, 51% of trips on these trains are to visit friends and family, 29% vacation/leisure, 11% personal business/school/shopping, and 9% are business.

In addition, a sizable number of people have medical conditions – either permanent or temporary – that make it inadvisable or impossible for them to fly, and/or vastly more convenient to use the train. This includes people who must travel with oxygen or other medical machines.

As to the form of this year’s Amtrak grant request, it must be remembered that NEC operational ‘profits’ are only sustainable with the NEC getting the majority of Amtrak’s capital investment and if the absolute dollar value of that investment continues to increase. As Boardman’s request notes, “Infrastructure deterioration and changes in business patterns have reached a point where something has to change. … The likelihood of major infrastructure failure has grown. Capital support levels have fallen. … Current investment levels leave us vulnerable to a bigger, costlier, and far more damaging failure than anything we have seen.”

Another way of stating the relationship between the NEC and the rest of Amtrak is that there is a balance which the NEC gets substantial capital while the national network gets a sizable operating grant. So it is not accurate to characterize Amtrak’s current grant request as having the NEC “secede financially from the rest of the federally funded rail system,” as one news report put it. In addition:

1. The national network shares overhead facilities with NEC and state-supported routes. If the national network disappeared, the significant overhead costs would not disappear but would be shifted to surviving services, increasing the financial burden on states, many of which have recently sustained a big increase in Amtrak-related costs, and NEC operating profits would decline.

2. Many state-supported routes and the NEC share revenues with national network trains – connecting revenues which obviously would be lost if the national network disappeared.

3. The NEC achieves its good operating performance today because of significant federal capital investment over many years, including the New Haven-Boston electrification.

On a related matter, even with the application of PRIIA Section 209, Amtrak is estimating an $83 million operating subsidy for the state-supported routes, that is, routes outside Boston-Washington which are shorter than 750 miles.

Positive Train Control

Accepting that compliance with the December 31, 2015, statutory deadline is not feasible, NARP recommends that any new law which changes that deadline should:

(1) Grant authority to the Secretary of Transportation, on an individual company basis, to give up to three, consecutive 18-month extensions, bringing the latest possible date of compliance 4-1/2 years after the current deadline, or June 30, 2020.

(2) Change the law so that heavily traveled mainlines are not exempt because they happen to be owned by other than a Class 1;

(3) Explicitly require the prevention of low-speed, rear-end collisions -- of which there have been fatal ones within the past four years [see below]. The system as currently being installed does not know the length of trains and therefore cannot prevent low-speed, rear-end collisions.

Point #1 would be preferable to legislatively forcing the gift to the entire industry of a blanket 5-year extension. It would enable the Secretary to treat with appropriate differences railroads which have worked hard on PTC vs. those who have not.

Point #2 would protect the railroads from a tragic accident that also would be a public relations disaster for the industry -- how to explain having installed PTC all across rural America but having taken advantage of a legal loophole either to avoid installation in populated areas like the cities of Kansas City and St. Louis. [Some states may come up with the money to save their passenger trains; other states already choking on the big run-up in Amtrak-related costs under Section 209 of the 2008 law may let the service die and leave PTC absent where most needed.]

Point #3 would make explicit what most people thought the law already meant – train-to-train collisions must be prevented; there is no exception for low-speed, rear-end collisions. The NTSB April 24, 2012, report on the April 17, 2011, fatal collision at Red Oak, Iowa, stated that “the PTC designs that are being deployed and the FRA’s final rule on the application of PTC are unlikely to prevent future restricted speed restricted speed rear-end collisions similar to the 58 rear-end collisions reported to the Federal Railroad Administration over the last 10 years or the collision at Red Oak because train speeds at the upper limit of restricted speed are allowed.”

FRA’s April 25, 2012, advisory in response to the NTSB’s report detailed six rear-end collisions over the past year that caused four employee fatalities (the other two were at Mineral Springs, NC, on CSX on May 24, 2011, and DeWitt, NY, on CSX on July 6, 2011), six employee injuries and property damage exceeding $6 million. Thankfully, no passenger trains were involved.

Grade Crossing Safety

NARP supports the preservation and expansion of the Section 130 program that supports improvements to—as well as closure of —highway/railroad grade crossings. With rail traffic and automotive vehicles mile driven both on the rise, it’s more important than ever to provide funding to support grade separation at essential crossings. While streamlining is, in general, an admiral goal, we have found that without a set-aside, these safety critical projects are de-prioritized by underfunded state transportation departments struggling with state-of-good-repair investment backlogs.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to present our views.

Jim Mathews
President & CEO
National Association of Railroad Passengers

505 Capitol Court NE, Suite 300
Washington DC, 20002

Appendix 1: