RPA Makes its Case. Will it Matter?

Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews last week laid out the case before a congressional committee against Amtrak’s plans to shift most of its long-distance trains to less than daily operation in October.

He testified before a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee holding an oversight hearing on Amtrak and the COVID-19 pandemic,

Last week I went inside the testimony of Amtrak William Flynn as to why Amtrak is reducing frequency of service on long-distance routes so today’s let’s go inside the counter arguments Mathews made.

First, Mathews argued Amtrak provides an essential service, particularly to communities lacking other public transportation options and to those facing cutbacks in airline service once CARES Act emergency funding for airlines expires after Sept. 30.

Mathews said Amtrak is most essential for the 62 million Americans living in “flyover territory” where a quarter of the population is veterans and another quarter is age 65 or older.

He said the pandemic has made Amtrak service more necessary for these Americans.

“Intercity rail plays an outsized role in these communities, with almost one-fifth of Amtrak’s passengers traveling to or from a rural station with no access to air service,” Mathews said.

“Long-distance trains, frequently used by senior citizens and passengers with mobility impairments, provide access to healthcare facilities that would otherwise be too expensive or difficult to reach.”

Second, Amtrak tried less-than-daily service in the 1990s and it resulted in a loss of 1.1 million passengers while failing to net the monetary savings that a consultant had projected.

Trains operating three times a week are less attractive because they may not operate when passengers want or need to travel. Connections between long-distance trains in Chicago will become difficult because they may only be available one or two days a week or not available at all.

Third, reducing long-distance service to three times a week will result in a loss of $2 billion in economic benefits.

“Rail corridors generate value by acting as economic engines in the communities they serve—through jobs, retail, mobility, tourism and real-estate development,” he said.

Mathews relied on a model developed at the University of Southern Mississippi that concluded Amtrak’s long-distance trains, excluding the Auto Train, generate $4.7 billion in economic benefits.

He said this lost economic benefit could swell to $3.1 billion if long-distance trains operate tri-weekly for a year, which would dwarf the $150 million in savings from the tri-weekly service Amtrak plans to operate.

Mathews’ testify may have been, as he described it “forceful,” but is unlikely to move the needle much if at all.

Members of Congress are accustomed to being inundated with talking points from interest groups seeking a share of public money.

In this case, Mathews wants Congress to give Amtrak nearly $5 billion for federal fiscal year 2021, which would be more than double what the passenger carrier originally sought earlier this year.

There is a long line of folks who want Congress to give them emergency aid, including countless small business owners who are on the verge of being forced out of business for good due to the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.

Public funding of some government services faces cutbacks due to plummeting revenues.

Less-than-daily Amtrak service on a small number of routes looks minor by comparison.

In a post on the RPA website that followed Mathews’ appearance on Capitol Hill, RPA Vice President of Policy Sean Jeans-Gail decried a lack of urgency on the part of Congress to act to approve additional funding for Amtrak.

“It is abundantly clear that policymakers and the public have not internalized the threat to our national transportation network,” Jeans-Gail wrote.

That could be because they don’t see the same threat that RPA sees.

Congressional leaders have signaled that another round of pandemic emergency funding is unlikely before the November elections. If so, then Amtrak’s planned service reductions are likely to go into effect as scheduled.

The Senate has yet to act on spending bills for FY2021, which begins in less than three weeks.

This scenario has played out before and typically federal spending is kept going with one or more continuing resolutions.

All of this is subject to change but if it does it likely won’t come about because of what Mathews told a congressional committee. There are larger political forces that transcend Amtrak funding, which is a mere gain of sand on a very large beach.

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