Passenger Rail Coalition Testifies on Funding Needs, Amtrak Looks Ahead

WASHINGTON — Stressing the critical need for federal funding support for passenger rail improvements, States for Passenger Rail Coalition Chairman David King testified before both houses of Congress in April.

“For years the states have been investing in railroad crossing safety improvements, purchasing passenger equipment and renovating or building multi-modal stations,” King said. “But we cannot do it alone. We need a strong federal partner if we are to move forward and improve our nation’s passenger rail system.”

The States for Passenger Rail Coalition is a grass roots organization of 24 states working together to develop, improve and expand passenger rail service. The group has been working together to develop support in Congress to create a federal funding program for state sponsored projects to enhance intercity passenger rail service in the United States.

King testified April 29 and April 30 before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

In order to strengthen and expand the national passenger rail system, the group is asking Congress to:

  • Authorize $1.8 billion in tax credit bonds and $550,000,000 in general funds during the next three years for state sponsored infrastructure, equipment and station improvements.
  • Fund a pool of new equipment jointly administered by USDOT and the states
  • Adopt legislation to help address the security needs of the rail industry – especially in wake of recent world events.
  • Increase funding for grade crossing safety improvements.
  • Direct the USDOT to conduct studies on public access and cost allocation issues as required for needed infrastructure and service improvements.
  • Develop a fair and equitable solution to address liability concerns of multiple railroad organizations operating in the same area.

Chambers of commerce and business groups in the Southeast, Midwest and other parts of the country have joined with the multi-state coalition to express support for passenger rail enhancements and expansion.

“Business leaders in our states are not motivated by a sense of nostalgia, but rather their impetus comes from a hard-nosed business analysis that our current transportation system has a serious weakness,” King said. “And that weakness hampers our ability to compete globally. We need an efficient and effective rail system that can supplement other modes of transportation.”

Amtrak’s 5-Year Plan

Amtrak’s five-year strategic outlines capital investment and an operating plan to restore its physical plant and train equipment to a state of good repair and improve the railroad’s operational reliability.

The plan is based on prudent investments in existing infrastructure and equipment, and proposes no new significant passenger services, focusing instead on improving the reliability and cost-efficiency of the passenger railroad’s existing services.

“This plan is very specific and precise,” Amtrak President and CEO, David L. Gunn said. “It details exactly what we propose to do with equipment, track, signals, interlockings, bridges, maintenance facilities and other assets and how it will improve our operational reliability.

“While there has been much discussion of ‘reforming’ Amtrak in recent years, no matter what reforms policymakers may want, you have first got to get costs and reliability under control. This strategic plan focuses on running a fiscally tight business and bringing the railroad to a state of good repair so that it costs less to operate and costs less for the taxpayer.”

To support the strategic plan, Amtrak proposes that annual federal funding range from $1.8 billion in FY ‘04 to under $1.5 billion in FY ‘08 for the combined capital investment and operating needs, with more than half of this funding invested in two major capital categories: the 1,959 track miles of infrastructure that Amtrak owns and maintains and the passenger fleet, which would be better standardized to increase reliability and availability, while reduced by about 10 percent – from 2,278 passenger cars and locomotives today to 2,057 in FY ’08.

Infrastructure improvements under the plan include the installation of 428,000 concrete ties, supporting 162 miles of track; replacement of 270 miles of rail; refurbishment of 200 miles of catenary; replacement of 225 miles of ballast, supporting ties and rails; and replacement of 40,000 switch ties and 26 interlockings.

Among the improvements to communications and signals would be the replacement of equipment at dispatching centers in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, replacement of seven signal houses and updating 30 miles of electric cable with fiber optic cable. The plan also includes the replacement of two movable bridge spans in Connecticut improvements to eight other bridges — including an annual replacement of 2,200 bridge ties — and completion of a new maintenance facility in Oakland, CA currently under construction.

Under a four-part fleet rehabilitation program emphasizing the retirement of very old cars, the repair of wreck-damaged cars, overhauls to achieve intended asset lifespan and remanufacturing to extend lifespan beyond original design, Amtrak intends to substantially increase the reliability and availability of passenger cars and locomotives. On average, only 81 percent of cars on corridor trains are available for revenue service, statistics show.

This would increase to 90 percent with increased overhauls and remanufacturing under the plan. Similarly, while only 71 percent of the long-distance fleet is available today, the four-part initiative would increase availability to 89 percent – locomotive availability would also increase from 68 percent to 86 percent.

Overall, 46 corridor passenger cars, 142 long-distance passenger cars, 147 locomotives and all 64 aging Auto Train auto carriers would be retired. Purchases would be made of 14 new RDC units, 75 long-distance cars, 25 switch engines and 80 new auto carriers.

“This plan is comprehensive and thorough,” Gunn said. “Every dollar is strictly accounted for, and anyone reviewing the plan can understand where and why the money is being invested.

“The dividend of such investment would be a railroad in good operating condition, with overhauled, safe, reliable, and well-maintained equipment. For the tracks we own, it will mean a state of good repair, far fewer speed restrictions that degrade capacity, riding comfort and schedule reliability.”

Over the course of the five-year strategic plan, Amtrak estimates that its operating cash loss will decrease from $744 million to about $650 million, as a result of a combination of management initiatives and revenue growth based in part on improved operational reliability.

Bonus Material (not published in The Cross-Tie‘s article)

The management initiatives include the rationalization of the mail and express service presently underway, improved schedules, better crew utilization and negotiated work rule changes with its agreement-covered employees. Taken altogether, these initiatives are expected to result in $120 million in annual savings by FY ’08. While the current annual baseline passenger revenue growth is one percent, with improved equipment, greater reliability, some individual trip time reductions, and an improved travel economy by FY ’05, an annual revenue growth of four percent, or $222 million by FY ’08, is estimated.

Amtrak will not undertake new train services unless any operating loss is fully covered by the state or states it serves. Additionally, beginning in FY ’04, Amtrak plans to seek full state funding for any incremental operating loss associated with existing state-supported services.

As the first part of the five-year plan, earlier this year, Amtrak requested an FY ’04 Federal appropriation of $1.8 billion. That appropriation is currently under consideration in Congress. Amtrak’s multi-year reauthorization, which expired in December, 2002, will be the subject of two Congressional hearings next week: on April 29 by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee and on April 30 by the Railroad subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee. Mr. Gunn will testify at both hearings.

Published in the June 2003 edition of The Cross-Tie.

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