Amtrak policies challenged at House hearing

On-board amenities, train priority, lack of transparency among issues raised in Rail Subcommittee meeting
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In a photo taken from a video feed, Rail Passenger Association President Jim Mathews holds up his "survival pack" for long-distance Amtrak travel during Wednesday's House hearing.
Bob Johnston
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An Amtrak San Joaquin heads south from Madera, Calif., on Oct 21, 2019. The executive director of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority expressed her frustrations with dealing with Amtrak at Wednesday's House subcommittee hearing on the passenger railroad.
Bob Johnston
WASHINGTON, D.C.— With the Presidential Impeachment Inquiry absorbing attention elsewhere in the building, only a handful of U.S. House representatives were on hand today for the Rail Subcommittee hearing, “Amtrak Now and Into the Future.” But the written testimony, comments by participants, and questioning by lawmakers exposed conflicting priorities between Amtrak, represented by President and CEO Richard Anderson, and other witnesses. 

The hearing was to give chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) and his staff preliminary guidance on defining the rules under which Amtrak interacts with host railroads, state agencies, employees, and passengers, with reauthorization set for 2020.

Among the topics addressed by Anderson, representatives from three labor unions, the Rail Passengers Association, an Oregon state legislator, and a California corridor operator were:

Passenger train priority and preference: “Does everyone here agree that Amtrak should have more infrastructure funding and we should give Amtrak a private right of action [in dealing with host railroads]? Does anyone disagree with that?” Lipinski asked about halfway through the proceedings. “Well, we have two things there’s agreement on,” he concluded. Improving Amtrak on time performance was also a priority in the opening statement of ranking member Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), whose district includes the nocturnal Texas Eagle stop at Walnut Ridge, Ark.

Amtrak’s Anderson noted, “The bottom line is we need [on-time performance] standards and metrics completed by the FRA with a real enforcement mechanism and we need a private right of action because freight railroad delays are our biggest single threat.”

In response to a later question about how to improve speeds and reliability from Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), Anderson observed, “We could grow the national network and jobs significantly if we partnered with the freight railroads and co-invest to bring up track speeds (from 79 mph) and take out bottlenecks. If you allow us to operate at 125 mph in a 100-mile zone, you’ll take a lot of cars off the highway,” Anderson said.

On-board amenity degradation: Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), addressing Anderson, decried crowded lounge car conditions on the Coast Starlight, now without the Pacific Parlour Car, “and what you are doing with food. You’re going to lose the high-end passenger — maybe you want to dump ‘em, I don’t know,” DeFazio said. “We’ve got to look really closely at what we’re doing with and for Amtrak, because this is a much more energy-efficient form of transportation .. .I think it’s a critical service and we’ve got to look at making it better and sustainable.”   

Rail Passenger Association President and CEO Jim Mathews held up a “survival pack” as part of his testimony to demonstrate what “savvy long-distance train passengers carry” to counteract disrepair on the “rolling museum out there.” It includes duct tape, plastic and wooden shims (to stop rattles), Velcro (to hold curtains together), hand sanitizer, and a power strip. “Everyone has their own version of this,” he said.

Anderson pointed to investments Amtrak is making by purchasing new Charger locomotives to replace aging P42s, replacing pillows and bedding in the sleepers, and reconditioning Superliner II coaches at the Beech Grove Heavy Maintenance Facility.

He also said, “We grew long distance passengers and revenues this year faster than any year Amtrak has grown it in probably the last 10 years,” though a data check by Trains News Wire doesn’t confirm this.

Regarding slimmed-down food service, Mathews said that in feedback from Millennial passengers, “the idea of sitting at a table with no tablecloth, a plastic bag, and plastic trash, is not what they were looking for and certainly not what they paid for.”

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) called the meals “paper sack food” and vehemently disputed Anderson’s claim that it was was implemented “based on market survey data — we don’t do it on anecdote.”

“I travel Acela 6 times a year for 12 years and never got a survey,” Cohen said. He remembered that, as a Delta Airlines executive, Anderson told him Delta would not leave its Memphis hub after merging with Northwest Airlines.

“That wasn’t true,” said Cohen, who urged the Amtrak executive to “consider the humanity, the romance, and the appeal of train travel with food, and not do it like Delta Airlines that took all the meals away ... and I hope you don’t continue that on Amtrak.”  

Lack of Amtrak transparency and accountability: San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Stacey Mortenson compared her dealings with Altamont Commuter Express operator Herzog and San Joaquins operator Amtrak. She pointed to the inability of her agency to get a rational explanation of Amtrak charges. “We are able to work with Herzog,” she said, “but have no control over what it costs to maintain our own equipment with Amtrak.” Questioned later, she admitted that part of the problem lies with Section 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which allows Amtrak to hide what it considers proprietary information while pushing costs on the states to “treat everybody the same.”

Other issues that came up at the hearing involved charges that 500 Riverside, Calif., call center jobs were replaced by 350 non-union jobs at outsourced call centers in Florida and Ohio; Amtrak’s mandatory arbitration clause; a Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority station rent dispute; and a billboard in New York City on Amtrak property blocking Hudson River views.    

The written testimony of the participants and video of the entire session is available here.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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