President Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget plan recommends eliminating all federal funding for Amtrak, which in fiscal 2005 totaled approximately $1.2 billion. Implementation of this plan would likely have the effect of sending the Amtrak system into bankruptcy — where it could face liquidation.
The liquidation of Amtrak would not be in the national interest, as intercity passenger rail service is essential to ensuring mobility in our nation.
In 2004, 25 million passengers traveled on Amtrak trains to more than 500 stations in 46 states (only Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming and South Dakota lack fixed rail service). By comparison, airline passengers can travel to 546 airports classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as “commercial service airports” (meaning that they serve at least 2,500 passengers per year).
Amtrak effectively serves both densely populated urban areas where residents have multiple travel options as well as sparsely populated rural areas where residents have fewer travel options. Approximately 50 percent of the trips taken between New York and Washington, D.C., either by rail or air services, are now taken on Amtrak. At the same time, Amtrak’s 15 long-distance trains — which each travel as far as 2,800 miles — carry approximately 4 million passengers per year to many areas not served by other transportation modes.
One of Amtrak’s long-distance trains, the Empire Builder, carried more than 437,000 passengers in 2003 and provided the only public transportation service available to many rural communities in the northern Great Plains. A study of the Empire Builder Amtrak service in Montana also found that travel on Amtrak cost approximately $0.175 per passenger mile — significantly less than the estimated cost of $0.502 per automobile passenger mile. The cost of the Amtrak service was not compared to the cost of airline travel in Montana because most of the communities in the state served by the Empire Builder do not have commercial air service.
In addition to providing geographical access, Amtrak also provides mobility to many segments of our population who might not otherwise be able to travel. In fact, according to the results of a study outlined in a 2004 Congressional Research Service report titled “Amtrak: The Political and Social Aspects of Federal Intercity Passenger Rail Policy,” (Dec. 23, 2004), approximately 42 percent of Amtrak’s ridership is drawn from households with incomes less than $50,000, while 16 percent of its riders do not own cars.
Clearly, the question that we must address is not whether Amtrak should continue to exist but what form the Amtrak service should take.
An Uncertain Commitment To National Rail Service
Amtrak was created in 1970 by the federal Rail Passenger Service Act to assume responsibility for intercity passenger rail service from freight railroads for which the service was no longer profitable.
In creating Amtrak, Congress and the nation made a commitment to the value of maintaining a national passenger rail service. Unfortunately, Congress has never clearly defined what the nature of this commitment would be — or provided sufficient funding to enable Amtrak to fulfill its commitment.
Over the years, Congress has established competing goals for Amtrak. At times, Amtrak has been encouraged to focus on providing broad but less-profitable national service. More recently, Congress has emphasized that Amtrak attain financial self-sufficiency.
Throughout its existence, however, Congress has consistently failed to provide the funding that would put Amtrak in a position to enable it to develop into a cost-effective national service. Operating subsidies have frequently been given at the lowest possible level and Amtrak’s capital needs have never been adequately funded.
We must understand that the fulfillment of our commitment to passenger rail service will likely continue to require government subsidies. Even in those countries where passenger rail service is widely utilized — such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan — national services require significant government subsidies. A 2003 study released by the Congressional Budget Office titled “The Past and Future of U.S. Passenger Rail Services” notes that only on the Japanese island of Honshu is intercity passenger rail service able to cover its operating costs with its farebox revenues.
Amtrak is also hobbled by an operating structure that gives it only limited control over several key aspects of its service quality —particularly on-time service.
Of the 22,000 route miles on which it operates, Amtrak owns only 730 route miles. The majority of Amtrak’s services are operated on tracks owned and maintained by private freight railroad companies. According to the 2004 Congressional Research Service report referenced earlier, 69 percent of all Amtrak service delays were caused by freight operations over which it has no control. In examining how Amtrak can be strengthened, Congress must look broadly at all aspects of Amtrak’s service, including its relationship with freight railroads.
Recommitting to National Passenger Rail Service
Unfortunately, the president’s proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak is not a new one. In recent years, Amtrak has repeatedly faced threatened shutdowns and the proposed elimination of its operating subsidy. These threats have done nothing to improve Amtrak’s service but have created continued uncertainty among both passengers and Amtrak’s 20,000 employees.
I hope that my colleagues continue to recognize the value of having a national intercity passenger rail service and will again provide funding for this service.
It is essential that we take this opportunity to recommit ourselves to supporting our nation’s intercity passenger rail service. Our commitment must include providing adequate funding for Amtrak. We must also give Amtrak the opportunity to make the appropriate service adjustments that will enable it to succeed.
In making this renewed commitment, we must demand that Amtrak respond to our investment by developing and implementing a workable plan to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of its service. Such a plan must include appropriate benchmarks for measuring progress — and Congress must be vigilant in demanding accountability from the system.
America has had intercity passenger rail service for more than 150 years, and this service remains an essential component of our transportation network. We in Congress must work in true partnership with Amtrak to ensure that its 25 million passengers receive reliable, affordable service that is truly national in scope.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on railroads.