Former Transportation Secretary James H. Burnley IV remembers when the Reagan administration proposed zeroing out federal subsidies for Amtrak in 1987 over his personal objections.
The proposal went nowhere in Congress — thanks largely to a young senator who is now the nation’s president-elect.
“It went nowhere,” Burnley, now a transportation lobbyist, recalled. “And one of the most outspoken opponents was Joe Biden.”
Much has been written about Biden’s personal affinity for the nation’s only passenger railroad, which relies during a normal year on about $2 billion in federal subsidies. How Biden, as a young widower and first-term senator, rode Amtrak to and from his Delaware home so he could tuck his two boys into bed each night. How his years riding the rails put him on a first-name basis with Amtrak staff. How he announced his first presidential bid at the train station in Wilmington in 1987.
But less has been written about the substantive work the president-elect did to earn his reputation as the railroad’s most ardent backer in Congress.
As Biden prepares to enter the White House, that long record of support could be a hopeful sign for an enterprise that has struggled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, losing up to 95 percent of its ridership, furloughing thousands of employees and cutting routes.
“Joe Biden was pretty much synonymous with Amtrak,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who teamed up with Biden to protect the rail system on more than one occasion. “Joe was always very interested in Amtrak, very supportive.”
That interest appears to continue. Biden used Amtrak for some of his campaign stops in the Midwest; a bullet point in his campaign platform was to create “the second great railroad revolution.”
“Biden will make sure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world — for both passengers and freight,” his campaign site proclaimed.
To do that, the campaign said, it would use existing grant and loan programs, improving and streamlining the latter. Biden also promised to work with Amtrak and private freight rail companies to further electrify the rail system, reducing diesel fuel emissions.
While a Biden presidency will aim to protect the federal investment in Amtrak, control of the Senate will determine the degree to which he’s able to see his vision of an Amtrak renaissance become a reality.
Key to that vision, Burnley said, are proposals for new high-speed rail projects. While Republicans such as Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., have been ardent supporters of Amtrak in large part because of the service it provides to the rural communities in their states, they may be more reluctant to embrace a widespread investment in high-speed rail.
“The debate will probably focus on proposals I see out of the administration to make substantial federal investments in high-speed rail,” said Burnley. “High-speed rail is very expensive.”
“I’m hopeful, but I’m hopeful with asterisk,” said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association. “The asterisk is this: When you have a divided government, that’s just a recipe for not doing big things, not doing bold things.”
Mathews said he worries that if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, they’re “going to look for every possible way to box in a Democratic administration.” The desire to win, he worries, might imperil real progress for Amtrak.
Still, he said, “we’re not going to return to the days of fighting over zeroing out all funding for Amtrak. … It’s just going to be a debate over size and scope.”
One certain reversal, stakeholders predict, will be in the budgets: President Donald Trump consistently proposed cutting Amtrak in his budgets, only to see Congress restore the cuts. He was not the first president to propose cuts to Amtrak; Reagan and George W. Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak subsidies altogether.
Biden does not share that philosophy.
During debate in the U.S. Senate, he made the case that every passenger railroad in the world received public support, including in Europe and Japan. He also argued that airlines received federal support for air traffic controllers, runways and towers, and highways received support as well.
In Congress, Biden argued for greater flexibility for states to use federal funds to support Amtrak operations in their borders, but more often he fought simply to preserve subsidies for the company. In 2001, he unsuccessfully pushed a measure that would allow Amtrak to float $12 billion in bonds to construct 11 high-speed rail corridors nationwide.
Although he spent most of his time traveling Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, he was a strong supporter of the often endangered national routes as well, joining forces with Lott and other impacted senators to fight for long-distance routes.
John Robert Smith, who worked with Biden when he served on the Amtrak Board of Directors from 1998 to 2003, said he found the senator “not to be parochial in the least.”
“He understood the importance of connectivity the entire national system brought to the country,” he said.
Such an understanding might be key now, Smith said, as the railroad considers service cuts to offset steep declines in ridership because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith said Amtrak could help to serve many of the same communities that have seen reduced air service because of the pandemic, and he said he was hopeful Biden might encourage an economic stimulus aimed at helping struggling modes such as Amtrak.
“The president-elect needs to make a statement very clearly and urgently that passenger rail and transit may disappear if Congress doesn’t deal with the shortfall due to COVID,” he said.
Biden will have an ally in House Democrats, whose desire to expand Amtrak was evident in a surface transportation bill they pushed in June. On Wednesday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials will hold a hearing titled “Expanding the Surface Transportation Board’s Role in Ensuring a Robust Passenger Railroad.”
Biden weighed in on COVID-19’s impact on Amtrak during the campaign. When the railroad announced furloughs in September, Biden took to Twitter.
“It’s safe to say I’ve gotten to know the hardworking men and women of @Amtrak over the years,” he tweeted Sept. 30. “I’m proud to stand with them as they face furloughs due to funding cuts. These essential workers have kept us moving during this pandemic –– now it’s time we have their backs.”
One of Biden’s most frequent sparring partners on Amtrak during his time in the Senate was his friend the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who argued that the railroad represented a waste of taxpayer dollars.
In a 1996 battle over Amtrak funding, McCain argued that the bulk of the subsidies benefited only a small portion of the country.
But Biden argued that subsidies for drinking water in McCain’s home state of Arizona also benefited only one part of the country, insisting that “that is OK with me.”
“The purpose of one nation is for each part of the country to work together. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Biden said.
“I will leave Sen. McCain’s water alone if he leaves my railroad alone.”