Better watch your speed, watchdog and others tell a flush Amtrak

Questions loom over its ability to manage new billions and its relationships with stakeholders

Amtrak's California Zephyr passenger train departs Chicago Union Station on March 2, 2022. (Luke Sharrett/AFP via Getty Images)
Amtrak's California Zephyr passenger train departs Chicago Union Station on March 2, 2022. (Luke Sharrett/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted April 18, 2022 at 6:00am

America’s long-beleaguered and only interstate passenger rail service appears to have the wind at its back.

Congress allocated $66 billion to rail — much of it to Amtrak — in last year’s five-year bipartisan infrastructure law. The leader of the free world is nicknamed “Amtrak Joe.” And the 50-year-old railroad has big plans to add dozens of new routes to its existing system by 2035.

But that wind comes with some turbulence.

A recent report by its internal watchdog raised questions about Amtrak’s ability to manage all that money and keep its partners — freight railroads and regional commuter rail systems — in its planning loop and happy. A fight with two freight railroads over access to tracks along the Gulf Coast in particular portends some of the dangers the government-owned and taxpayer-subsidized railroad faces as it attempts its largest expansion in a generation.

[Watchdog: Managing infrastructure money presents challenge for Amtrak]

When freight railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern complained that sharing their tracks connecting Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans with the passenger railroad would exacerbate the supply chain crisis, Amtrak responded on Twitter. It livestreamed a portion of the route to demonstrate that, in fact, the tracks weren’t so in demand after all.

“Babe wake up, CSX’s fourth gulf coast train since 8 am just dropped,” AmtrakConnects tweeted at 4:32 p.m. April 6, referring to a stretch of tracks that they hope to use to bring passenger service to the Gulf Coast.

A CSX spokeswoman called the live feed “gimmicky” and “misleading, wasteful propaganda,” pointing out that the livestream only covered a small portion of an extensive rail line.

[Amtrak wants to restore Gulf line; freight rail not on board]

But a spokeswoman for Amtrak said the social media campaign aims “to help the public understand what’s at stake.”

While the public pays little attention to the technical intricacies of the fight, the social media campaign has helped people who “have a vested interest in enhancing or introducing Amtrak service to their communities,” the spokeswoman said.

The 1970 law that effectively created Amtrak mandated that the company would have priority on freight rail lines unless doing so would “impair unreasonably” freight rail — a vague term which the independent Surface Transportation Board, which regulates surface transportation, is aiming to define in ongoing hearings on the Gulf Coast spat.

The freight carriers want Amtrak to fork over more than $400 million to help upgrade the tracks. Amtrak says that estimate would effectively “gold-plate” freight tracks in order to give Amtrak access to rails it has a right to.

The fight, say critics, reflects a tension laid out by Amtrak’s inspector general in a 14-page report issued March 31. It found that among the potential pitfalls to implementing a $66 billion investment in rail was managing partnerships with stakeholders — relationships that have not always been managed well.

“Our work has shown that neglecting to bring all affected parties into the planning process early affects the quality, cost, and timeliness of projects,” it read.”

Stakeholder relationships will be vital as Amtrak works toward expanding its network to more than 160 new communities by 2035.

“You would think Amtrak would be a bit more willing now that it has all that money to spend it on track upgrades so they’re not disrupting freight service,” said Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation. “But they haven’t at least publicly seemed willing to do that, and that’s unfortunate.”

“They’re supposed to be the tenant railroads to the hosts, not the parasites to the host,” he said.

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said the campaign is an effort to mobilize support among the communities that Amtrak would serve.

'Force the issue'

“Patient diplomacy only gets you to the place we are today,” he said. “And if we really want to build that map, we have to force the issue.”

Amtrak, meanwhile, calls building and maintaining stakeholder relationships “an imperative we take seriously,” and says its operating teams collaborate daily with host railroad counterparts.

Much is at stake. John Robert Smith, a former member of the Amtrak's board of directors and chairman of the pro-Amtrak Transportation for America, said Amtrak needs to prevail in the Gulf Coast fight or “it’s going to suck the air out of the expansion of rail across the country.”

“States like Montana and Idaho and Colorado are looking at the Gulf right now,” he said.

He acknowledges Amtrak has had “missteps" — “the 2035 plan was not developed with input from around the country” — and Amtrak is going to have to work to soothe cities and states that didn’t have input on the future of passenger rail service in their communities.

But, he said, Amtrak has an opportunity to grow and become a viable alternative to small-city airports and the automobile. While past authorizing law prioritized the need to minimize federal investment, the new law, he said, makes Amtrak’s mission “to connect economies across the nation,” including rural and urban communities. The company will have to offer new routes to achieve that goal.

Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the moderate Brookings Institution, said Amtrak would get its best use out of the money by adding dependable new routes in regions that haven’t seen them. Ideally, he said, the blue state Northeast Corridor would be supplemented by reliable routes through red states, making passenger rail less of a partisan issue.

“Americans are not pro- or anti- any (mode of) transportation,” he said. “What they’re pro is things that work for them. We’ve got to make service work for people based on what they want.”

The conflict between Amtrak and stakeholders was one of four potential pitfalls Amtrak's inspector general laid out in a March 31 report.

It found the “sheer size” of the $66 billion investment in rail made in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law “presents a potential strain on the company’s ability to manage its current operations while concurrently planning and managing a long-term multibillion-dollar infrastructure portfolio.”

Amtrak traditionally receives about $2 billion from the federal government a year.

Amtrak's share

An Amtrak spokeswoman said two-thirds of the $66 billion will go to discretionary grant programs administered by the Federal Railroad Administration. Amtrak “is just one of many eligible applicants,” she said.

Amtrak itself will get $22 billion over five years in direct grants, with $16 billion of that for the National Network and $6 billion for the Northeast Corridor. Much will go to capital needs, rather than expansion.

The corridor expansion will come through a new FRA-administered corridor identification and selection program, which will largely occur in the form of discretionary grants. Amtrak also has the authority to spend up to 10 percent of its National Network grant funding on corridor development on routes chosen through the FRA corridor identification program.

For fiscal 2023, Amtrak has requested $3.3 billion for annual appropriations. It will receive an additional $4.4 billion through the infrastructure law, bringing the total funding it hopes to receive this year to $7.7 billion.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said while the company has “very defined problems” in the Northeast Corridor that it knows how to handle, long-distance routes and intercity routes “are going to take maybe a little more time and a little more scrutiny to make sure they get it right.”

“I mean, there's a lot of money in rail that nobody is accustomed to,” he said.