Among the list of national priorities supported by red and blue voters is funding America’s passenger railroad, Amtrak. Almost 31 million passengers took an Amtrak train last year. That’s up 4 percent over the previous year.
As the nation continues to follow events in the wake of an Amtrak train’s deadly derailment outside of Philadelphia, the share of public money that subsidizes the passenger rail carriers’ operation has become a subject of hot debate.
The outcome of the debate and congressional action will affect approximately 1,200 IBEW members who work for Amtrak and the millions more who ride Amtrak.
The Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, is urging members of the U.S. Senate not to cut necessary funding for safe and effective rail travel.
In a post in the Huffington Post before the Philadelphia derailment, Ed Wytkind, president of the TTD, cautions against Congress cutting funding levels that would postpone or shelve critical capital projects, including repairing or replacing 100-year old tunnels and upgrading its fleet.
While the House passed a bipartisan authorizing bill to fund Amtrak in March, the total investment, says TTD, won’t match the needs of an aging fleet with an increasing ridership. The railroad’s Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston, moves 750,000 passengers a day, contributing $50 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product.
The House’s $8 billion funding bill, which would expire in 2019, is below the $1 billion per year Amtrak has required for operations and construction projects since 1971.
The funding bill passed 316 to 101. All opposition came from Republicans. Many of those opposed say their goal is to force Amtrak to privatize the passenger carrier’s popular and profitable routes in the Northeast corridor.
Amtrak, passenger organizations and unions say revenues from the Northeast Corridor are essential to maintain long-distance routes in regions of the country served by minimal air service.
House Republicans did succeed in including a provision that would require revenue amassed by Northeast Corridor operations to be used only for improvements on those routes. The Hill reports, “That could force Amtrak to streamline its longer routes elsewhere in the country.”
The U.S. lags far behind other nations in the global race to improve rail transportation. Trains in China and Japan can achieve more than 300 miles per hour. U.S. trains don’t come close to that speed.
Other governments adequately fund their passenger railroads, says IBEW Railroad Department Director Bill Bohne, “And no passenger railroads in the world generate profits. They supply essential services that other nations financially supplement to provide for citizens.”
So greater investment in rail is needed, contend industry and union advocates, if new jobs are to be created and commuters are to see their time back and forth to work reduced.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, convened a field hearing on May 4 on the investment needs of Amtrak.
“The House has now spoken on the need to give Amtrak predictable funding and longer term stability,“ says TTD. “The Senate must now finish the job by boosting funding levels and resisting wrongheaded reforms that would threaten our national passenger railroad and the 20,000 employees who keep Amtrak trains rolling across America.”
“It is time that the members of the House and Senate recognize and admit just how important passenger rail is to this country, and fund it as such,” says Bohne. “Continued slashing of funding for Amtrak will only lead to a greater deterioration of the entire system, and with ridership at an all-time high, we should be moving in the total opposite direction.”