September 09, 2020

Chair Lipinski Opening Remarks from Hearing on Amtrak’s Response to COVID-19

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) during today’s hearing titled: “Amtrak’s Response to COVID-19.”

Chair Lipinski:

Good morning. I want to welcome everyone to today’s Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee’s hearing on Amtrak’s response to COVID-19.  As you can see, we are doing a hybrid hearing today with most members and our witnesses remote to safely conduct this hearing.  I want to wish everyone participating or watching this hearing my best during these tough times.  I hope everyone’s family and loved ones are safe.  Before we get started, this is my first opportunity to publicly congratulate William Flynn who became Amtrak’s CEO less than five months ago.  There could not be a much tougher time to begin this service; I wish you well. 

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the health and economic welfare of Americans, just as it has done across the globe.  Economically, the travel industry has been especially hard hit.  I understand Amtrak faces serious financial issues and other strains on its operations, and we’ll hear specifically about this directly from Mr. Flynn.  I’ve always been a strong advocate for Amtrak because it provides an important public service – national passenger rail service.  It is critical that all of us, especially everyone at Amtrak, always keep in mind that it is first-and-foremost a national public service.  Though this does not mean that it should not be run well.  In addition, as everyone watching knows, I have been a staunch advocate for the men and women who work at Amtrak.  It is essential that they are all treated fairly, especially in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic that has caused economic hardship for millions of Americans and their families.

That brings me to the issue of the furloughs recently announced by Amtrak.  Congress recognized the financial difficulty Amtrak is experiencing because of a steep drop in ridership and provided over $1 billion in CARES Act funding for Amtrak with the understanding that part of the funds would be used to prevent furloughs.  So Amtrak’s announcement that they will furlough over 2,000 employees on October 1st is extremely disappointing.  I understand that, technically, we are about to begin a new fiscal year.  But one of the biggest frustrations I and other members have is that Amtrak has had months to come to Congress and request additional funding to help keep workers on the payroll.  The principal reason Amtrak didn’t get any money in the HEROES Act passed by the House was that Amtrak didn’t submit a supplemental request until 10 days after passage.  To make matters worse, Amtrak is just now submitting their amended FY21 supplemental request to Congress less than one month before the current fiscal year expires and Amtrak plans to implement these furloughs.

My frustrations aside, I believe that Congress needs to act quickly to prevent furloughs and avoid long distance service cuts.  First, the furloughs won’t actually save the federal government that much money because the workers furloughed will be eligible for Railroad Unemployment Insurance, which is funded through taxes paid by workers and their employers – in this case Amtrak.  Second, we tried cutting long distance service to three days a week under President Clinton in 1994.  Congress on a bipartisan basis led by Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott eventually rejected those cuts and restored long distance service to seven days a week because cutting long distance service economically hurts rural communities, undermines Amtrak’s role as a national passenger rail system, and actually doesn’t save that much money.  Congress’ view on this has not changed in the past 25 years.  Finally, we should reject these cuts because most of us on this Committee believe that whenever this pandemic is over, Amtrak should go back to running the service it had before this pandemic.  We cannot just flip the switch so to speak if Amtrak is going to lose valuable workers, knowhow, and riders because of these cuts.  Ultimately, the furloughs and long distance service cuts are misguided and weaken our national passenger rail system. 

It’s important we hear from Amtrak CEO William Flynn today on his long-term vision for Amtrak and why Amtrak is making these cuts.

Finally, I feel it necessary to remind Amtrak that while I strongly support our nation’s passenger railroad, Amtrak must heed, and not ignore, Congress’s desire that it work well with others, including commuter railroads like Metra in northeastern Illinois, as well as States and local municipalities.  Too often it feels like Amtrak is happy to take money from Congress and then ignore Congress’s directives.  That is not helpful, especially when Amtrak needs much more from Congress.

With that, I recognize Ranking Member Crawford for an opening statement.

A livestream of today’s hearing can be found here.