November 13, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Lipinski Statements from Hearing on Amtrak

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) during today’s hearing titled: “Amtrak Now and Into the Future.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Subcommittee Chairman Lipinski and Ranking Member Crawford, for holding this hearing. First, I’d like to welcome Oregon Legislative Representative Nancy Nathanson, who represents the Eugene area. She has been a long-time advocate for improvements to passenger rail in the state and I think her testimony today will echo the challenges and opportunities that many states are feeling with Amtrak service. Thank you for being here today.

Amtrak should be one of our Nation’s great success stories, but it remains one of our Nation’s most difficult challenges because of a belief by some in this chamber that our country shouldn’t have a national passenger rail system supported by the Federal Government. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars to subsidize every form of public transportation – highways, aviation, transit– yet Amtrak gets the short end of the stick, with under $2 billion a year from the Federal Government.

People are tired of spending an hour and a half to drive 20 miles to get home from work or spending an hour (plus) to get past airport security and to their gate only to find their flight is further delayed because of weather. Our highways and airports are at capacity, so it makes no sense to continue to ignore the value that our passenger rail system could offer this country if we actually put some real money towards improving it. 

To be clear, I don’t subscribe to this notion that Amtrak needs to operate cost-neutral. China served nearly 3.4 billion people in 2018 with their rail system, which they heavily invest in to the tune of $130 billion annually. Germany’s Deutsche Bahn transports around 7.3 million passengers a day, and the German federal government plans to fund a massive modernization project totaling $55.6 billion.

Unfortunately, we have never provided the significant capital investments necessary to allow us to enjoy the flourishing passenger rail system that so many other countries value. Instead we are left with a mess of Civil War-era bridges and tunnels that Amtrak inherited when they assumed passenger rail service from railroads on the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970s, and a network that looks about the same as it did nearly five decades ago. 

Over the last two years, Amtrak has made a lot of changes to adhere to this concept of being cost-neutral.  All to the detriment of customers and employees.  They have eliminated the traditional dining service that Amtrak was known for on overnight routes east of the Mississippi.  They’ve closed a call center in California that employed nearly 500 employees and assisted customers with reservations and travel adjustment. Only to contract much of this work out in Florida. Amtrak eliminated stations agents at 15 different stations across the county. They reduced the discount for seniors and announced plans to drastically reduce the number of Amtrak police officers who help keep passengers and communities safe. Amtrak has also nearly eliminated all charter services or special trains and has significantly scaled back opportunities for private cars to travel on Amtrak trains.

And the hits keep coming.  On Friday, Politico reported that Amtrak has been requiring passengers to agree to an arbitration agreement when they purchase their ticket.  This change was quietly put into place in January 2019, and forces customers to consent to waive their rights to sue in U.S. courts for any reason, including for catastrophic injury or wrongful death. Also last week, Amtrak announced that they would be eliminating at least another 89 clerk jobs, who are represented by TCU, who is here today.  Amtrak employees are rightfully fearful for their future, because so many of these changes have put their careers on the chopping block without much explanation or notice from Amtrak.

Mr. Anderson, all we are seeing are cuts.  Today, we need to hear what your long-term plans are for strengthening and growing Amtrak service. For upholding domestic procurement requirements that support good-paying jobs in this country and for adhering to the labor standards that, for decades, have created an avenue to the middle-class for Amtrak workers. Are you talking to passengers to get feedback on what they want and expect?  When you initially rolled out food and beverage changes, customers weren’t happy.

In August, I held a meeting in my district to talk about the state-supported service that ends in my district— the Cascades route.  We have dismal ridership because passengers can’t reliably expect the train to meet its destination at the scheduled time. We need to address on-time performance issues with the freight railroads, because while Amtrak has preference on these lines by statute, in practice that is not always happening, and instead passenger trains are being dispatched into sidings and forced to wait.

The thing is, people want national passenger rail service.  To get there, we have to stop nickel and diming Amtrak to death and get over this notion that Amtrak can help meet the far-reaching transportation needs of our country without real federal investment that both expands services and improves the system that we have.  I look forward to hearing your visions of Amtrak’s future and about the ways we can strengthen and grow this national asset without harming those who rely on this system for travel and employment.

Chair DeFazio’s statement as delivered can be found here.

Chair Lipinski:

Good morning and welcome. Today’s oversight hearing of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee is entitled “Amtrak Now and Into the Future.”

This hearing is part of this Subcommittee’s continued work on Amtrak reauthorization and the surface transportation reauthorization. Both authorizations expire at the end of September next year so this is a critical time to be looking at these issues as we begin drafting the legislation. I am a strong advocate for Amtrak service, and passenger rail in general. I am also frequently a passenger, as recently as when I was back home in the district last week. We need to make passenger rail work, and this will require a larger federal investment. But the reauthorization is not just going to be about providing more money, it will also be about making sure Amtrak is being run well. Because Amtrak recently has undertaken a lot of actions that have raised concerns, we will be focusing on some of these concerns today.

One concern is that Amtrak has made and continues to make significant cuts to its workforce, including cutting call center employees, food and beverage workers, station agents, and police officers. Last week, Amtrak informed the Transportation Communications Union that it is cutting an additional 89 jobs. Amtrak is even outsourcing call center jobs to a private contractor in Florida that pays minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, with no benefits. This outsourcing is occurring after Amtrak closed the Riverside, California, facility last year and told everyone that the jobs at the Philadelphia call center were safe. It is insulting for Amtrak to be cutting jobs they say are not needed and then outsourcing the same jobs to low-wage, no-benefit contractors. Amtrak clearly has decided that the way to prosperity is to have its workers pay for it. This is not the way to run this railroad. Making customer interactions, food and beverage service, and police protection worse decreases Amtrak’s attractiveness to potential riders. You do not get more riders or more revenue with a worse product.

I look forward to hearing from the Transportation Trades Department, Transportation Communications Union, and SMART-UTU today on how we start reversing this alarming trend and get back to a place where Amtrak treats its workers with the respect and dignity they deserve, and gives passenger the quality service they deserve. 

Next I want to turn to Amtrak’s intentions regarding long distance service. When Congress created Amtrak in 1970, it clearly intended the railroad to serve the whole nation; the word “National” is in Amtrak’s official name. Amtrak’s long distance services are a critical economic lifeline to many small towns throughout our nation. Oftentimes, Amtrak service is the only connection these towns have and are especially relied on by those who cannot drive, including seniors. Amtrak tried to end the Southwest Chief service in 2018 and Congress roundly rejected it. Any proposals from Amtrak to end other long-distance train services will be met with similar congressional reaction. 

Finally, I remain focused on a big issue to my constituents and the Chicago region, Amtrak’s stewardship of Chicago Union Station (CUS). Tens of thousands of my constituents take trains in and out of CUS every day. 90 percent of all passengers who pass through CUS are passengers of Metra commuter rail. Amtrak has had some major issues this year at CUS, including falling concrete at the station that hit a Metra train and a disastrous service outage in February that lasted through multiple rush hours that was solely Amtrak’s fault.  Improvements must still be made at Chicago Union Station. I believe the best way to do this would be for Amtrak to give up operational control of the station to ensure that its operations improve to the level that passengers deserve.

I look forward to hearing from all our witnesses on these issues as well as other issues like on-time performance. I want Amtrak to provide the quality rail travel that passengers deserve. I believe that we must all work together to provide that. 

I now recognize Ranking Member Crawford for an opening statement. 

Chair Lipinski’s statement as delivered can be found here.