April 20, 2014

UTU goes to bat for Amtrak & its workers

Going to bat for Amtrak and its dedicated work force, UTU Alternate Legislative Director John Risch Jan. 27 outlined for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee reasons why an intercity national rail passenger system is essential for Americans and worthy of continued federal funding.

The T&I field hearing was held in New York City’s historic Grand Central Terminal, with T&I Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Rail Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) in charge. Among those participating with Risch were Amtrak President Joe Boardman and Transportation Communications Union President Bob  Scardelletti.

Mica advocated increased private-sector investment in Amtrak’s 437-mile Northeast Corridor, which operates between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Amtrak Acela trains now provide the highest speed rail in America over the Northeast Corridor (a maximum of 150 mph), but Boardman is pushing for a federally backed effort to implement true high-speed rail on the corridor, with trains capable of speeds up to 220 mph.

Said Mica: “Amtrak’s current plan to bring high speed rail to the Northeast Corridor would require $117 billion, and would not be completed until the year 2040. This slow-speed schedule for bringing true high-speed rail service to the Northeast Corridor will never allow President Obama to meet his goal announced in Tuesday’s State of the Union address that, ‘Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percet of Americans access to high-speed rail.’”

Boardman countered that “Amtrak was created by Congress precisely because the privately owned railroads could no longer sustain the vital public service of intercity passenger rail. No other operator or company is prepared to mobilize to take over the operation of the Northeast Corridor,” Boardman said. “Nor are they funded to cover the long-term capital and operating costs.

“It is critical for the Northeast Corridor to remain a public asset for the generations of Americans that are depending on our collective leadership to secure their future,” Boardman said. “It is about connecting the major metropolitan communities of the Northeast, and also connecting the Northeast to the rest of the United States.

“As a result of Amtrak’s stewardship and improvement of the Northeast Corridor infrastructure, train speeds have increased from 90 mph to 150 mph, America’s only high-speed rail service was introduced, and additional capacity was created to support significantly expanded commuter rail operations,” Boardman said. 

Risch, representing the UTU, made the following points:

  • The government has put nearly 70 times more money into highways and aviation than into railroads.
  • The high cost of fuel, along with traffic and airport congestion, is drawing travelers back to trains for commuting and travel between cities as much as 500 miles apart.
  • A Pew Research poll found that the number of Americans who enjoy driving fell by 10 percentage points over a recent 15 year period — and highway traffic congestion, rather than higher fuel prices — was the reason.
  • The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials predicts that by 2020, some 90 percent of urban Interstate highways will be at or exceeding capacity.
  • Philadelphia officials estimate 50 additional flights daily would be needed to handle Amtrak passengers arriving and departing from that city.
  • Federal transportation officials estimate that without Amtrak service into Manhattan, 20 additional highway lanes, 10 new tunnels under the Hudson River and hundreds of acres of new more parking would be required.
  • Civil engineers estimate that two railroad tracks have the capacity to carry as many people each hour as 16 lanes of highway; and 300 miles of railroad use less land than a single commercial airport.
  • Although Amtrak collects substantial revenue from the fare box, it competes against heavily subsidized highways and commercial aviation, leaving Amtrak insufficient dollars to purchase urgently needed new rolling stock and locomotives, improve facilities and increase service availability.
  • Railroads require less land than new highways and airports, they are less expensive to construct, they are more fuel efficient than highway or air transport, they are environmentally preferable to all competing forms of motorized transportation, and they are notably safer than highway travel.
  • The Department of Transportation’s inspector general said in congressional testimony in 2005:

“Long-distance trains carry only a small number of end-to-end riders. Of the 3.9 million long-distance riders in fiscal year 2004, only 527,000 rode the entire length of the route … three million riders traveled along portions of the route.

“While eliminating long-distance service [a perennial money loser for Amtrak] may seem appealing from a federal budgetary standpoint, especially with the large deficits, it ignores the mobility needs of rural areas of the country and the benefits passenger rail provides.”