Connecting state and local government leaders
But officials with the passenger railroad say they’re struggling with workforce shortages.
Several senators who oversee Amtrak’s operations pressed nominees for the passenger rail company’s board to move more quickly to restore service in places where it had been lost years ago, and to prepare to add routes using billions of dollars Congress set aside in last year’s infrastructure bill.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, set the tone. Cantwell chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which held a hearing on Wednesday to vet four nominees to Amtrak’s board.
She asked Tony Coscia, the board’s chair who is up for another term, if Amtrak would restart service on its route between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia by the end of the month.
Coscia said it was a “distinct possibility” but declined to make a firm commitment.
“I would have said that was an easy ‘yes,’ that you were going to give me,” Cantwell responded, as she pressed for more information.
“I frankly was very tempted to give you a very quick ‘yes,’ but our experience since recovering from the pandemic shows us that we need to be incredibly cautious about the commitments that we make… given some of the variables we can’t control,” Coscia answered.
The board chairman eventually said he hoped that at least one train a day on the Cascade route would be running by Sept. 26. But Coscia said the pandemic and its aftermath had made it difficult for Amtrak to hire enough people to keep trains running on time. Coscia said Amtrak had hired 2,800 people of its target of 4,000 people so far this federal fiscal year, which concludes at the end of September.
Cantwell said the passenger service needed to do a better job hiring employees to make rail travel more dependable.
“What I need before I can support any of these nominees before us today is commitment for us to come up with a workforce strategy and plan that allows us to continue,” she said. “We cannot simply say, ‘We don’t have enough conductors. We don’t have enough baggage handlers. We don’t have enough of this.’ The public believes they survived the pandemic, and they want to see the services restored.”
Christopher Koos, another board nominee, who is the mayor of Normal, Illinois, agreed with the need to expand recruitment of Amtrak employees, particularly by working with community colleges to train potential workers. “But it takes time,” he stressed.
Koos also said he sympathized with Coscia for not offering an exact date for service restoration. “What I’ve found as a mayor is that you don’t announce a date until you’ve got a pair of scissors in your hand ready to cut,” he quipped.
The top Republican senator on the committee, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, pressed the Amtrak nominees and a member of the Surface Transportation Board, which handles conflicts dealing with railroads, on the need to restore service on the Gulf Coast Amtrak route between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, which includes four stops in Mississippi. The route has been out of commission since Hurricane Katrina struck the region 17 years ago.
The delays are the result of a long-running dispute between Amtrak and the freight railroads whose tracks it runs on, over what accommodations Amtrak must make to use the route. The Surface Transportation Board is trying to resolve that disagreement, which could affect Amtrak’s relationships with other “host” railroads around the country. The dispute comes at a time when Congress is pushing for an expansion of passenger rail service to more cities.
Wicker asked Coscia whether he thought it would be better for Amtrak to fight the matter out, going to court if necessary, so that Amtrak could protect its rights under federal law to use the tracks or if the passenger railroad would rather solve the immediate problem on the Gulf Coast and save the bigger problems for later.
Coscia said he’d rather take the short-term win if he could.
“If there is a solution that can be offered in the near term that would allow us to provide that service and restore the Gulf Coast service sooner, we should avail ourselves of that,” Coscia said.
“Having said that,” added Coscia, an attorney, “we also need to protect the broader mission that we have to the nation to try to utilize the underutilized freight rail assets that are out there that could give us the opportunity to serve a much broader cross section of the nation.”
Coscia said the federal law that created Amtrak was clear that passenger trains would get priority. The arrangement was part of a rescue plan Congress passed to revive financially troubled railroads.
“I don’t for the life of me understand how our preference rights have been so easily not observed by some of the host freight railroads,” Coscia told Wicker.
Other committee members, who were from predominantly rural states, pressed the nominees, who were mostly from the East Coast, about the importance of long-distance routes that crossed several states.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, asked the nominees if any of them had ever been to Montana. None of them had.
“I am more than a little frustrated by the fact that the [set of] Amtrak nominees before us doesn’t include any of the western states,” Tester said. “The fact that none of you have been to the state of Montana to understand the size and the breadth and the length and the distance is a problem.”
Tester said the Empire Builder route that goes through the state “is under attack almost every single day” but is “critically important to our state.”
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, pressed each of the nominees to voice their support for the long-distance trains, which they all did.
“I was awakened to the realization that not everyone shares that view when, at one point in time, Amtrak’s position was that we should replace train passenger service with bus service from a point in Kansas to a point in New Mexico and consider that part of the national passenger rail service,” Moran explained, referring to proposed cuts to the Southwest Chief that Amtrak abandoned after many public figures voiced opposition.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.