June 21, 2005

WASHINGTON (June 21)—The House Appropriations Committee today approved a Fiscal Year 2006 Amtrak budget that critics said would force the end of Midwestern passenger train service, including the popular “Chicago Hub” trains.

Echoing the June 15 recommendation of its Railroad Subcommittee, the full Appropriations Committee voted along partisan lines to approve an Amtrak budget of $550 million, less than half of the amount approved for 2005.

“If the Committee’s version of the new bill is approved by the whole House and by the Senate as well, there will be no Amtrak service in the Midwest,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Five hundred and fifty million dollars is less than half of what Congress provided Amtrak last year. That’s simply not enough to keep Amtrak going. It’s a shut-down budget.”

A Subcommittee press release said the $550 million would be sufficient to enable Amtrak to carry “4 out of 5 riders or 80 per cent of Amtrak’s ridership…all routes in the Northeast Corridor, including spurs that run from New York City to Albany, from New Haven, Connecticut, to Vermont; from Portland, Maine, to Boston; routes running through Pennsylvania; most corridor routes in the Midwest; trains running from Portland, Oregon, to Vancouver, and corridor routes in California.”

But Szabo declared those claims “nonsense,” saying that Amtrak’s overhead costs would eat up so much of the appropriation that little would be left for operating the trains themselves.

“The Committee members apparently failed to notice that Amtrak has to meet more than $200 million in debt-service payments each year on loans and equipment leases,” he said.

“And if they shut down the long-distance network, hundreds of unemployed train-crew members and members of the shop crafts are going to receive C-2 job-protection payments, some for as long as five years. That will eat up a sizeable percentage of the FY 2006 operating budget.”

Szabo said Amtrak also will have to continue investing part of its budget in renovation and upgrading of the Northeast Corridor, which is still suffering from decades of deferred maintenance.

“Once you deduct the money for all those expenses, you just don’t have enough left to run trains—not even the skeletal network of corridor trains the Committee claims it supports,” he said. “This is a shut-down budget. It means the wheels will stop rolling, the doors will close, and Amtrak will be forced into bankruptcy and liquidation.”

Szabo also took issue with a Committee claim that Amtrak’s long-distance trains, eight of which originate in Chicago, could be dropped because “The proliferation of low-cost airfares makes national railroad service less necessary.”

“That’s utter nonsense,” Szabo said. “Most of the passengers who use Amtrak’s long-distance trains actually do not travel long distances. They ride only part of the way, usually to or from small towns that have no air service.”

Even if air service were available, Szabo said, there’s no reason to expect that Amtrak passengers would switch to it if their train were taken away.

“Travel choice is not necessarily fungible,” he said. “People do not readily exchange rail for air or air for auto. There are a lot of people who prefer to travel by rail, and if a train is not available they just don’t go.”

Szabo cited an article published in USA Today August 21, 2001, that showed four out of ten U.S. adults “won’t fly at all.”

“You think about this huge airline network and this vast collection of congested airports we have in this country, but all we’re doing is recycling the same 30 per cent of the population through it,” he said. “Two months before September 11, forty per cent of those interviewed said they wouldn’t fly. Some are afraid, some don’t care for the experience, some don’t have access to discount carriers. A lot of those people are ready to become train riders, but the same Congress that gives us federal highways and airports won’t give those people a train to ride. A huge travel and tourism market is going unexploited and undeveloped because of Congress’s short-sightedness.”

Szabo said the Committee’s vote is not final and could undergo adjustment during debate on the House floor.

“It is expected that House Rail Sub-committee Chairman Steve LaTourette (R-OH) will introduce a floor amendment to return to a ‘full-funding’ level,” said Szabo. “But given the White House call for zero funding and the Appropriations Committee’s call for less than one-third of Amtrak’s needs it will be a tough row to hoe.”

Szabo said chances may be better in the Senate.

“Historically, the Senate has often restored Amtrak funds that the House has removed, and the House has allowed it in conference,” Szabo said. “UTU’s Washington legislative team will be working to promote this same outcome in the current session.”

Szabo noted that Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens on Monday predicted that within a year oil prices would hit $80 a barrel and gasoline would cost $3 a gallon.

“At a time when driving is becoming dramatically more expensive it would seem almost criminal to dismantle our nation’s meager and underfunded passenger-train system,” he said. “But the White House and the congressional leadership remain oblivious.”