The fate of the National Passenger Rail Network was front and center at yesterday's Senate nomination hearing for two candidates to the Amtrak Board of Directors. From written testimony to the opening line of questioning to closing statements, the long-term fate of Amtrak as a truly national service was spotlighted by both Senators and witnesses.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing for Amtrak Board of Director nominees Sarah Feinberg and Chris Koos. Both are experienced candidates with a background in government and passenger rail. And both nominees were clear that they support increased investment in Amtrak infrastructure, an increased footprint for the National Network, and certainty for Amtrak communities on the long-distance network.
Hear how Feinberg and Koos responded to Kansas Senator Jerry Moran (R) when he questioned both if they support long-distance rail service ( start at 1:19:20 on the nomination hearing website: https://www.commerce.senate.gov/2020/8/nominations-hearing )
Ms. Feinberg led the way, talking about her current role as interim President of New York City Transit, the largest public transit agency in North America. She has previously served as head of the Federal Railroad Administration in the Obama Administration, duties which included a seat on the Amtrak Board in 2015 and 2016.
“During that stint on the Amtrak Board, I had the opportunity to help shape the company’s approach to safety, its continued implementation of Positive Train Control, and its approach to making its system more accessible to all,” Feinberg told senators via video link. “I also worked closely with the company and with my fellow board members as we implemented service improvements across the country, including on state supported routes and on the company’s long distance service, including the contemplation of the return of Gulf Coast service.”
Mr. Koos currently serves as Mayor of Normal, Illinois, and has played a leading role in demonstrating how small towns can leverage passenger rail service to generate economic activity and retain and attract young residents. Mayor Koos emphasized the importance of passenger rail to these kinds of communities.
“As much as I admire Amtrak, I recognize that the organization faces a number of challenges that I would hope to focus on if my appointment to the Board of Directors is confirmed,” stated Koos, in his opening statement. “As a member of the Board, I would reaffirm my support for long-distance passenger rail. My community is served by both state-supported and long-distance lines. I recognize the importance of long-distance train travel for many of my constituents, who are often unable to travel by plane, bus, or car. Amtrak plays a major role in the mobility and independence of the disability community; this cannot be ignored.”
Senators Target Future of Amtrak Service in Questions
When opening statements were finished, members of the committee bypassed the other nominees—which included candidates for the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation and a Member of the Surface Transportation Board—to spotlight issues facing the Amtrak network.
“It’s no secret that the Ranking Member and I are supporters of passenger rail,” stated Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS). “It plays a very important role in our economy, I’d like to see it enhanced and expanded, and I assume all of our witnesses feel that way too.”
Senator Wicker went on to highlight the Gulf Coast Restoration project, asking for the support of both nominees in returning passenger rail service to a region which has been disconnected since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) also devoted the majority of her questions to the challenges facing Amtrak and securing commitments from both witnesses that they would be good stewards of the National Network:
“Amtrak faces a series of critical challenges in the near future as we deal with the severe decline in travel as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. In an effort to address these challenges, Amtrak's management has proposed severe cuts in service, including reducing long distance train to three days a week and deep staffing reductions. I'm very concerned that these cuts may significantly harm communities served by Amtrak and threaten the long-term viability of our national rail network. I hope that my colleagues will step up in this next COVID package and make sure that there is support for Amtrak, the communities, and the workforce.”
“…Amtrak is critical for millions of people and for us, the two lines in Washington state – the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder – they serve 15 communities and a majority of them being small and rural communities. So, I would like to ask the nominees, do you—what kind of commitment can we get that you're going to preserve the Amtrak long distance service, and the economic lifeline that it provides to rural communities?”
Both nominees responded positively to these questions, pledging to preserve long-distance service and support a truly national network.
“I'm very committed to the national network of long-distance trains. Without those trains, we don't have a national network. And I think it's crucial for the function of Amtrak,” said Mr. Koos. “I think people sometimes gloss over the long-distance routes, as saying they’re from point A to point Z, but a lot of people don't realize the use those trains get for shorter distances along that corridor, and it’s a critical part of our daily operations. I understand the need right now to be prudent about the frequency of those routes in a COVID-19 world, but I'm strongly committed to, at such time as we can safely travel through this country without the fear of COVID-19, to returning to daily service on the long distance routes.”
“You have my commitment,” added Ms. Feinberg. “I'm from a small town in a rural state myself, I’m from West Virginia, and I’m well aware of the importance of that long-distance service to those communities, and also just the station and the employees there acting as touch points to the community. You have my commitment.”
You can watch the full video on the Senate Commerce Committee website, which includes a number of worthwhile exchanges between Senators and the two nominees on the subject of Amtrak.