Amtrak’s financial situation and the freight rail industry’s continued use of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices were the focus of a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing Oct. 21.
Amtrak President and CEO William Flynn repeated his plea for almost $5 billion in emergency funding to help the nation’s passenger carrier weather the continued downturn in ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The carrier has made drastic long-distance service cuts, going from daily to three trips per week on many routes. Furloughs for almost 2,000 Amtrak employees are scheduled to take effect in November.
“Virtually all of the CARES Act money has been spent,” Flynn told the committee. “These workforce adjustments are essential with current financial funding.”
A number of legislative actions, including the HEROES Act and the INVEST in America Act, while passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, have been stalled by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the GOP-controlled Senate. The emergency funding provided by such legislation would help the carrier rebound, Flynn said.
“Once the pandemic eases, Amtrak plans to grow,” he said.
A second panel featured a discussion of PSR.
Rudy Gordon, CEO of the National Grain and Feed Association, expressed concerns from a shipper perspective about the redeployment of furloughed railroad workers, saying that he fears delays in service and shipments on the part of rail carriers when the economy rebounds.
PSR has caused “a tipping point” at the expense of customer service, Gordon said, and said that if rail service erodes further at the expense of the carriers obtaining lower operating ratios (ORs) that the Surface Transportation Board should intervene.
“Across the sector, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, threatening both the health and livelihoods of employees,” Willis stated. “At the same time, freight railroads, at the insistence of Wall Street investors and hedge fund managers, have pursued operating practices that undermine basic tenets of rail safety, ask frontline workers to do more with less, and threaten the reliable and efficient customer service that should be the hallmark of this industry.”
The lone labor representative invited to testify in person was Dennis Pierce, president of the Teamsters Rail Conference.
Other industry stakeholders appearing were:
Paul Tuss, executive director, Bear Paw Developing Corporation and Member, Montana Economic Developers Association
Frank Chirumbole, vice president global supply chain, Olin Corporation on behalf of American Chemistry Council
Kent Fountain, chairman, National Cotton Council
Ian Jefferies, president and chief executive officer, Association of American Railroads
Gregg B. Weaver, a retired member of SMART-TD Local 898 who rode with former Vice President Joe Biden many times during the longtime senator’s commute from Delaware to Washington D.C., was featured in a video presented Monday, Aug. 17, during the first night of the Democratic National Convention.
In the video, the former vice president’s respect and empathy toward the SMART members who served him as he traveled on Amtrak were highlighted.
“I think he’s most comfortable around everyday, working-class people,” Weaver said. “He makes you feel like you belong.”
SMART-TD member Gregg Weaver, right, introduces Vice President-elect Joe Biden at the Wilmington, Del., Amtrak station in January 2009.
Another instance of Biden’s concern came after he heard that Weaver had had a heart attack, Weaver recalled in the video.
“I was in a barber shop in New York City and the phone rings,” Weaver said. “And sure enough, it’s Vice President Biden asking how I’m doing — wanted to know the whole story. Kind of funny that you’re talking to the Vice President of the United States, but if I would have told the people in the barber shop, I don’t think they would have believed me.
“I’m not saying like it was me and I’m anything special. Everyone was special to him. We have heroes all over this country … the average guy is important to him.”
H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act, a massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that contains provisions important to members of all crafts in the SMART Transportation Division and to sheet metal workers, passed through the U.S. House of Representatives by a 233-188 vote on July 1.
requirements for carriers to meet CDC guidelines and to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to transportation workers
“This is an unprecedented step ahead for many of our union’s major issues through the legislative process,” SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy R. Ferguson said. “Our concerns were heard and addressed by the writers of this bill — safety for workers and communities alike in the bus and transit operator safety measures and in the crew-size provision, funding for Amtrak, and a number of other provisions intended to rebuild and transform the nation’s roads and rails.
“Federal agencies and big-pocketed lobbyists have tried to obstruct the essential protections that this bill provides to our members and to the people who work on, live near and use our nation’s transportation network. These representatives all had the foresight and initiative to move them forward.”
In the column, Jefferies also argued that legislators were “putting their collective thumbs on the scale” regarding railroad safety in regulating the crew-size safety issue.
The INVEST in America component of the Moving Forward Act was shepherded by House T&I Chairperson Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, through the committee June 18. He commented on July 1 after the bill’s passage:
“Passage of this bold, forward-thinking infrastructure bill is proof that finally, there is a majority of us in Congress who won’t accept the status quo and instead are willing to fight for a new vision that invests in our communities, addresses the climate crisis, and creates better opportunities for all. And we get there by putting millions of people to work in jobs that cannot be exported, while harnessing American-made materials, ingenuity, and innovation,” he said. “With the Moving Forward Act, we make it clear that our infrastructure does not have to be a product of the past, with crumbling roads and bridges, unreliable transit and rail networks, inequitable outcomes, and little regard to our changing climate and our changing economy. I challenge my Senate colleagues to join the House in thinking big and being bold on long-overdue investments not only in our infrastructure, but also in the communities and the people we all represent.”
Leaders in the SMART-TD National Legislative Department thanked DeFazio and the bipartisan group of Democrats and a trio of Republicans who supported H.R. 2.
“As if we need any additional evidence that elections matter, this result shows that the 2018 change of party control in the House made a difference,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “We appreciate those legislators who supported this legislation in its journey through the House. There is more work to be done and a path to be cleared for this legislation, and our membership is more than willing to put in the time to make legislators understand why the bill provisions are necessary.”
On March 27, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that provides provisions favorable to SMART Transportation Division members as the nation continues to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill provides a $2 trillion relief package to the nation as it copes with COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has killed hundreds and infected thousands of Americans.
“This bill helps to provide some short-term relief to the transportation industry that has been staggered by the coronavirus,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “In the event that carriers continue to cut workers or that employees get sick, those workers, including our members, will have extended financial protection. It also gives a financial lifeline to Amtrak as the passenger carrier’s operations have been severely curtailed by the pandemic.”
This relief bill:
waives the seven-day waiting period for benefits provided under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA).
provides an enhanced RUIA benefit of $1,200 per two-week period in addition to regular RUIA benefits.
extends Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) sickness and unemployment benefits by 13 weeks.
provides RRB $5 million in additional grant funds to administer the RUIA.
provides $1 billion in funding to keep Amtrak operational to prevent, prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including $492 million to the Northeast Corridor and $508 million to support its long-distance service.
tasks Amtrak with providing congressional reports regarding employee furloughs, if they occur.
The economic uncertainty and long-term health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic present a challenge nationally, and the RRB is advising all railroaders to set up a RRB account. Click here to establish your account.
Additional RRB funding and the removal of RRB benefits from the budget sequester implemented by congressional Republicans during the Obama administration may be considered in subsequent relief packages.
“Therefore, it is necessary that Amtrak and all railroads providing passenger and commuter rail service to take immediate and appropriate precautions to mitigate against the spread of the virus amongst their workforces and passengers, to minimize the exposure of their employees to the virus during the performance of their duties, and to maintain sufficient staffing levels to compensate for reduced headcounts caused by sick employees and family members until the virus begins to subside,” SMART-TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson and BLET President Dennis R. Pierce wrote in their petition.
The unions’ request for an EO basically calls for an action plan to help address the potential spread of the coronavirus among rail workers by using protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To date, the FRA has failed to enact such an action plan. Several components of the unions’ passenger rail EO request mirror those requested in their joint freight petition, which includes: locomotive sanitation, common room sanitation, employee temperature observation protocols, away-from-home terminal procedures, crew transportation sanitation, what to do if an employee develops symptoms, and furlough recall procedures. The unions’ petition for a passenger EO covers: coach/passenger car sanitation standards, sleeper car sanitation, and directives in case a passenger develops symptoms.
The unions suggest that 25% of furloughed rail personnel should immediately be recalled to service to deal with anticipated shortages and staffing needs, in accordance with President Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act.
“In order to standardize and define the best protocols across the industry for mitigation of the spread of the virus and the protection of both passengers and employees, there exists a number of safety precautions that need to be immediately ordered by FRA,” Presidents Ferguson and Pierce stated.
The SMART Transportation Division is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members of the former United Transportation Union, who work in a variety of crafts in the transportation industry.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen represents nearly 58,000 professional locomotive engineers and trainmen throughout the United States. The BLET is the founding member of the Rail Conference, International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
SMART Transportation Division Illinois State Legislative Director Bob Guy testified Nov. 13 before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials regarding the future of Amtrak as members of Congress continue the reauthorization process for the national passenger carrier and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
He touched upon the topics of assault upon workers, Amtrak funding and having a labor member on the carrier’s board.
Illinois State Legislative Director Bob Guy testifies before members of the U.S. House rail subcommittee on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. At left behind Guy is SMART TD National Legislative Director Gregory Hynes and to the right behind Guy is Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity.
Guy called for Congress to increase the level of appropriations reserved for Amtrak so that the carrier can go forward as an important part in the groundwork of a multimodal transportation system in the United States.
“Congress should allow Amtrak to be America’s railroad and support their ability to maintain a qualified workforce that meets customers’ demands now and well into the future,” Guy told representatives on the subcommittee.
He said steps taken by legislators in the FAST Act, including the addition of three grants administered by the Federal Railroad Administration, have helped to increase momentum for improving Amtrak’s service.
“These grants are successful, and they work.”
But operationally, there are areas of concern — Guy urged representatives to preserve and protect Amtrak’s long-distance service, which had been in jeopardy of being axed last year — especially the Southwest Chief route — before legislators stepped in.
On the administrative side, Guy said the Amtrak Board of Directors should have a member from labor on it, mirroring what the Railroad Retirement Board does, Guy said. Often, the experiences of SMART TD members and other unionized workers who keep Amtrak running day to day can be enlightening on what to do and what not to do when running the railroad, he said.
“Passengers interact with our members on board trains,” Guy said. “We hear concerns and complaints … having a labor member at a board level will help Amtrak make decisions that could affect service.”
Guy was one of three labor representatives who discussed the carrier’s relationship with labor. Over the past year, Amtrak has engaged in what has been described by some as “union busting” behavior, especially as it concerns cuts to the jobs of unionized call-center and food-service workers, police officers and rural station agents.
“When you are reducing the workforce that’s in charge of inspections and fixing equipment and whatnot, it makes it hard to keep things in a state of good repair, regardless if new equipment is coming,” Guy said. “I wouldn’t want to see worker reductions to the point where safety is jeopardized. We don’t think it is, but that’s a path we wouldn’t want to see.”
Amtrak reported a positive fiscal 2019 with an increase in ridership, a decrease in operating loss and an increase in operating revenue, but subcommittee Chairman Dan Lipinski, who represents Illinois’ 3rd District, was highly critical of the carrier’s cuts that helped to achieve those results in his opening remarks.
“Amtrak clearly has decided that the way to prosperity is to have its workers pay for it,” Lipinski said. “This is not the way to run this railroad.”
Among the cuts were about 500 jobs at a call center in Riverside, Calif. About 350 of those jobs were later brought back at non-union sites.
“Amtrak used to be an enviable place to work,” said Jack Dinsdale, national vice president of the Transportation Communications Union, in criticizing the loss of those union jobs. “It was about union busting, period.”
Also testifying on labor’s behalf was Dan Regan, secretary of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.
A U.S. senator from Kansas received an assurance in a letter from Amtrak’s president and CEO that the national passenger carrier will maintain long-distance service at its current status quo through the 2019 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and possibly on through the enactment period of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which runs through the 2020 fiscal year.
Kansas News Service (ksnewsservice.org) reported that a spokesperson for the senator said a May 22 in-person meeting between Moran and Anderson was a “step in the right direction.” However, the holds Moran placed on President Donald Trump’s nominations to the Amtrak Board of Directors will remain while he awaits more answers to questions that arose from that meeting, the report said.
Amtrak’s top boss, Richard Anderson, wrote in a letter to Moran that congressional action has secured the short-term future of the long-distance routes.
“We believe that Congress generally endorsed continued operation of our current route network for the five-year period from FY15-FY20 through the enactment of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act,” Anderson wrote. “Thus, although Amtrak is not technically required to operate any given route under the FAST Act, we plan on operating all of our long-distance trains for the remainder of this period while seeking to drive improved performance consistent with our goal to grow ridership while reducing Federal subsidies.”
However, Anderson also indicated that alterations to the long-distance interstate service again will be considered as the carrier seeks to build upon its recent performance, with increased ridership and record-setting fiscal performance with higher revenue and reduced operating losses.
“… We must position ourselves to attract a new generation of customers. Just as other modes of transportation and businesses are compelled to evolve, so must we if our mode is to grow as a relevant and efficient means of mass transportation,” Anderson wrote. “We owe this to our customers and your constituents, along with our nearly 20,000 hard-working and dedicated employees. That is why we have a plan to break even on operating results by 2020.”
Anderson went into detail about the financial performance and cost of the carrier’s long-distance routes and said more than half of the federal appropriations that Amtrak received went toward funding those routes.
“Long-distance trains require large federal subsidies because their revenues are lower and operating costs are higher than Amtrak’s state-supported and NEC (Northeast Corridor) services. The federal government is virtually the only funding source for the capital investments they require,” Anderson wrote. “These costs are set to increase significantly in the future as we face host railroad-related poor on-time performance across the network and much of our equipment used in long distance service reaches the end of its useful life and requires replacement.”
Discussion of an upcoming funding reauthorization in Congress will give a clearer indication of the future of the long-distance routes, Anderson said.
“Looking forward, we aim to have a conversation with Congress and our other stakeholders about the future of the long-distance services,” Anderson wrote. “While we strongly believe that there is a permanent place for high quality long-distance trains in our network, the time to closely examine the size and nature of that role is upon us for numerous reasons.”
The replacement of long-distance routes with new corridor service is certainly on the table for Amtrak, Anderson said. Among potential corridors warranting further study are Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans; Fort Worth, Texas to Newton, Kansas; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota to Chicago and Duluth, and the Front Range Corridor.
An initial analysis of these potential corridor routes is expected to be performed this summer, he wrote.
“Demand for shorter rail trips in corridors between major cities is increasing, particularly in the fast-growing South, Southwest and Mountain states,” Anderson wrote. “However, the minimal service Amtrak currently provides in these regions, with long-distance trains that are often many hours late and serve major cities in the middle of the night, does not meet the needs of their rapidly increasing populations.”
At a meeting last week involving Metra and suburban Chicago city leaders, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, told the carrier that it needed to step up its performance.
“Too often, Metra riders are not getting the service that they deserve,” Lipinski said in a news release. “I said in a town hall I held in December to address problems on the BNSF line that 2019 needs to be a better year for all Metra riders. Metra is still coming up frustratingly short. It is time to stop passing the buck and find solutions.”
Metra struggled with a technology outage involving Amtrak at Union Station in February, which prompted the April 16 meeting, according to the Joliet Herald News.
U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D – Mont.) recently criticized the Trump administration for budget proposals that would cut funding for Amtrak rural services, especially the Montana Empire Builder line, and wrote Amtrak’s President Richard Anderson asking for accountability and answers.
“Congress purposely created a national network of long-distance and state-supported train service throughout the nation, in recognition of the importance of a transportation system that reaches every community — regardless of how rural it may be. Amtrak is more than a collection of individual train routes: it is a web of essential connections that bind our country together and link rural communities with major markets and economic opportunities. It provides residents of these communities with transportation options on which families, seniors, and businesses rely to access jobs, create economic opportunities, see our beautiful country. and visit family,” Tester’s letter to Anderson stated. “The federal investment in Amtrak ensures the small, mid-size, and rural communities served by Amtrak’s long-distance and state-supported routes continue to receive this essential service.”
Tester also posed the question to Amtrak as to why ticket agents have been eliminated and questioned the accounting methods the carrier is using to determine the cost of long-distance services. He also questioned leadership’s claims that long-distance service is down despite 2017 figures that showed that ridership is up 10.6% from the previous eight years. He asked that Amtrak address his questions by no later than April 29.
Sen. Tester’s bipartisan letter includes signatures from 10 other senators, including Tom Udall, Michael Bennet, Pat Roberts, Cory Gardner, Jerry Moran, Catherine Cortez Masto, Martin Heinrich, Joe Manchin III, Dick Durbin and Kyrsten Sinema.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled last month on the probable cause of a fatal accident in June 2017 that killed both a CSX conductor and a conductor trainee.
The men were struck from behind at 11:18 p.m. June 27, 2017, by an Amtrak train while walking to the cab of their train in Ivy City, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
The men had just completed a railcar inspection.
The NTSB report, released April 9, stated that there had been no rail traffic for about an hour on the active tracks upon which the men were walking as they returned.
As they walked, a pair of Amtrak trains, one northbound and one southbound, approached the men, the report stated.
NTSB said the northbound Amtrak train approached the men from the front on tracks to the left of those upon which they were walking, and that both trains sounded their horns and bells at virtually the same time in attempts to alert them.
“Given the simultaneous and similar horn and bell sounds from the two trains, the conductors may not have discerned two sources of the sounds and, consequently, concluded that the sounds originated from only one train — the one that they had detected ahead of them.
“As a result, it appears the conductors were unaware that a second train was approaching them from behind,” the report stated.
NTSB issued a new safety recommendation to the two carriers involved in the accident at the conclusion of its report:
“Prohibit employees from fouling adjacent tracks of another railroad unless the employees are provided protection from trains and/or equipment on the adjacent tracks by means of communication between the two railroads.”
Amtrak as we know it is in the budget crosshairs again, and if proposed cuts go through, it could have a lasting effect on not only our nation’s communities, but Railroad Retirement benefits as well.
President Donald Trump’s budget request proposes a $1.06 billion reduction in funding to Amtrak. Service to rural and mid-sized city destinations would be drastically affected with the adoption of this plan, and 15 routes classified as long distance could eventually lose federal funding due to a change in how funds are allocated.
“We hope that, like last year, this budget is a non-starter,” said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association (RPA). “But we note with some concern that this time around, the administration appears to be getting a little smarter in its approach — and that approach could yet endanger our trains.”
Rather than cutting the routes outright, as has been proposed in previous Trump budgets, the 2020 plan would shift the money available to fund long-distance routes from Amtrak’s annual outlay to a competitive process. Over a four-year period, the administration would choose the routes that received funds with states applying for funding through the Restoration & Enhancement grant program.
“The Trump Administration seems to be taking a page from anti-long-distance factions in Washington, looking to pit National Network services against the Northeast Corridor. And by moving it to a competitive grant program — controlled by the White House — the administration gets to choose the winners and losers,” Mathews said.
The plan doesn’t sit well with the RPA’s Mathews, and it shouldn’t sit well with SMART Transportation Division rail members. Reducing Amtrak’s long-distance service will result in fewer people at work for the carrier. Fewer people working for the carrier means fewer railroaders paying into Railroad Retirement — a Railroad Retirement Board analysis of Trump’s 2018 budget proposal that would have cut Amtrak’s long-distance routes said an estimated 10,000 rail jobs would go away with the routes’ elimination.
For long-distance rail service to continue, the 2020 budget document suggests that the 23 states that the routes run through begin footing the bill rather than the federal government, which handed many corporations a major tax reduction at the end of 2017.
“In 2020, the Department of Transportation, Amtrak, states, and affected local Governments will collaborate to rationalize the Long Distance network to more efficiently serve modern market needs as a series of shorter-distance, high-performing corridor services where passenger rail as a transportation options (sic) makes sense,” the 2020 budget proposal states on page 78.
The budget goes on to say that “low population areas along the routes will be better served by other modes of transportation, like intercity buses.
“Over time, Federal support for Amtrak would be significantly reduced as Amtrak is able to right-size its network and States play a larger role, as they do now for State-supported and Northeast Corridor services,” the budget proposal concludes.
Hoosier State on the brink
But what happens to smaller places like Indiana, where routes are already in jeopardy?
Mayor Dennis Buckley’s city of Beech Grove is home to one of three Amtrak repair facilities nationwide. The Indianapolis-area shop employs approximately 525 workers and is served by Amtrak’s Hoosier State line that transports passengers from Indianapolis to Chicago as well as Amtrak cars to the Beech Grove facility for repairs.
Beech Grove, Indiana, Mayor Dennis Buckley, left, holds a copy of Trains Magazine that featured his city’s Amtrak repair facility that was presented to him by SMART Transportation Division Indiana State Legislative Director Kenny Edwards, right.
The state’s Legislature and the governor are looking to defund the route, Buckley said, and he finds himself having to fight for the jobs created by both Amtrak and by the businesses that have sprung up around the repair facility in his city of almost 15,000 people.
In a letter to state legislators urging them to support the route, Buckley said that Amtrak brings $100 million to the economy of central Indiana and Beech Grove’s Marion County.
“Amtrak must also become more competitive in the business of local mass transit,” Buckley said, but eliminating the four-stop, 196-mile route would be a severe blow to his community.
“Budgets should be set up to continually fund the Hoosier State line for years to come,” Buckley wrote to legislators, “I certainly recommend that the State of Indiana invests in our future. Our livelihood depends on it.”
As part of his effort, Buckley has reached out to Indianapolis media outlets. He would welcome it if SMART TD members who are Indiana residents talk to their legislators and state Gov. Eric Holcomb about maintaining the route’s funding.
The targeting of Amtrak’s long-distance routes is not new.
In addition to the administration’s yearly call to eliminate long-distance service, there was a battle waged last year over the Southwest Chief. Amtrak leadership had sought to replace portions of the route between Dodge City, Kan., to Albuquerque, N.M., with bus shuttles because of a lack of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology.
Similar action might be needed yet again to prevent any proposed harmful cuts to Amtrak’s long-distance routes as the federal budgeting process continues. SMART Transportation Division will keep members apprised.