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Rail News: Amtrak

Sens. Booker, Wicker introduce bill to increase Amtrak funding


U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) yesterday introduced bipartisan legislation that would spend nearly $1.65 billion annually over the next four years on Amtrak, as well as $570 million per year on rail grants.

The "Railroad Reform, Enhancement, and Efficiency Act" comes one month after an Amtrak train derailment near Philadelphia that left eight passengers dead and more than 200 people injured. The senators said the legislation was important to improve the safety and infrastructure of the nation's passenger-rail system.

"The tragic accident in Pennsylvania last month was a heartbreaking reminder that the system is far from perfect," said Wicker in a press release. "This bipartisan measure would make robust improvements to safety programs, improve existing infrastructure, and empower state and local officials. The bill also leverages private sector investment, cuts red tape, and increases transparency to make our critical infrastructure dollars go further."

The bill would allow Amtrak to reinvest Northeast Corridor profits into the corridor's infrastructure, said Booker.

"This will help advance critical but long overdue initiatives like building the Gateway Project which adds a new tunnel under the Hudson River and replacing the declining Portal Bridge," Booker said.

About $570 million in competitive grant funding each year would go toward capital assistance, service enhancement and restoration, alleviating rail congestion, and the Northeast Corridor.

The bill advances positive train control by authorizing grants and prioritizing loan applications in support of implementation; requires speed limit actions to address automatic train control modifications, crew communication and other speed enforcement issues; requires grade-crossing safety improvements; encourages confidential close-call reporting system; and addresses other safety matters such as signal protection, signage, alerters and track inspection.

The Booker-Wicker bill follows attempts by the House last month to cut Amtrak's funding — a move that was criticized by Democrats and rail safety advocates.

A number of passenger-rail industry representatives praised the bill introduced by Booker and Wicker.

"Passenger rail service is vital and growing in popularity, and keeping the system working and safe requires investment. The Wicker-Booker bill embraces both those ideas. It authorizes necessary funding to start to return the system to a state of good repair and make targeted investments to improve service,” said Transportation for America Chairman John Robert Smith, a former chairman of Amtrak's board.

The bill also would increase state representation on the Amtrak board, an idea long-supported by the States for Passenger Rail Coalition, said Patricia Quinn, coalition chair. Nearly half of Amtrak passenger trips are on state-supported trains, she noted.

"Enactment of this legislation will provide states and authorities with a new means to include our input in the decisions made by Amtrak that affect these important state-financed trains," Quinn said in a prepared statement.