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Rail Subcommittee Chair Nehls to Amtrak: Focus on existing network, not expansion

"Amtrak has come a long way" in recovering ridership and revenue lost during the early days of the pandemic, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said.
Photo – House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials/YouTube


House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Troy Nehls (R-Texas) yesterday called on Amtrak to focus on existing service and challenges rather than on plans for future expansion.

Nehls' remarks came during the subcommittee's hearing on Amtrak's operational challenges and opportunities for improving efficiency and service. In its 52-year history, Amtrak has never made a profit, Nehls noted. And despite the funding provided in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), "Amtrak predicts it will lose roughly $1 billion per year, with those losses largely covered by taxpayers," he said.

Although Amtrak is recovering from lost ridership and revenue that occurred during the pandemic, the railroad should focus on improving its existing network rather than planning for new or expanded service, Nehls said.

"While growth is a positive trend for a company, Amtrak must prioritize improving its current network, including important system maintenance and upgrades, and improving safety, security and customer satisfaction issues that have plagued Amtrak for years," Nehls said.

And, any potential expansion of Amtrak's system "must allow for freight railroads to provide input on capacity and track-sharing issues," he said.

"The recent supply-chain crisis further emphasizes the value of freight railroads in efficiently moving goods across the nation. Amtrak’s passenger expansion efforts should not be allowed to obstruct the critical movement of freight railroads," Nehls added.

Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner told subcommittee members that in its current fiscal year, the railroad's operations and demand for services are "finally returning to normal" after revenue and ridership plunged 97% in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Amtrak has come a long way since then. We have restored service to all of our routes, are operating nearly all our pre-pandemic frequencies, have regained most of our ridership and revenues, have attracted many new customers and have rebuilt our workforce," Gardner said in his prepared testimony.

Gardner provided details about Amtrak's performance during the current fiscal year 2023; how it will use the funding opportunities allowed under the IIJA; and the challenges the railroad faces and actions being taken to address them.

So far this fiscal year, Amtrak's ridership through April stood at 84% and ticket revenue at 95% of pre-pandemic levels.

"We expect to reach a normal level of ridership — the 32.3 million passengers we carried in fiscal-year 2019 — next year," Gardner testified. About 30% of current passengers are new riders on Amtrak, up from roughly 20% pre-pandemic.

To capitalize on the funding it will receive through the IIJA, Amtrak and its state and commuter railroad partners will make "once-in-a-generation" investments in infrastructure along the Northeast Corridor; in Chicago, the hub of its national network; and on other Amtrak-owned infrastructure, he said.

In the eight months since he last spoke before the subcommittee, Amtrak and its state and commuter railroad partners have made "significant progress" in advancing major infrastructure projects, Gardner said. Those projects include the Hudson Tunnel replacement project — the most important component of the New York/New Jersey Gateway Program. Construction on the tunnel project is expected to begin next year.

To read all of Gardner's written testimony, click here. A video of the subcommittee's entire hearing may be viewed here.