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Rail News: Passenger Rail

Mica, Shuster share 'new direction' for nation's intercity passenger-rail system


Yesterday, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) held a briefing to discuss their plans for “a new direction” for high-speed and intercity passenger-rail in the United States, the congressmen said. That direction calls for introducing legislation that would encourage private-sector involvement for a 220 mph high-speed rail system along the Northeast Corridor, as well as on Amtrak’s least successful long-distance routes.

Among their key points:
• Amtrak would serve as an operating department under the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).
• The legislation will be “centered on open competition and bidding of the services,” said Mica. “This would allow the Northeast Corridor to be bid on and have competition on two basis. First, to separate the infrastructure from operations, so you’d have the opportunity for two bids: one to maintain and control the infrastructure, and the second for an operating company.” The operations and maintenance also could be bid as a turnkey project, Mica added.
• Amtrak could bid to operate and maintain the NEC.
• The Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Committee — which was created under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act  of 2008 and comprises representatives from eight Northeastern states, Amtrak and the District of Columbia — would make the final decision on a NEC operator.
• Private-sector companies could bid to operate and maintain Amtrak’s least successful long-distance routes.

“This is not an attempt to dilute the system in any way, but I think we can make service even better,” Mica said. “I think we can reduce the subsidization — and we will have to subsidize a number of routes, almost every form of transportation is subsidized — and I think there are opportunities for not only positive cash flow on some of the routes but investing some of that money to expand the system rather than be stuck in neutral as I think we’ve been.”

By opening up long-distance routes to private competition, the federal government could “reduce the burden on taxpayers,” said Shuster, adding that the subsidy for Amtrak’s Sunset Limited route between New Orleans and Los Angeles averages $118 per passenger, although it can spike as high as $408 per passenger.

“The traveling public will benefit when competition is put in place. It will promote the service passengers require, promote the frequencies the market will demand. It will work,” said Shuster. “It allows for private operators to make a profit and that’s the greatest incentive for attracting dollars.”

Mica and Shuster plan to formally introduce their legislation on June 21.

“It may not pass in this session, [but] I guarantee it will pass in the next 36 months,” Mica said. “I invite folks to work with us and hope we can have a good proposal that will make passenger-rail service efficient and cost effective.”

After Mica’s and Shuster’s briefing, Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman held a press teleconference to provide his thoughts on their proposal.

“This is even broader than the Northeast Corridor at this point in time,” said Boardman. “We’ve looked it over, read the pieces of it and they’re not all necessarily clear.”

What is clear is that Mica and Shuster are proposing to “take Amtrak apart almost entirely,” the remains of which will become a federal entity under the USDOT, he said.

Boardman doesn’t support how Amtrak and the Northeast Corridor would be structured.

“I believe Mica and Shuster want to improve intercity passenger-rail service in the United States and this is something they think will help do that,” he said. “But I believe Amtrak right now is the best opportunity, and has been for a considerable period of time, to make those improvements.”

Angela Cotey