Americans need passenger rail that serves entire nation — not just the East and West coasts

The Hill, By Larry Willis, opinion contributor — 07/03/18

Amtrak, America’s national passenger rail service, was created to do what freight railroads could not: Provide reliable and efficient passenger rail services to communities and people across this country. Yet, since it was created nearly half a century ago, Amtrak has never receiving full funding from Congress.

Data from four years of polling show that regardless of political affiliation or geographic location, Americans want more Amtrak service and are willing to pay for it. Amtrak also regularly breaks its own ridership records, with 31.7 million passenger trips in 2017.

To be clear, support is not limited to the Northeast Corridor. Americans across the country want passenger rail services, including more long-distance trains — and for good reason.

While those in the DMV may see Amtrak as just another transportation choice in a wide portfolio of options, in small and rural communities across the country, Amtrak is often the only public transportation option available. 

In places like Montana, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, Amtrak’s long-distance routes act as a critical link to city centers, educational opportunities, friends, family, and other segments of our transportation system. What’s more, the jobs this carrier and its long-distance routes provide are reliable, pay living wages, and support families and local communities.

These factors explain why, when Congress considered Amtrak’s current authorization in 2015, lawmakers debated and ultimately rejected efforts to eliminate long-distance service. Annual efforts to cut funding for long-distance routes routinely fail. Our elected leaders understand that this country and its people need a passenger rail system that serves the entire nation, not just the East and West Coasts. 

While right-wing think tanks and anti-government ideologues have always criticized Amtrak’s long-distance routes, questions are now being raised about whether or not Amtrak itself supports a national system.

In the spring of this year, Amtrak announced it would lay off ticket agents and close ticket counters in dozens of communities across the country, citing a drop in in-person ticket sales.

The problem? Ticket agents do more than just sell tickets. They help elderly and disabled customers board trains, assist with luggage, and act as Amtrak's public face. What’s more, this move does a grave disservice to many of Amtrak’s customers who are not familiar with or are simply unable to buy tickets online. 

The carrier also announced the elimination of dining-car service on some of its most popular long-distance trains, the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, both of which service the East Coast. Now, instead of being able to enjoy freshly made entrees on the train, customers’ choices are limited to a handful of premade breakfast and lunch options.

Finally, by threatening to renege on a $3 million match toward a federal grant, Amtrak has jeopardized one of its top-performing long-distance routes, the Southwest Chief, which makes 31 stops between Chicago and Los Angeles. Fortunately, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are pushing back and fighting to save this crucial transportation link. 

Taken together, these moves make long-distance routes less appealing to Amtrak’s customer base and call into question the company’s commitment to its national system. Further clouding the situation is the fact that Amtrak has made these drastic changes in the dark, without input from the public, stakeholders or lawmakers. 

With strong ridership numbers, national popularity, and service that helps drive local economic growth, Amtrak’s long-distance routes need to be supported. Amtrak must commit to fighting for the national passenger rail system so many Americans have come to know and rely on.

Larry Willis is president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, whose 32 member unions represent transportation workers, including Amtrak employees.