Rail reform bill introduced with bipartisan support

A proposed bill calls for increased oversight of Amtrak and more focused reinvestment into existing infrastructure.

A bipartisan group of Congressmen has introduced a new bill that calls for stricter oversight and increased capital investment into Amtrak by the Federal government.

Republican Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania introduced the Passenger Rail Reform Bill of 2015 along with Democrat T&I committee member Peter DeFazio of Oregon; Republican Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham of California; and Massachusetts Democrat Michael Capuano.

Benefits that the bill hopes to extract from Amtrak include increased speed, improved on-time performance, reduced trip time, increased frequencies, and safety and accessibility improvements.

“Passenger rail has a role to play in our transportation network, but we've simply got to do it better,” said Shuster upon introduction of the Act. “By compelling Amtrak to operate more like a true business, cutting red tape and opening the door to more private sector resources, we can make some long overdue improvements to passenger rail transportation in the United States.”

To facilitate the goals of the bill, two funds and a grant programme would be created.

The Northeast Corridor Improvement Fund would see investment of roughly $1.9 billion incrementally distributed to Amtrak over a four-year period from 2016 to 2019 to the main line between Boston, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. – Amtrak's most profitable route – as well as all facilities and services used to operate and maintain that line.

The National Network fund would see investment of roughly $3.9 billion over the same four-year term with the stipulation that as much as $2 million could be withheld by Congress to cover oversight costs.

Capital grants of $300 million per year would be made available over the four-year period, with up to 0.5 percent of appropriations withheld to cover the costs of project management oversight of capital projects.

Amtrak would not be allowed to use any new appropriations created under the bill to subsidise operating losses of passenger rail or rail freight transportation. The company would also be required to establish and maintain internal controls to ensure costs and revenues are allocated appropriately to either the Northeast Corridor or the National Network, including proportional shares of common and fixed costs.

In a further oversight measure, Amtrak would be required to perform a cost-benefit analysis that describes total life cycle costs and anticipated revenue benefits, and to present that analysis to Congress via monthly reports.

An additional $96 million appropriation would be earmarked for Amtrak's Inspector General Office to facilitate internal oversight and progress management.

Amtrak supports the bill, and in a statement from the company released after its announcement, said the improvements it calls for “are needed”.

“We appreciate the work of [the Congressmen] in crafting a bipartisan passenger rail reform bill that is needed to sustain and advance the growth of passenger rail in America. We look forward to working with Congress to enact a bill that addresses critical infrastructure needs, improves safety and security, and enhances customer service and provides greater financial efficiencies.”