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Senate Appropriations Committee Calls for More Public Transparency in Amtrak Funding Bill
Thursday, the full Senate Appropriations Committee approved the FY2019 transportation bill which came out of Senator Collins’ subcommittee. The Committee report accompanying that bill includes the following language:
Improving Communication with Stakeholders The Committee applauds Amtrak’s efforts to make itself financially more sustainable through a business-like approach to its operations. However, the Committee is concerned that the Corporation is failing to communicate adequately with the public prior to making service changes that have significant impacts on its ridership and the communities it serves.
This past year, Amtrak made a series of changes to longstanding policies governing charter trains, special trains, station agents, and private cars. Many of these changes were justified adjustments to services that were costly or interfered with the operation of Amtrak’s regularly scheduled passenger trains. However, the Committee is concerned that Amtrak unveiled these decisions without giving members of the public time to react or register their opinions.
Amtrak is, at times, one of the only operators available to private and non-profit organizations that utilize charter trains, special trains, and private trains, making its cooperation and communication with those organizations critical to their existence.
In order to improve the transparency of Amtrak’s recent decisions, the Committee directs Amtrak to report on the effects of its changes in policy to charter trains, special trains, and private trains, including impacts on on-time performance, operational efficiency, and revenue.
The information in the report should inform the Committee whether these policies could be improved upon without negatively impacting previously provided services. This report shall be included within Amtrak’s fiscal year 2020 budget request and include metrics used to determine pricing for these services.
The Committee encourages Amtrak to improve public outreach and offer its stakeholders an opportunity to comment on policies that affect services prior to finalizing any such decisions. This consultation should include communication prior to changing previous commitments made by Amtrak regarding conditions of acceptance of Federal grant funding.
Amtrak Station Agents The Committee recognizes that while the majority of Amtrak’s ticket sales take place online, there are still areas in the country lacking sufficient access to the Internet, making online sales prohibitively difficult. Senior residents and disadvantaged populations are less likely to have a credit card or another means to purchase tickets remotely, but rely on passenger rail for intercity connectivity, particularly in communities without access to air travel. Station agents can provide customer service, assistance, and safety for passengers in those communities in ways that a ticket kiosk simply cannot. The Committee directs Amtrak to provide at least one station agent in every state where it operates that had at least one station agent in FY 2018 and reiterates its encouragement to improve public outreach prior to making customer service changes.
The bill, which reflects input from TrainRiders/NE and other rail advocacy groups, now goes to the full Senate for a vote.