Monday, February 19, 2018

Officials: Texas Eagle safe, but railroad funding needs to be stable

By Jo Lee Ferguson
Nov. 12, 2017 at 11:25 p.m.

Pat Calton, center, helps Texas Eagle passengers in the ticketing booth Wednesday, November 8, 2017, at the Longview Amtrak Station. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

The nation's passenger rail system and the Texas Eagle train that stops in Longview appear to be safe from federal budget cuts for now, but rail advocates say train travel needs more than status quo when it comes to funding.

"The status quo, to me, is better than what you saw coming out of the White House," said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of government affairs and policy with the National Association of Railroad Passengers, but he said it defers dealing with problems that will just get bigger.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump proposed a budget that would have eliminated the government subsidies that help pay for long-distance train routes, such as the Texas Eagle. That proposal has largely stalled, with Jeans-Gail explaining that when a variety of issues kept Congress from passing a federal budget by the end of September, lawmakers approved a short-term funding solution that essentially kept the lights on by providing funding for such things as Amtrak and the postal service based on the previous budget's funding.

He said in contrast to Trump's budget proposal, the House and Senate had proposed increases for Amtrak in each of their budgets. The two chambers must agree on how to move forward, though, and there are ongoing arguments over health care, taxes and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

"The longer we wait, the more pessimistic I get," Jeans-Gail said, explaining that it will soon be December. Lawmakers will return from Thanksgiving and realize they haven't solved any of the larger political problems. He said that could lead to a situation where they "kick the can down the road" and provide Amtrak the same funding year over year.

"That would mean Amtrak would get funding. All the danger we faced of shutting down the national system goes away for a year, but we don't make any progress that we worked hard for, too," he said.

The biggest issue, he said, is new equipment. The average age of Amtrak's fleet is 33 years.

"That's past its useful lifetime," Jeans-Gail said.

Richard Anderson, the former CEO of Delta Airlines who now leads Amtrak, has plans for updating interiors of the existing equipment, because there's been no funding for new equipment, Jeans-Gail said. That's good for passengers, but it doesn't solve reliability issues that come with mechanical breakdowns.

Another issue is increasing payments to the railroads whose tracks host Amtrak. That would open doors to better relationships that help improve on-time performance, and possibly open discussions about increasing the number of trains coming into Longview, for instance, Jeans-Gail said.

Griff Hubbard echoed Jeans-Gail's concerns. Hubbard serves as revenue manager for the Texas Eagle and is the executive director of the Interstate 20 Corridor Council, which is working toward a number of passenger rail expansions and improvements.

"While this is wonderful news that the outlook for the national system is indeed stable, we have been in this particular scenario many times in the last decades, where last year's funding is just reauthorized for next year," he said.

The United States will never have a passenger rail system like other countries if that scenario continues, he said.

"You have to allow the railroad company the opportunity to plan, to make capital investments," he said. "Reauthorizing the same amount from last year is, again, wonderful news, but it doesn't get the job done in taking America where it needs to be with its mobility options."



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