2021 Senate Surface Transportation Bill from Commerce Committee

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jis

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Very good description of what is going to the full Senate from the Commerce Committee

 

enviro5609

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I browsed through the actual bill, and there is some surprisngly good stuff in there for Amtrak.

The PDF is attached. (Amtrak operations provisions start on page 110 and go through 160 of the pdf. "Amtrak reforms" start on page 117.)

I only had a little time to browse over lunch, so I may have missed the other shoe dropping somewhere in here. But some high level notes:

  • In terms of legislative intent and mission goals, all use of the words "business" are replaced with "service." Intercity rail is a public service-- not a for profit business. That is a philosophy a lot of rail advocates have been pushing for some time. It seems like a big deal to finally have that codified.
    • This is a theme throughout. There is a lot requirements regarding finances and profitability that seem to be pulled, in favor of a focus on Amtrak as a public service that benefits both rural and urban communities.
  • Provisions that strengthen the requirement to maintain long distance trains, including
    • A definitional change and a policy statement that "Long-distance routes are valuable resources of the United States that are used by rural and urban communities.’’ This and other provisions tie the mandate for long distance trains to serve rural communities-- not just connections between major urban areas.
    • Elimination of the requirement that long-distance routes justify the expenditure of public money. Instead, long distance routes are mandated to "serve the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States" and "provide value to the Nation by serving customers throughout the United States and connecting urban and rural communities."
    • Protections and oversight provisions that prohibit changes to long distance routes without oversight or emergency declarations. There are a lot of cross citations here to existing law that I am unfamiliar with, so I am not sure how much of a change this is.
  • Increased station service
    • A mandate to provide station agents at most, if not all Amtrak stations.
  • Dinning
    • Total elimination of the requirement that Amtrak provide food and beverage services on its trains only if revenues from the services each year at least equal the cost of providing the services; 49 USC 24305(c). Dinning is instead a passenger service.
    • The 2015 provision of the law requiring Amtrak to achieve profitability from food service by 2020 is removed. In its place: Amtrak must convening a working group including union and rail passenger representation that will provide recommendations within 1 year to improve Amtrak's food and beverage service.
      • Those recommendations must be acted on within 6 months after that.
      • No changes can be made that would result in the involuntary separation of any employees.

That's as far as I got. Page 160 starts a lot of capital improvements for the NEC. But there seems to be a lot of new, good stuff in here. I'll defer to those who have more time to review/are more knowledgeable.
 

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PaTrainFan

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All very good news. And if it is genuinely "bipartisan" that means it has a better than even chance of passing the split Senate, with what we presume will be a good outcome in the House. This is especially welcome given that infrastruture has a far less promising future.
 

jis

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I browsed through the actual bill, and there is some surprisngly good stuff in there for Amtrak.

The PDF is attached. (Amtrak operations provisions start on page 110 and go through 160 of the pdf. "Amtrak reforms" start on page 117.)

I only had a little time to browse over lunch, so I may have missed the other shoe dropping somewhere in here. But some high level notes:

  • In terms of legislative intent and mission goals, all use of the words "business" are replaced with "service." Intercity rail is a public service-- not a for profit business. That is a philosophy a lot of rail advocates have been pushing for some time. It seems like a big deal to finally have that codified.
    • This is a theme throughout. There is a lot requirements regarding finances and profitability that seem to be pulled, in favor of a focus on Amtrak as a public service that benefits both rural and urban communities.
  • Provisions that strengthen the requirement to maintain long distance trains, including
    • A definitional change and a policy statement that "Long-distance routes are valuable resources of the United States that are used by rural and urban communities.’’ This and other provisions tie the mandate for long distance trains to serve rural communities-- not just connections between major urban areas.
    • Elimination of the requirement that long-distance routes justify the expenditure of public money. Instead, long distance routes are mandated to "serve the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States" and "provide value to the Nation by serving customers throughout the United States and connecting urban and rural communities."
    • Protections and oversight provisions that prohibit changes to long distance routes without oversight or emergency declarations. There are a lot of cross citations here to existing law that I am unfamiliar with, so I am not sure how much of a change this is.
  • Increased station service
    • A mandate to provide station agents at most, if not all Amtrak stations.
  • Dinning
    • Total elimination of the requirement that Amtrak provide food and beverage services on its trains only if revenues from the services each year at least equal the cost of providing the services; 49 USC 24305(c). Dinning is instead a passenger service.
    • The 2015 provision of the law requiring Amtrak to achieve profitability from food service by 2020 is removed. In its place: Amtrak must convening a working group including union and rail passenger representation that will provide recommendations within 1 year to improve Amtrak's food and beverage service.
      • Those recommendations must be acted on within 6 months after that.
      • No changes can be made that would result in the involuntary separation of any employees.

That's as far as I got. Page 160 starts a lot of capital improvements for the NEC. But there seems to be a lot of new, good stuff in here. I'll defer to those who have more time to review/are more knowledgeable.
We have RPA to thank for a lot of that new language which they developed in collaboration with the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee Staff and in consultation with key Senators in the Committee.
 

Cal

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I browsed through the actual bill, and there is some surprisngly good stuff in there for Amtrak.

The PDF is attached. (Amtrak operations provisions start on page 110 and go through 160 of the pdf. "Amtrak reforms" start on page 117.)

I only had a little time to browse over lunch, so I may have missed the other shoe dropping somewhere in here. But some high level notes:

  • In terms of legislative intent and mission goals, all use of the words "business" are replaced with "service." Intercity rail is a public service-- not a for profit business. That is a philosophy a lot of rail advocates have been pushing for some time. It seems like a big deal to finally have that codified.
    • This is a theme throughout. There is a lot requirements regarding finances and profitability that seem to be pulled, in favor of a focus on Amtrak as a public service that benefits both rural and urban communities.
  • Provisions that strengthen the requirement to maintain long distance trains, including
    • A definitional change and a policy statement that "Long-distance routes are valuable resources of the United States that are used by rural and urban communities.’’ This and other provisions tie the mandate for long distance trains to serve rural communities-- not just connections between major urban areas.
    • Elimination of the requirement that long-distance routes justify the expenditure of public money. Instead, long distance routes are mandated to "serve the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States" and "provide value to the Nation by serving customers throughout the United States and connecting urban and rural communities."
    • Protections and oversight provisions that prohibit changes to long distance routes without oversight or emergency declarations. There are a lot of cross citations here to existing law that I am unfamiliar with, so I am not sure how much of a change this is.
  • Increased station service
    • A mandate to provide station agents at most, if not all Amtrak stations.
  • Dinning
    • Total elimination of the requirement that Amtrak provide food and beverage services on its trains only if revenues from the services each year at least equal the cost of providing the services; 49 USC 24305(c). Dinning is instead a passenger service.
    • The 2015 provision of the law requiring Amtrak to achieve profitability from food service by 2020 is removed. In its place: Amtrak must convening a working group including union and rail passenger representation that will provide recommendations within 1 year to improve Amtrak's food and beverage service.
      • Those recommendations must be acted on within 6 months after that.
      • No changes can be made that would result in the involuntary separation of any employees.

That's as far as I got. Page 160 starts a lot of capital improvements for the NEC. But there seems to be a lot of new, good stuff in here. I'll defer to those who have more time to review/are more knowledgeable.
Wow. If this happens Amtrak will be allowed to make LD service better. I'm pleasantly surprised to see this.
 

neroden

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I skimmed through some of the bits Enviro didn't get to.

The "federal-state partnership for state of good repair" would be converted to a "federal-state partnership for intercity passenger rail", vastly expanding eligible projects.

Good work.
 

SubwayNut

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The idea of most/all stations needed to be staffed seems like huge overkill in the modern age of book online/eTickets there so many stations that no longer really have a facilty for a ticket office.
 

Cal

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The idea of most/all stations needed to be staffed seems like huge overkill in the modern age of book online/eTickets there so many stations that no longer really have a facilty for a ticket office.
Staffed stations also allows for checked baggage, and allows your ticket to be printed as not all stations have (working) Quick-Trak machines.

And being able to get help from someone is a big plus. I think all stations that are served by an intercity train and LD train need to be staffed, and all stations along robust corridors or stations that receive good ridership.
 

enviro5609

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Staffed stations also allows for checked baggage, and allows your ticket to be printed as not all stations have (working) Quick-Trak machines.

And being able to get help from someone is a big plus. I think all stations that are served by an intercity train and LD train need to be staffed, and all stations along robust corridors or stations that receive good ridership.
That seems to be what's implied by the general theme of the bill. There is a recurring connection between long distance routes and rural communities, whereas prior to this the focus was on connecting urban areas over long distances.

I said most, if not all, because the bill focuses on long distance and NEC stations and stations with certain levels of ridership that historically had agents. (40 or more per day average departing and arriving combined). That covers a lot of Amtrak's stations. I do not know actually how many stations would qualify if passed. There is also some ambiguity in the statute itself regarding which conditions have to be met (one, some, all?). But, as a general matter, it seems like there is a push to ensure rural long distance stations get at least one ticketing agent.
 
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me_little_me

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Wonderful news about agents although much, if not all, of it can be accomplished remotely as I've previously claimed in other threads.
  • A video window can provide connection to an agent that might be at a remote station.
  • A local printer can print tickets and accept credit cards
  • A local printer can print baggage tags when user connecting to remote agent is directed to place bag on local scale.
  • A local place can be provided to put bags after "checking" and for picking them up. A baggage agent on the train can disembark, put bags in the local place, pick up new bags and store them in baggage car then reboarding all while passengers board.
  • Electronic signs can provide custom information for the station including where to stand to board the train.
  • Cameras could monitor everything and remote agent could lock/unlock doors, restrooms, baggage storage locations, etc.
This would require an agent who might be four stations or more away who has already handled that train at his/her location earlier thus insuring that the agent has a full-time job instead of multiple agents each working a few hours. In addition, each train's baggage person could pre-position bags to be unloaded before arrival and could potentially handle converting hand-held to checked bags and vice versa for those arriving or departing from unmanned stations.
 

Dakota 400

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I think this has a decent chance of being approved. It seems to be "outside" from some of the other struggles of the larger infrastructure bill.
 
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joelkfla

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That seems to be what's implied by the general theme of the bill. There is a recurring connection between long distance routes and rural communities, whereas prior to this the focus was on connecting urban areas over long distances.

I said most, if not all, because the bill focuses on long distance and NEC stations and stations with certain levels of ridership that historically had agents. (40 or more per day average departing and arriving combined). That covers a lot of Amtrak's stations. I do not know actually how many stations would qualify if passed. There is also some ambiguity in the statute itself regarding which conditions have to be met (one, some, all?). But, as a general matter, it seems like there is a push to ensure rural long distance stations get at least one ticketing agent.
40 per day is 14,600 per year. Browsing thru Amtrak's FY18 state fact sheets, it looks like most rural stations don't meet that metric.
 

neroden

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40 per day is 14,600 per year. Browsing thru Amtrak's FY18 state fact sheets, it looks like most rural stations don't meet that metric.
Accounting for the fact that the Cardinal only stopped six days a week, the threshold is *not quite* met by Cincy (12,480 vs. 2017 ridership of 11,144). I don't think Amtrak will be stupid enough to remove the station agent at Cincy again though; that is what got them in hot water. The text of the bill is an "and" -- station must be served by an Amtrak route which is not a state-supported route; must have had a station agent at some time after October 2017; and must meet the ridership threshold for 2017, in order for the text of the bill to require that the station agents be restored.

I would suggest that Cincy's advocates should push to drop that threshold to 35/day though. :)
 

jpakala

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Some stations with volunteers (e.g. Kirkwood, MO) are run better than when there was an agent. There are two or more on duty versus one agent (who wouldn't even get up from his chair sometimes). The station has books to read that can be taken on the train, tables with built-in chess/checker boards, glass cabinets with model train displays, seasonal window decorations, flower boxes, flower beds, decorated tree & garlands throughout December, free parking nearby including a multi-level covered parking area just a little farther, etc.
 

jis

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A summary of wins in the bill as listed in the latest RPA Hotline:

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Commerce passed the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021 (STIA) by a bipartisan vote of 25 to 3.

STIA includes many of the policy goals Rail Passengers has been working towards. Getting final passage of these reforms and enhancements would dramatically improve the experience of America’s passengers across the national passenger rail network.

We’ve outlined the key victories rail passengers have secured below:

Sec. 2201. Amtrak Findings, Mission, and Goals: Amends Amtrak’s mission and goals to emphasize its role in providing service to rural communities, recognize the importance of long-distance routes, and encourage Amtrak to maximize the benefits of Federal investment (as opposed to minimizing costs).

Sec. 2202. Composition of Amtrak’s Board of Directors: Revises the composition of Amtrak’s Board of Directors to ensure representation across the Amtrak network (two from NEC states, two from LDR states, and two from State-supported states), and requires annual engagement with the disability community, Amtrak employees and the general public.

Sec. 2203. Station Agents: Requires ticket agents at each Amtrak station building that averages at least 40 passengers per day.

Sec. 2204. Increasing Oversight of Changes to Amtrak Long-Distance Routes and Other Intercity Services: Requires Amtrak to include information regarding any change or plans to change a route, frequency of service, or station stops in its annual operations report and its general and legislative annual report to Congress.

Sec. 2206. Improved Oversight of Amtrak Spending: Requires Amtrak to provide a much greater level of detail on its spending in annual reports to Congress, including:
  • Categorize and identify the amount of funds each service type receives and spends by operating expenses, debt service, capital expenses, and contingency levels;
  • Describe the operations, services, programs, projects, and other activities to be funded, by category;
  • Provide the estimated projected scope, schedule, and budget necessary to complete each project and program;
  • Describe the performance measures used to quantify expected and actual project outcomes and benefits; and
  • Describe the status of efforts to improve Amtrak’s safety culture.
Sec. 2208. Passenger Experience Enhancement: Eliminates requirement that food and beverage services on trains may only be provided if their revenues break even during a fiscal year. This section also directs Amtrak to establish a working group—including nonprofit organizations representing Amtrak passengers—to develop recommendations to improve Amtrak’s onboard food and beverage services.

Sec. 2210. Protecting Amtrak Routes through Rural Communities: Prohibits Amtrak from discontinuing, reducing the frequency of, suspending, or substantially altering the route on any segment of any long-distance route if Amtrak receives adequate funding for that route.

Sec. 2211. State-Supported Route Committee: Directs the State-Amtrak Intercity Passenger Rail Committee (SAIPRC) to update its cost allocation methodology to improve accountability and transparency. Requires Amtrak to provide monthly invoices to each State, as well as SAIPRC, describing operating costs of State-supported routes.

Sec. 2212. Enhancing Cross Border Service: Requires Amtrak to report to Congress on how to improve Amtrak passenger rail service between the United States and Canada, identifying challenges such as delays associated with customs and immigration inspections.

Sec. 2214. Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study: Directs the U.S. DOT to conduct a study to evaluate the restoration of daily intercity rail passenger service along any Amtrak long-distance routes that have been discontinued, and any Amtrak long-distance routes that, as of the date of enactment of this Act, occur on a nondaily basis.

Sec. 2304. Restoration and Enhancement Grants: Broadens applicant eligibility for the Restoration and Enhancement grants program to include Tribes, and extends Federal support for a route to six years (from three years).

Sec. 2306. Interstate Rail Compacts: Establishes a competitive grant program to provide Federal funding for interstate rail compacts—analogous to the Southern Rail Commission which has led the Gulf Coast Restoration project. Grants will cover costs of administration, systems planning, and operations coordination. Grants to IRCs will not exceed $1 million annually and require a local funding match of at least 50 percent.

Sec. 2307. Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grants: Expands project eligibility for the Federal-State Partnership grant program to entities other than Amtrak and States, and to the construction of new intercity passenger rail routes. Requires at least 45% of funds go to projects on the NEC and at least 45% of the funds go to projects not located on the NEC (20% of non-NEC funds must benefit long-distance routes). This section would also allow FRA to engage in multi-year funding agreements.

Sec. 2308. Corridor Identification and Development Program: Requires the USDOT to establish a program to add and improve intercity passenger rail corridors. Rail corridors selected for development would work with USDOT and relevant States to prepare a plan outlining capital projects needed to establish service.

Sec. 2309. Surface Transportation Board Passenger Rail Program: Directs the Surface Transportation Board to hire additional full-time employees to assist in carrying out its passenger rail responsibilities.
 

Barb Stout

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Accounting for the fact that the Cardinal only stopped six days a week, the threshold is *not quite* met by Cincy (12,480 vs. 2017 ridership of 11,144). I don't think Amtrak will be stupid enough to remove the station agent at Cincy again though; that is what got them in hot water. The text of the bill is an "and" -- station must be served by an Amtrak route which is not a state-supported route; must have had a station agent at some time after October 2017; and must meet the ridership threshold for 2017, in order for the text of the bill to require that the station agents be restored.

I would suggest that Cincy's advocates should push to drop that threshold to 35/day though. :)
Yeah, Cin needs an agent. I'm sure glad there was one there the time that I caught the train there. Otherwise, it might have been confusing to me and probably others. Having an agent really helps the folks that don't take the train that often.
 

Dakota 400

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A summary of wins in the bill as listed in the latest RPA Hotline:
If the Senate committee passed this Bill by such a vote, then Rep. DeFazio ought to have little difficulty in getting such a vote by his House committee. Such a bipartisan vote in that Senate Committee is very good news for Amtrak travelers.
 
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