Coast Starlight and Empire Builder Amtrak routes to be reduced to 3 days a week to mitigate losses from COVID-19; Cantwell presses nominees to make sure service will still be maintained long-term
Nominees also pledge to strengthen safety culture in light of 2017 DuPont train crash
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In today’s Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation nominations hearing, Ranking Member U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) addressed the challenges facing Amtrak during the COVID-19 pandemic, the proposal to temporarily cut daily long-distance service to three days a week as a result, and the need to provide support for Amtrak in the next COVID package so Amtrak can maintain its service, including long-distance routes critical to communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“Amtrak faces a series of critical challenges in the near future as we deal with the severe decline in travel as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic,” Cantwell said. “In an effort to address these challenges, Amtrak's management has proposed severe cuts in service, including reducing long distance train to three days a week and deep staffing reductions. I'm very concerned that these cuts may significantly harm communities served by Amtrak and threaten the long term viability of our national rail network. I hope that my colleagues will step up in this next COVID package and make sure that there is support for Amtrak, the communities, and the workforce.”
In addition to supporting more money for Amtrak to help stave off layoffs and reductions, Cantwell called on Amtrak Board of Director nominees Sarah Feinberg and Chris Koos to commit to maintaining long-distance rail service.
“Amtrak is critical for millions of people and for us, the two lines in Washington state – the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder – they serve 15 communities and a majority of them being small and rural communities. So, I would like to ask the nominees, do you--what kind of commitment can we get that you're going to preserve the Amtrak long distance service, and the economic lifeline that it provides to rural communities?”
The Coast Starlight route is daily between Seattle and Los Angeles, and the Empire Builder route goes from Chicago to Portland and Seattle. Between the two, there are stops in 15 different Washington towns and cities. Both nominees pledged to preserve long-distance service:
“I'm very committed to the national network of long distance trains. Without those trains, we don't have a national network. And I think it's crucial for the function of Amtrak,” said Mr. Koos. “I think people sometimes gloss over the long distance routes, as saying they’re from point A to point Z, but a lot of people don't realize the use those trains get for shorter distances along that corridor, and it’s a critical part of our daily operations. I understand the need right now to be prudent about the frequency of those routes in a COVID-19 world, but I'm strongly committed to, at such time as we can safely travel through this country without the fear of COVID-19, to returning to daily service on the long distance routes.”
Ms. Feinberg agreed, saying: “You have my commitment. I'm from a small town in a rural state myself, I’m from West Virginia, and I’m well aware of the importance of that long distance service to those communities, and also just the station and the employees there acting as touch points to the community. You have my commitment.”
Amtrak has proposed labor and service cuts for fiscal year 2021, which would reduce long distance routes from seven days a week to three days a week, cut state-supported routes by 24 percent, and cut the Northeast Corridor by 32 percent. In an attempt to save money, Amtrak plans to cut their workforce by up to 20 percent. In terms of the COVID-19 crisis, as of May of this year Amtrak ridership was down 95 percent compared to 2019 levels. As states have begun to re-open, in response to increased demand, Amtrak has restored service on some lines, such as the Northeast Corridor.
Senator Cantwell also questioned the nominees on Amtrak’s safety culture:
“I think you probably are both aware of the DuPont accident that happened when the train derailed onto I-5 and shut down I-5,” said Cantwell. “It was a maiden voyage through a new route that speed control and awareness just didn't seem to be there, and it was a very costly accident, both to life and to property. So will you ensure that reforming the safety culture--I get positive train control, it’s going to help us--but that we have a safety culture that remains top priority at Amtrak?”
Ms. Feinberg replied, “Absolutely.”
Mr. Koos said, “Safety culture is critical for an effective and safe system.”
Senator Cantwell has long advocated for transportation safety. In March 2018, after calling for a hearing in the wake of the DuPont derailment, Cantwell pressed Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson on rail safety and PTC implementation. In July of 2019, Cantwell wrote a letter to the FRA calling for an analysis of gaps in the nationwide implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC). And this June, Cantwell introduced legislation to ensure transportation worker safety among the COVID-19 pandemic.