Revised Amtrak Mandate Could Allow for 'Paradigm-Shifting' Changes

Language in the new infrastructure bill calls for the agency to prioritize ridership and service levels over profitability.

August 22, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

"2021 will be a defining moment for the future of passenger rail in America," writes Jake Blumgart. "Amtrak faces huge challenges, but the systemic changes to travel and work life wrought by the pandemic also present an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how the agency operates." Meanwhile, the new infrastructure bill "could allow Amtrak’s executives to make paradigm-shifting operational changes — placing ridership over revenues and faster speeds over minimizing costs."

"In a country where transportation is the largest source of greenhouse emissions, there is no cleaner way to travel than by train." But the business travel that was the lifeblood of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor services "remains severely constrained," and prohibitively expensive fares lead travelers to choose driving instead. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, it isn't the cost but rather "the infrequency and unreliability of the trains that makes Amtrak uncompetitive."

Part of the problem, says Blumgart, is Amtrak's history: "the legislation creating Amtrak specifies that it should be operated and managed as a for-profit service, something that no other country’s rail network requires or accomplishes." According to Amtrak public relations manager Kimberly Woods, "[b]ecause Amtrak is operated as a for-profit company and is required by law to maximize revenues, its fares vary based upon demand, like airlines and intercity buses." The revised mandate proposed in the infrastructure bill "would get rid of the Nixon-era language about minimizing subsidies and instead refocus the agency’s mission on expanding passenger rail capacity and adding ridership," giving it more flexibility to experiment with fare structures. "Just as owners of office buildings and commuter rail lines are being forced to grapple with a new reality, perhaps changes to ridership wrought by the pandemic will force policymakers to change."

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