States Take Larger Role in Passenger Rail

A federal law enacted in the late days of the Bush administration is starting to force states to take a closer look at local Amtrak routes that they subsidize.

Illinois, which sits at the center of the country’s railroad network, has long promoted passenger rail. It’s rebuilt track so trains could travel faster between Chicago and St. Louis, added service along preexisting routes and even began planning for expansions to new cities. Ridership on Illinois routes grew by 85 percent in the last decade. But now the talk in Springfield is about cuts to Amtrak, not expansions.

That’s no surprise considering Illinois’ precarious finances. Nearly every service provided by the state is under scrutiny as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leaders in the legislature try to come to an agreement on the budget.

But the uncertainty over Illinois’ passenger rail isn’t all the doing of lawmakers in Springfield. Illinois, like many other states, recently had to start paying higher subsidies in order to continue providing local Amtrak service to its residents. The increased state costs come as a result of a 2008 federal law, called the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, that required many states to pick up a bigger part of the tab for 28 Amtrak routes that are shorter than 750 miles. Those routes cross 19 states and carry almost half of Amtrak’s passengers.

As more states pay higher subsidies to Amtrak, their scrutiny of the rail company has also increased. Lawmakers in Oregon have explored reducing its payments. Indiana officials are bringing in an outside contractor to try to improve Amtrak service there. And other state officials around the country are trying to clarify what they can expect from Amtrak going forward. “If you’re making an investment in something, you have an obligation to make sure it’s a certain quality,” said Patricia Quinn, chair of the States for Passenger Rail Coalition. “This is a new relationship with all of the states and Amtrak.”

The same 2008 law that increased the cost of subsidies also gave states more flexibility to use vendors other than Amtrak to provide rail service. Indiana officials are using that to try to improve service on the Hoosier State line, which runs from Chicago to Indianapolis.

It is working on an arrangement where a separate contractor, Iowa Pacific Holdings, would take over key functions. It would provide the train equipment, marketing and on-board services, such as food sales and Wi-Fi. But Amtrak would remain the primary operator, providing the train crews and ticketing services.

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