Dems, Amtrak push back on GOP attacks on rail subsidies

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Richardson pointed to increases in Amtrak ridership in recent years to argue that the company is providing a service worthy of federal help.

“If Amtrak were truly as bad as some of the hearings have suggested, we would have seen headlines like ‘Amtrak has record low ridership,’ ” Richardson said. “Instead, Amtrak's ridership is booming this year, with 11 consecutive monthly ridership records. In each month of this current fiscal year, Amtrak has posted the highest ridership total ever for that particular month."

Amtrak President Joe Boardman touted the company’s ridership numbers at the hearing and said that the company’s fare collections are now paying for a record 79 percent of its operations.

The fare-to-operations ratio is even higher, Boardman said, in the Northeast U.S., which has long been Amtrak’s most profitable corridor.  

“There is not a subsidy on [northeast corridor], except when it comes to capital improvements,” Boardman said in response to a statement from Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) that the federal government was subsidizing every Amtrak ticket by more than $42.

Boardman said Amtrak’s trains in the Northeast generated enough ridership to pay more than 100 percent of the operation on those routes. He said the company “uses part of that revenue to go back to subsidize long-distance trains, because we know that long-distance trains are a vital part of our network.”

“The business model doesn’t work the same as the level of service that there is along the Northeast Corridor,” Boardman said of Amtrak’s routes elsewhere. 

Republicans have long argued that private companies could run trains more efficiently than Amtrak. Mica argued that criticisms from him and other Republicans about Amtrak did not mean they are anti-rail, however.

“There's no one who is a stronger supporter of passenger rail service in the United States than this guy right here,” Mica said, pointing at himself. “It's cost effective, I'm a fiscal conservative. You can move more people for less..as far as the energy and the environment, it's an absolute winner.” 

But Mica, who is passing the Transportation Committee gavel to Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) next year, said Congress should reduce the amount of assistance that is necessary to keep Amtrak’s trains moving. 

"We have to do it with the least amount of subsidy and God forbid, there is a profit in some of these operations,” Mica said.  

Mica said the Transportation Committee would hold two more hearings on Amtrak, with one focusing on its profitable Northeast Corridor, before the end of the year.

— This story was updated at 11:56 a.m. and 1:44 p.m.