Proposal to remove Amtrak from direct congressional funding gets hearing

"Historically federal investment in intercity passenger rail was a bilateral arrangement — FRA grants to Amtrak," Szabo said. "Going forward, many different arrangements would be available to develop and operate intercity passenger rail. There will also be an important role for private capital investment as well. The transition has begun with the funding provided in the Recovery Act and in FY 2010."

Amtrak officials were also on hand Tuesday to tout the agency's fiscal track record in recent years.

"Amtrak is already the most cost-efficient passenger railroad in America, generating 76 percent of its operating need out of the fare box and covering more than 85 percent of its total operating costs from revenues," Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman told the panel.

"I understand that there will be some difficult choices this year and in the coming years with regard to federal spending and the budget deficit," Boardman said. "Amtrak recognizes the funding challenges and will continue to provide financial transparency for all of our programs so that Congress and our stakeholders have the information they need regarding the way in which we are expending federally appropriated funds."

But Boardman said that spending money on Amtrak now could save Congress more down the road.

"As you can appreciate, continued capital funding will allow us to reduce or eliminate problems that translate in turn into higher levels of operating expense," he said. "Over the long term, an effective investment in capital can translate into a permanent reduction in expenses, and I hope the subcommittee members will consider this carefully as they discuss our proposed funding levels in coming months."

Some Republicans in the House have criticized Amtrak for the federal government's involvement in its financing, but the agency got a much friendlier reaction in the Senate.

"I commend Amtrak for cutting its debt levels over the last 10 years, but it's still had a net operating loss," Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate GOP eyes Oct. 26 for confirming Barrett to Supreme Court GOP blocks Schumer effort to adjourn Senate until after election This week: Clock ticks on chance for coronavirus deal MORE (R-Maine) said Tuesday.

Collins's comments were a far cry from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica’s (R-Fla.) characterization of Amtrak as a "Soviet-style operation." 

Lawmakers did ask about Amtrak's efforts to increase safety aboard its trains, which has become a bigger issue in light of the reports that Osama bin Laden was plotting against railways before his death.

Trains have always been "a soft spot for terrorism," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said, pointing out the high number of people in the Northeast Corridor who ride them every day.

However, the administration officials said securing trains required different techniques than securing planes because they have more open access.