- Amtrak is a key focus of the new $1 trillion infrastructure bill in Congress.
- More focus is put on the rail corporation to connect the country than be profitable.
- Maintaining long-distance routes and food service are also focuses of the bill.
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
Congress's bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill has a new mandate for Amtrak, and making a profit is not one of them.
The National Passenger Rail Corporation is a reoccurring theme in the 2,702-page bill intended to revitalize America's infrastructure. Most notably, the bill aims to place Amtrak's purpose to connect the country over its focus on making a profit.
In United States code pertaining to Amtrak, one of the findings is currently that: "A greater degree of cooperation is necessary among Amtrak, other rail carriers, State, regional, and local governments, the private sector, labor organizations, and suppliers of services and equipment to Amtrak to achieve a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money."
The bill proposes that the line: "to Amtrak to achieve a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money" be replaced with "in order to meet the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States."
It's a policy that rail supporters have been pushing for to strengthen Amtrak's original mandate to serve the entire country - profitably or not.
Amtrak's long-distance routes, which have been criticized for poor financial and on-time performance, would also benefit from additional support in the bill. A new goal would be added to Amtrak's purview requiring that the rail corporation "support and maintain established long-distance routes to provide value to the Nation by serving customers throughout the United States and connecting urban and rural communities."
"Long-distance routes are valuable resources of the United States that are used by rural and urban communities," the bill also seeks to add to Amtrak's findings.
Amtrak reduced long-distance services to three times weekly during the pandemic, only restoring them to daily service in May and June.
Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, told Insider in a prior interview that long-distance routes primarily serve intermediary passengers, or those that travel in between major cities. "Only 10% of trips are end to end," Matthews said, noting that rail offers an alternative to flying for those that don't live in a city with great air connectivity or those that simply can't fly.
The bill also seeks to add "rural" in Amtrak's mandate to highlight that rail travel isn't just for those going between major cities. If the bill is made into law, a finding would be revised to state, "Modern and efficient intercity passenger and commuter rail passenger transportation is important to the viability and well-being of major urban and rural areas and to the energy conservation and self-sufficiency goals of the United States."
Amtrak's chief goal to "use its best business judgment in acting to minimize United States Government subsidies" is also being amended to "use its best business judgment in acting to maximize the benefits of Federal investments."
In terms of achieving that goal, Amtrak would also not be bound to "reducing management costs" but rather, "controlling or reducing management and operating costs." "Increasing employee productivity" would also be replaced with "providing economic benefits to the communities it serves" in Amtrak's goals.
The bill also addresses the quality of Amtrak's catering. "Reducing losses on food service" is the current goal but that may be changed to "offering food service that meets the needs of its customers."
Amtrak has been steadily improving its onboard dining experience following service cuts under former CEO Richard Anderson. Traditional dining has returned on select long-distance routes in the West including the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, Texas Eagle, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, and Sunset Limited; though, trains running east of Chicago have yet to see comparable levels of improvement.
Finally, a section outlining how Amtrak should reduce government subsidies would be replaced with a section on "increasing revenues."
"Amtrak is encouraged to make agreements with private sector entities and to undertake initiatives that are consistent with good business judgment and designed to generate additional revenues to advance the goals described in subsection (c)," the bill reads.