Cantwell: Rail System In Urgent Need of Relief, Workers Will “Pay the Price” If We Don’t See Aid

WASHINGTON, D.C.?–?Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, stressed the urgent need to pass COVID-19 relief funding to keep America’s rail industry and the entire transportation sector afloat in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. Cantwell highlighted the dire state of the passenger rail industry since the pandemic, as Amtrak ridership had dropped 90 percent in Washington state and 80-97 percent nationwide. She also raised concerns about Amtrak’s recent service cuts in Washington state and across the country.

“In 2019, 14.8 million people worked in transportation and transportation related jobs—nearly 10% of the U.S. labor force,” Cantwell said in her opening statement. “And throughout this pandemic, workers have continued to keep food on the table and get medical equipment to the hospitals of first responders, they have brought those first responders to the loved ones who’ve been affected by COVID-19, and they continue to keep our frontline workers in all sectors going strong with the services and supplies they need. That is why I think it’s so important for the Senate to take up legislation that would include relief for the transportation sector… Workers in rural communities across the country, including in my home state, will pay the price if we don’t see this aid.”

Ranking Member Cantwell went on to discuss furloughed Amtrak workers in Washington state and highlighted the stakes for workers if Congress does not pass relief soon: “Our two long distance Amtrak lines, Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder, serve 15 communities, the majority of them small and rural communities. And in some areas, Amtrak is the only means of public transportation providing a direct line for economic success in rural communities and across the state… More than 30% of the Amtrak workforce in Washington state is already facing furloughs. Thousands of more employees will see their jobs threatened and local economies across the country will lose billions if we don’t get Amtrak support into one of our bills.”

In her first round of questioning with witnesses, Cantwell questioned the President and CEO of Amtrak, William Flynn, on Amtrak’s timeline of reestablishing long distance rail service, given that a route must meet certain public health, current performance, and future demands criteria before returning to service: “So if a route fails to meet that criteria by February of next year, basically you’ve said you will not restore services until 2022 at the earliest…that seems like a pretty hefty penalty to pay for those communities, not to have that additional service.

Mr. Flynn responded, “We’re going to evaluate the services, when we do, on an ongoing basis. We pointed to February for a June startup, because as we go to recover, it’s probably a 90-day period of time.” When asked whether the February decision would be final, Flynn stated, “It wouldn’t be a final forever decision.”

Cantwell has long championed programs to invest in American infrastructure. In 2015, she authored the INFRA grant program (previously called FASTLANE) to invest in railway, seaport, and highway freight mobility projects to increase efficiency and safety and reduce congestion. In the 2018 omnibus, she helped secure an increase in funding for the CIG program, as well as the National Infrastructure Investments program (known as TIGER or BUILD). In December 2019, she helped secure $500 million for the Port and Intermodal Improvement Program, a competitive grant program that funds projects to improve the safety, efficiency, or reliability of the movement of goods through a port or the intermodal connection to a port, in the National Defense Authorization Act. And as the Ranking Member of the Commerce Committee, she has repeatedly called for increased investment in freight and transportation infrastructure to reduce congestion and improve the flow of goods.

Cantwell has also been a fierce and longtime advocate for transportation safety. In June, Cantwell introduced the Essential Transportation Employee Safety Act endorsed by the country’s leading transportation labor unions to address workplace safety for essential transportation workers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Cantwell also introduced the Critical Infrastructure Employee Protection Act to support states, local, Tribal, and territorial jurisdictions in providing priority COVID-19 testing for essential critical infrastructure employees; and priority access to PPE and other protective supplies necessary to safely perform essential critical infrastructure work. In March 2018, after calling for a hearing in the wake of the DuPont derailment, Cantwell pressed Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson on rail safety and PTC implementation. In July of 2019, Cantwell wrote a letter to the FRA calling for an analysis of gaps in the nationwide implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC).