The House signaled a clear track for the nation’s passenger rail system for the next four years, voting Thursday to continue a subsidy for Amtrak while shifting it to a more businesslike operation.
“We owe it to future generations to work out not only this short-term solution to preserving passenger rail transportation, but also a long-term solution,” Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said in backing the measure.
A $972 million annual subsidy is authorized for 1996 through 1998, falling to $663 million in 1999, under the Amtrak reauthorization bill, passed 406-4. A separate Amtrak bill is pending in the Senate.
Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., said that after 1999, subsidies would be further reduced and eliminated altogether by 2002.
“Amtrak is delighted with this important step toward permitting Amtrak to operate more efficiently and more as a commercial entity,” said spokesman Cliff Black.
Created in 1970 to take over passenger rail services that private railroads no longer wanted to operate, Amtrak was mandated to maintain basic service and receives a government subsidy that has topped $1 billion in some years.
Critics have urged ending the subsidy and forcing Amtrak to exist on its own, while defenders maintain that the government has an obligation to continue to subsidize service.
The House measure seeks to phase out the subsidy while moving Amtrak to a more businesslike system of operation, lifting several federal requirements for specific passenger services, disbanding the current Amtrak board, creating a new management system and authorizing sale of stock in the railroad.
A provision that would limit punitive damages to $250,000 for people injured in railroad accidents drew fire from Rep. Cardiss Collins, D-Ill., who said, “This is wrong, it’s nonsensical and it’s simply unfair.”
“If we want to run a passenger railroad in this country and we want it to be affordable and accessible, we really need to make these reforms,” responded Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. Collins’ effort to eliminate the cap was defeated by a 239-164 vote.
The bill also would:
End a ban on Amtrak contracting out work other than food service, giving it 254 days to resolve any problems with its unions over work to be farmed out.
Let Amtrak decide on its routes on the basis of commercial potential rather than mandated services.
Replace Amtrak’s current board of directors with an Emergency Reform Board appointed by the president.
Require Amtrak to redeem its common stock from the freight railroads that obtained it in 1970 and eliminate provisions giving the Transportation Department first rights to Amtrak property in the event of bankruptcy.