A House committee moved Wednesday to cut costs on the nation’s ailing passenger rail system, approving a measure that lifts some labor protections and makes other changes sought by Amtrak’s management.
The bill was vehemently opposed by Democrats on the House Transportation Committee even though they backed similar language in 1995.
Amtrak could lose up to $80 million this year and faces bankruptcy within a year without congressional help. In recent years, it has been forced to eliminate routes because of financial woes aggravated by cuts in federal support.
“We want to save Amtrak, and this bill is a critical step for doing so,” said Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., the committee’s chairman. “Indeed, this may be our final opportunity to save Amtrak.”
The rail company believes its long-term survival depends on getting regular funding for capital improvements and more management flexibility.
The bill, approved 36-30, would free $2.3 billion in capital spending approved in a separate balanced-budget package and would give Amtrak more leeway in decisions like restructuring routes.
The measure, however, would not solve Amtrak’s short-term financial crunch, and additional support will be sought from congressional appropriators, company spokesman John Wolf said.
Opposition in the committee centered on a provision that would lift a ban on using contract employees unless labor and management agree to new language on severance pay.
Severance is now covered under federal law, which grants six years of pay to employees who lose their jobs because of route closing or consolidations.
Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said many Democrats backed the provision in 1995 because they believed then it was essential to Amtrak’s financial viability.
Amtrak has since said the labor protections are not the primary cause of its financial woes, but it wants the changes to put it on the same footing as other businesses.
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