March 23, 2019 - TRA Newswire -

Amtrak has released it's 2020 General and Legislative Annual Report which includes its fiscal year Grant Request to Congress and it finally includes some positive news for the Heartland Flyer.

The one daily round-trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City could see an eventual additional frequency along with an expansion into Kansas, according to the report which was released this week.

Amtrak President Richard Anderson, in a report to the speaker of the U.S. House and President of the Senate reported that "we will transmit our legislative recommendations later this year for your consideration as part of a comprehensive proposal for the reauthorization of the federal programs and policy related to Amtrak and intercity passenger rail."

Anderson highlighted fiscal year 2018 results as follows:
 Adjusted operating loss was reduced to $171 million, an improvement of 11.9 percent from the prior year, and the lowest in Amtrak’s history.
 Operating cost recovery was increased to 95 percent, another record for the company.
 Total revenue was $3.39 billion, an increase of 2.5 percent over the prior year.1
 Capital spending on infrastructure, rolling stock, stations, and other assets and systems was $1.46 billion, one of the highest levels of investment in recent history.
 Began deployment of a Safety Management System (SMS), becoming first major U.S. railroad to do so and implemented Positive Train Control across much of Amtrak’s network.

Listed in the report are a series of projects that could be advanced if additional federal funds would be provided above the authorized amount of $1.8 billion in FY 2020. The extension of the daily Heartland Flyer to Newton, Kansas from Oklahoma City and an additional frequency along the route north from Fort Worth are listed in the report. The cost of the extension and additional round-trip service are yet to be determined.

"This is a good step in expanding the Heartland Flyer to serve more people with an additional daily train," Said Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "Two trains a day, one in the morning and one in the evening from Fort Worth and Oklahoma City would mean you could conduct business the same day and return home without fighting hours of traffic on I-35. An extension to Newton, Kansas to connect with Amtrak's national network train, the Southwest Chief, would open up more city pairs for travel possibilities. It would also be an economic shot in the arm for the smaller towns along the Flyer route like Gainesville, Texas and Ardmore, Oklahoma that have limited surface travel options."

In FY2018 the Heartland Flyer carried 68,075 passengers which translated to 11,932,447 passengers miles traveled and kept additional vehicles off Interstate 35. Farebox recovery was 88% with the balance covered with an operating grant from the two states that partner in the service, Oklahoma and Texas. Disappointing was the endpoint on-time performance with trains arriving in Fort Worth and Oklahoma City only 43.7% of the time, substantially down from previous years.

In the FY2020 grant request Amtrak is asking for:
 $1.8 billion overall request to Congress to support the Northeast Corridor and National Network accounts, consistent with the overall level authorized by the FAST Act and which the law requires we not exceed in our grant request.
 An explanation of where additional funding beyond the authorized level is needed.
 Includes the financial breakdown by service line and asset line, and also how the requested federal funding fits within our overall business strategy and investment plan.

The FAST Act (Fixing America's Surface Transportation), Amtrak’s current authorization, is set to expire at the end of FY 2020. Amtrak will transmit a comprehensive reauthorization proposal to Congress in calendar year 2019. Amtrak’s proposal, according to the company, will build on the success of PRIIA and the FAST Act and support Amtrak’s mission and goals as defined by statute.

In the report Anderson noted that "we believe that a modernization of the National Network, with the right level of dedicated and enhanced federal funding,
would allow Amtrak to serve more passengers efficiently while preserving our ability to maintain appropriate Long Distance routes. We look forward to working with the Administration, Congress, our state partners, and other stakeholders to consider these proposals in more depth."

In a refreshing change, Amtrak's Anderson noted in the report that "a significant majority of transportation programs are funded through a trust fund via contract authority, including all highway and most transit programs. However, Amtrak does not receive any trust fund dollars and, as such, they are dependent on discretionary funding via the annual appropriations process. The discretionary funding originates in the Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and related agencies (THUD) appropriations bill, competing with other important priorities beyond transportation needs. This places Amtrak in a precarious position and complicates our annual and long-term capital planning, which can result in investment delays, inefficiencies, and higher federal funding requirements." Anderson's report continued "We remain committed to the idea of a trust fund for capital investment connected to Amtrak. However,
absent Amtrak having access to such a trust fund, Amtrak requests that Congress provide its discretionary funding through a mechanism known as “advance appropriations.” This would provide a predictable funding stream that Amtrak has sought since our creation and would improve our ability to plan."