Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn, in a letter to Congress, has outlined several priorities for the national passenger rail network that he runs. Approval by Congress of two of Flynn's priorities would have a positive impact for Texans that want to travel by train.
Besides asking lawmakers for 1 1/2 billion dollars in additional Covid-19 relief funding to keep trains running through the end of summer it would also restore daily train service to the national network. Trains, including the long-haul Texas Eagle that serves many towns in the state, have been cut back to tri-weekly service during the pandemic. This despite the fact that ridership on Western U.S. trains exceeded the average load of multi-trip daily trains on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, New York and Boston.
The other priority Flynn would like to see is establishing a federal Intercity Passenger Rail Trust Fund. The fund would be aimed at long term planning that isn't reliant on an annual federal budget. In his letter to Congress Flynn said “Amtrak and intercity passenger rail are the only mode of surface transportation without a federal trust fund to provide reliable, multiyear program funding.”
Flynn is also looking to improve Amtrak’s ability to create new routes under 500 miles.
To that end Amtrak is getting ready to roll out a series of corridor-development proposals that would add additional, shorter distance frequencies on top of existing long-distance routes. In the near-term for Texas, Amtrak is said to be looking at the 'Texas Triangle' of DFW-Austin/San Antonio and Houston. That could mean additional trains between Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin to San Antonio, depending on the willingness of freight railroads to cooperate and finding funding for improvements so freight traffic flow would not be affected.
"In the past our Texas legislature, the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT have been unwilling to be a partner for expansion of any passenger rail service between our cities," according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. "Because there is no dedicated funding stream for passenger rail in Texas, we haven't been able to get a share of over $19 billion in federal rail funding over the past decade like so many others states. This has got to change." LeCody said "we need more than a Department of Highways and it's past time to relook how the transportation budget is carved out."
Texas Rail Advocates understands that Amtrak executives are on the road making a sales pitch to various state agencies around the country for passenger rail expansion. It is not clear yet if a meeting with the Texas Department of Transportation has been established.
Expansion of service is dependent on the size of the infrastructure package and the level of political commitment to some kind of passenger-rail trust fund to smooth out the appropriations planning. Texas transportation officials and state lawmakers would also have to support the initiative.
Some groundwork has already been laid with the initial federally funded Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, a service-level study to show the feasibility of passenger rail in the I-35 corridor between Oklahoma City and the Rio Grande Valley. An earlier study looked at train service between Houston and Austin.