Amtrak faces a funding shortfall that could result in reduced service 

click to enlarge An Amtrak train prepares for departure in Oklahoma City, Friday, Feb. 13, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • An Amtrak train prepares for departure in Oklahoma City, Friday, Feb. 13, 2015.

Reduced Amtrak service in Oklahoma is a real possibility as the state continues to negotiate a new contract with the passenger rail organization.

“I am concerned that we will see a reduction in service,” said Mike Patterson, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT).

Amtrak, which operates a daily train from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, faces increased expenses, which are shared between Texas and Oklahoma. Oklahoma currently pays $2.85 million annually, but after the cost to operate Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer increased to $6.4 million and Texas capped its contributions at $2.5 million, Oklahoma was left to cover the remaining $3.9 million.

“We can’t pay that much,” Patterson said. “And I don’t see an appetite from the state [Legislature] to increase funding for rail transit.”

Amtrak and Oklahoma operate under a month-to-month contract, and ODOT officials hope Amtrak will reduce costs, but that might only be possible with fewer train trips.

“[Amtrak] can no longer operate at a deficit,” said John Bowman, director of capital programs at ODOT. “By Texas setting [its limit], it meant Amtrak is obligated to recover the remainder of that money from Oklahoma.”

Bowman said ODOT has worked with Amtrak to find cost reductions, such as removing one of two locomotives or decreasing the number of passenger cars during non-peak times, without decreasing service. He said technical changes can only go so far.

“We’ve been going back and forth with [Amtrak] since July on working with those numbers, and we have had some success,” Bowman said. “But more needs to be done.”

Transportation officials in Texas explored the possibility of using buses to replace some rail service, an option ODOT said it hopes not to do.

“We have not had much discussion about that,” Patterson said about the use of buses. “I was approached in November from the leadership in TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation] that they were looking at that type of arrangement. We are making every effort to come up with a solution, but it’s got to be Amtrak’s solution.”

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said it is not uncommon to use month-to-month contracts with states, but he would not speculate how long that will remain an option. When asked if he is optimistic a solution could be found given the large funding gap, Magliari said he did not know.

A potential Heartland Flyer service reduction comes at a time when the state is preparing for new Eastern Flyer rail service between metro Tulsa and OKC. A private company will operate that new service, which is expected to launch in the spring.

When asked if a private company could take over management of the Heartland Flyer, Patterson said that would be difficult.

“There’s been some discussion about bringing in another carrier,” Patterson said. “But my understanding is that the Burlington Northern or any of the Class 1 operators [along the Heartland Flyer route] want to only let Amtrak run on their line because of the liability issues.”

Amtrak and ODOT continue to look for ways to cut costs, but it’s unknown if there are ways to make up for the funding shortfall other than reducing service.

“I would say as long as Amtrak is willing and able to go back and sharpen their pencil, we will stay hooked up,” Patterson said. “But I would imagine at some point, they will say, ‘This is all we can think [of] as a way to save money.’”

House Bill 1077

While ODOT said finding a private operator to replace Amtrak could be difficult, a bill this legislative session seeks just that.

House Bill 1077, known as the Passenger Rail Unbundling and Status Report bill, received unanimous support in the House Transportation Committee this month and awaits a hearing on the House floor.

“If passed, the legislation would require ODOT to work to identify lower cost and higher service quality providers for services Amtrak provides under a sole source contract today,”  said Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma, a pro-rail organization supporting the bill. “Amtrak’s increasing costs are placing the Oklahoma-City-to-Fort-Worth passenger train in jeopardy.”

HB 1077 would also require ODOT to report on how funding has been spent for Heartland Flyer service and provide an account for the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact Commission, that was scheduled to begin in 1999, Stair added.

Bill author Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-OKC, said his bill would also require ODOT to account for money from a passenger rail revolving fund established in 1996.

“We want to get an accounting and accuracy on what has been happening since then,” Morrissette told the committee earlier this month

Print headline: Cutting costs, Amtrak faces a funding shortfall that could result in reduced service.

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