Commuter Rail:

Commuter Rail Issues Should Be Considered in Debate over Amtrak

GAO-06-470: Published: Apr 21, 2006. Publicly Released: May 22, 2006.

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Commuter rail agencies provide mobility to millions of people across the country, often using Amtrak infrastructure and services. Given these interactions, an abrupt Amtrak cessation could have a significant impact on commuter rail operations. Amtrak's chronic financial problems and recent budget proposals make such a cessation a possibility. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which commuter rail agencies rely on Amtrak for access to infrastructure and services, (2) issues that commuter rail agencies would face if Amtrak abruptly ceased to provide them with services and infrastructure access, and (3) the options available to commuter rail agencies should Amtrak abruptly cease to provide them services and infrastructure access.

Most commuter rail agencies rely on the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) for some level of access to infrastructure and services, particularly those that operate over Amtrak-owned portions of the Northeast Corridor (NEC). This reliance includes the use of key stations, access to the NEC, and equipment maintenance services. Commuter rail agencies typically pay Amtrak for access to infrastructure and services, although their financial relationships with Amtrak vary and often lack clarity. Several issues contribute to the lack of clarity, including limitations in Amtrak's accounting practices, the lack of transparency in Amtrak's financial reports, and the structure of the financial arrangements between Amtrak and commuter rail agencies. This makes it difficult to fully understand the financial relationship between these agencies and Amtrak and whether they are contributing their fair share for improvements and maintenance of Amtrak's infrastructure. Also, this lack of clarity hinders Amtrak management's ability to make fully informed decisions about its commuter rail line-of-business. An abrupt Amtrak cessation would raise two critical operational issues for commuter rail agencies that rely on Amtrak. Specifically, agencies would face the potential loss of skilled Amtrak labor and access to Amtrak-owned infrastructure, which could make it difficult for some to avoid severe service disruptions. For example, agencies both on and off the NEC could not continue to fully operate their services without continued access to Amtrak-owned track and other facilities. Most commuter rail agencies that rely on Amtrak have identified ways to mitigate service disruptions in an abrupt Amtrak cessation. However, these options are largely dependent on retaining Amtrak employees and access to Amtrak's infrastructure. Federal agencies could provide short-term options to mitigate potential impacts on commuter rail agencies through their authority to order continued commuter service (called "directed service"), although federal officials stated that service disruptions are likely and the cost estimates are unreliable. Private transportation companies could provide options for commuter rail agencies in the long term; however, other issues would need to be addressed to ensure a smooth transition.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to provide more information to federal policy makers involved in the debate over Amtrak, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Federal Railroad Administration, in consultation with the Surface Transportation Board and commuter rail agencies, to further refine cost estimates of commuter rail directed-service scenarios.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FRA officials reported that the agency has no plans to develop better cost estimates for direct service because there is currently no immediate risk of an Amtrak bankruptcy.

    Recommendation: To ensure that Amtrak provides useful information to both its internal and external stakeholders, including commuter rail agencies that contract with Amtrak, the president of Amtrak should improve its accounting practices, as well as its financial reports, to clearly show all revenues earned and all costs incurred when providing services and infrastructure access to commuter rail agencies. This information could increase the clarity of Amtrak's costs for providing services and access to infrastructure to Amtrak management, commuter rail agencies, and Congress. It would also allow for a more informed debate about how commuter rail agencies interact with Amtrak and compensate it for access to critical infrastructure and services.

    Agency Affected: National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK)

    Status: Open

    Comments: Update as of 09/13/11: Amtrak is currently developing certain metrics in its new information management systems that could provide, among other things, Amtrak management, commuter rail agencies and Congress with more insight into the costs of providing services and infrastructure access to commuter rail agencies. Amtrak management is planning to report these metrics in its fiscal year 2012 external route reports.

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