Legislators Announce Formation of ‘Train Travel Caucus’ in Support of Expanding Taxpayer-Subsidized Amtrak into Tennessee

During the House floor session Thursday, legislators announced the formation of the Train Travel Caucus in the Tennessee General Assembly, in support of expanding the taxpayer-subsidized National Railroad Passenger Corporation, known as Amtrak, into Tennessee.

The announcement came from a Democrat lawmaker, Representative Jason Powell (D-Nashville), who is the House sponsor of HB2278. The bill directs the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to study within its existing resources the cost, feasibility and infrastructure of expanding railroad passenger service in the state through the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, doing business as Amtrak.

TACIR was created by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1978 in response to a need for a permanent intergovernmental body, comprised of legislators as well as members from municipal, county and state government, to study and act on issues that overlap federal, state and local government.

In extending an invitation to join the Train Travel Caucus, Powell said to his House colleagues, “Any members that are interested in expanding train service across the state of Tennessee for passenger rail, this is the time for Tennessee to do that.”

Not unlike the proposed Interstate Compact with Arkansas and Mississippi, the timing is related to gaining access to federal dollars made available through the November passage of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included funding for Amtrak.

“There’s a lot of movement with the infrastructure bill that’s passed, $66 billion going specifically to rail,” said Powell.

What wasn’t mentioned is any of the data points that show Amtrak is a failed enterprise both in terms of its financial model and usefulness to travelers, as reported by the Cato Institute think tank in a policy handbook and a commentary about Amtrak’s profitability “big lie,” such as:

– when the market drove a number of railroads into bankruptcy, Congress took over passenger rail by creating Amtrak in 1970. Amtrak was supposed to be self-supporting after a transition period, but it has never covered its own costs, never mind made a profit

– in its first 49 years of existence, Amtrak has received more than $100 billion in taxpayer subsidies

– 17 state legislatures gave Amtrak a total of $234 million in 2019 alone, but Amtrak counts those taxpayer subsidies as “passenger revenues”

– federal, state and local subsidies to air and highway travel average around a penny per passenger mile, while Amtrak subsidies in 2019 were 34 cents per passenger mile

– Amtrak has a deferred maintenance backlog of $38 billion on the Boston-to-Washington corridor alone, which would eat up most of the Amtrak funding included in the infrastructure package

– the profitable runs are in the Northeast, and the biggest losers are the long-distance routes

As far back as 1958, the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission issued the “Railroad Passenger Train Deficit” report about the amount by which the revenues from railroad passenger-service operations fall short of covering operating expenses, taxes and net rents. The report showed on page 75 of the 84-page report that from 1936 to 1957, when rail represented a much higher percentage of passenger travel than it does now, in no year was there a profit. Rather, the range in deficit was a low of $89 million to a high of $723 million.

Additionally, The Antiplanner reports, intercity passenger rail service has declined significantly since its peak in 1920. By 1960, intercity trains carried less than 1.5% of passenger travel and less than 0.3% in 1970, the last year of private passenger service. After Amtrak took over, it represented just 0.16% of passenger travel, and was down to 0.11% in 2019.

Amtrak’s vitality to the nation’s economy is Amtrak’s biggest lie, according to the Cato commentary.

“Last year [2019], Americans traveled an average of 15,000 miles by automobile, 2,100 miles by plane, and 1,100 miles by bus. Amtrak’s contribution was less than 20 miles per person. Even in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak reluctantly admits that it carries only 6% of intercity travelers.”

U.S. News and World Report points out that Amtrak is for the one percent, with an estimated 99 percent of Americans not using the most-ridden Northeast corridor at all. Those who do, “Amtrak boasts, are ‘highly educated, affluent and influential” with 92 percent having college degrees and an average household income of $170,000. Meanwhile, taxpayers are subsidizing $60 of each Amtrak ticket for the “wealthy and well-connected.”

On the House floor, Powell went on to portray that many of the country’s most populous cities in Tennessee are underserved by the passenger rail service.

“And Nashville is the third-largest city without Amtrak in the country, Knoxville is the seventh-largest city in the country without Amtrak, and Chattanooga is the 19th-largest city. There’s a lot of other communities and great opportunities.”

“The current proposal that has come out from Amtrak shows a line coming from Atlanta to Chattanooga with stops in Tullahoma, Murfreesboro and Nashville. There’s a lot of excitement about a track coming to Bristol. We want to make sure it doesn’t just stop in Bristol, it goes through Bristol. And, of course, we want to take this across the state.”

Map by Amtrack

Powell encouraged bipartisan support for getting Amtrak expanded in Tennessee.

“So, any of you that are interested, we want to make this a bipartisan effort. I’ve had a lot of members come up to me and express willingness to be a part of it, so I really appreciate that. We want to make this a bipartisan effort to help the state of Tennessee increase passenger rail service and make sure that we are ahead and all on board for passenger rail in the state of Tennessee,” said Powell, before acknowledging several House members who have expressed interest, including Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

“Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the time and for speaking to me about this.”

If you’re interested, please see me, Representative [Yusuf] Hakeem (D-Chattanooga). Representative [Eddie] Mannis (R-Knoxville) is also assisting and Representative [John] Crawford (R-Bristol/Kingsport) agreed to sign on. If any of the members, please see us, we’d love to have you as a member of the Tennessee Train Travel Caucus,” Powell concluded.

After a couple more announcements, Representative Dwayne Thompson (D-Memphis) was recognized by the Speaker to share with his fellow members, “We were just discussing the Train Caucus and just wanted to mention there is one city in the state that does have Amtrak and it is also one of the largest train centers in the United States and the gateway to the west is Memphis, Tennessee. So, I definitely want to be involved in the Train Travel Caucus.”

Representative G. A. Hardaway (D-Memphis) also expressed his support, saying, “Mr. Speaker, we’re looking forward to having all of the legislature in a couple of club cars from Nashville to Memphis, Tennessee, Barbecue all the way!”

Powell’s HB2278 is on the House Transportation calendar for March 1 and the companion SB2602 by Senator Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) is scheduled for the Senate Transportation Committee on March 2.

Another bill requiring TACIR to conduct a study and make recommendations regarding the potential for passenger rail that would link the major cities in each of the state’s grand divisions is HB2380 sponsored by Representative Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) and the companion SB2343 by Senator and Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston). The bills are also scheduled to be heard in the respective Transportation committees next week.

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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network, where she covers stories for The Tennessee Star and The Georgia Star News.
Photo “Jason Powell” by Rep. Jason Powell. Background Photo “Amtrak” by Trains In The Valley. CC BY-SA 4.0.



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15 Thoughts to “Legislators Announce Formation of ‘Train Travel Caucus’ in Support of Expanding Taxpayer-Subsidized Amtrak into Tennessee”

  1. william delzell

    Finally, the Legislature is doing something long OVERDUE for Tennessee! For too long, Tennessee has lacked vital passenger rail service except for a token line that serves Memphis in a North/South direction. The rest of the state needs East/West and North/South connections to link all of Tennessee’s major cities and town to each other so as to reduce this state’s over-dependency on the private automobile.

    Trains would not replace automobiles, they simply would provide an extra mode of transport along with long-distance buses and air travel so that Tennesseans would finally have a CHOICE on how they wish to travel. Train travel could work wonders in reducing traffic gridlock and accidents on our freeways and other roads and, thereby, lessen the need for costly repairs and resulting road closures during these repairs.

    When Tennessee still had several passenger trains, my parents put them to good use. Not only did they used to be fast and punctual, at least before 1945, they were comfortable and spacious enough to walk from one end of the train to another. You can’t do that in a small compact automobile! On a train, the engineer instead of you, is doing the driving so as to give passengers a chance to relax and enjoy the scenery and conversations with fellow passengers.

    Train-usage is not slavery. Quite the contrary, it gives me peace of mind not having to compete with other automobiles on crowded highways or in fighting for a place to park at reasonable cost. When I travel to Africa, Europe, and South America, I use the trains wherever available, and use the long-distance buses where they don’t have substitute rail service.

    Do the other responders to this article have a problem with public (and especially with rail) transportation? What’s your-all’s problem?

    1. Stuart I. Anderson

      Well William, from your description train travel sounds like heaven on earth, it’s just a shame that there are nowhere near enough people who agree with you that has ever made it even break even let alone be profitable since 1936. Now for the small minority who would even think of traveling by train I say best of luck to you, NOW PAY FOR IT!!!

      It’s been a nice racket up to now for you choo-choo lovers. First you have the shareholders of the freight railroads help pay for your enthusiasm, then when the railroads were going broke they were smart enough to transfer the subsidy to the taxpayers. Subsidies are nice for the recipients, not so nice for those helping to foot the bill for something they neither want or need.

      William, you’re are a serious transportation welfare recipient and now you’re whining that you want more welfare. As a conservative I am very anxious to see what Republicans in the General Assembly announce that they need to be primaried real bad by even considering your request.

      1. william r. delzell

        Are you willing to pay for your gasoline and highway/parking lot infrastructure instead of forcing non-car owners (or people who simply prefer not to use their cars with all the gridlock, expensive parking space, and accidents rates) from subsidizing your driving lifestyle? Cars are not cheap. I learned that the hard way when I bought my first car over forty years ago after my completion of graduate school. I had to pay for insurance, registration, title, excise tax, maintenance, to say nothing of buying the car itself. Driving can be very stressful as one fights traffic or has to be constantly alert for entrance/exit ramps, reckless drivers who cut into lanes, etc.

        If you are willing to pay for your gasoline and highway infrastructure with your own money instead of taxing me for it, then I am glad to pay for train and transit service without imposing on you. Fair enough?

        1. Chris

          William, the gas tax pays for roads and highways. It is a perfect example of a ‘fair-use’ tax…idiot.

      2. william r. delzell

        You automobile drivers are even BIGGER welfare recipients by getting government-subsidized toll-free superhighways, artificially low petroleum prices in comparison with the rest of the world, with space-consuming parking lots that are turning once good farmland into huge useless slabs of asphalt–just to accommodate the single-occupancy vehicle. All this to accommodate white suburbanites who like to hot-rod their gas-guzzling vehicles without consideration for the general welfare.

  2. CMinTN

    Just say NO to any further taxpayer subsidization of AMTRAK. They cannot operate with a profit and like the postal service beg for bailouts from con-gress. Do not vote for any republican that supports this garbage. We need to get away from all these “compacts.” No to agenda 21, no to globalism.

    1. william r. delzell

      Just say no to the highway trust fund which wastes tax payer money on interstates that we don’t need, which tear up neighborhoods (especially non-white neighborhoods) thereby destroying their tax base. Case in point: when Nashville allowed for the construction of I-40 through predominantly black North Nashville in 1970, it wrecked a once thriving middle-class black neighborhood just to convenience suburban car-happy whites. This decision to destroy black neighborhoods for a super highway contributed to Albert Gore, Sr.’s defeat by Bill Brock when embittered liberal blacks decided to desert Gore even at the risk of a Brock victory.

      Why should I pay for your interstate highways and parking lots when you are unwilling to support a balanced intermodal transport system that ALLOWS a choice of rail, bus, automobile, boat, and air transport. As I stated, a good rail system will actually HELP the Interstate Highway system by taking more heavy vehicles off the over-used pavement. When Nashville started its first commuter train to Lebanon, it successfully lured lots of drivers off the Interstate to leave their cars home and to take the relaxing train instead.

      1. Kay

        Thank you William!!!!

  3. 83ragtop50

    Nothing like lobbying to waste more tax dollars. The Swamp crowd uses this money-losing operation to move around in the disgusting I-95 corridor and other indebted places in the northeast. Shelve this nonsense and get on with real Tennessee business.

  4. Stuart I. Anderson

    As we conservatives do all we can to see the Republican centrists and the cooler tepid conservatives voted out of office to be replaced by conservatives our first task is to identify the centrists/tepid conservatives we want to be rid of. Heritage and American Conservative Union scores are invaluable to that end but now we find that we have yet another indicator to help us out. Let’s watch to see what Republican signs up to be a member of the “Train Travel Caucus” to help us determine who needs a ticket right out of the Tennessee General Assembly.

  5. P Clark Lewis

    Just require out-of-state Amtrak users to purchase a non-refundable round-trip ticket if their destination is in Tennessee.

  6. LM

    Enjoy arguing about a train track while you can. If Putin continues his siege, we may soon wish that a train track was our only concern.

    1. TJ

      Hopefully Putin is victorious for the betterment of the entire world. I see you have had your glass of globalist Putin bad kool-aid today. Russia is justified pursuing current operations and I pray for their success.

  7. Kevin

    This is strictly another attempt by the Liberal Left Democrats to try to further enslave US citizens! Just look at where Mass Transportation is operating, deep “blue” bastions of liberalism! Any Republican who signs on to this Bill, should be immediately voted out of office

    Mass transportation DOES NOT WORK in America! All this is, is another attempt to make citizens travel when and where the Government says you can travel AND to hire a bunch of Government paid lackeys!.

    1. Truth

      Kevin, you can’t seriously say all that with a straight face, can you? Mass transportation works and makes sense for certain cities. NYC is the most obvious example. On the other hand, Nashville? Not at all. For the lower classes, buses are all they have to travel to work, grocery store, etc.

      Stop drinking the red Kool-Aid. You look as foolish as the ones who drink the blue Kool-Aid.