WASHINGTON — Some New York passenger and freight rail associations are asking the administration President Joe Biden for infrastructure changes while also outlining plans to keep customers and workers safe following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The groups are also promoting environmentally friendly practices for their trains.
New York train ridership decreased because of the pandemic from 13.02 million passengers in 2019 to 6.68 million last year. According to an annual report from Amtrak, the company saw a year-to-year decrease of 15.2 million passengers nationwide due to the pandemic.
In the Capital Region alone, over 500,000 people used the Albany-Rensselaer, Schenectady and Saratoga Springs railroad stations in 2020 compared with the over 900,000 in 2019.
Freight trains were largely halted by the pandemic but they are slowly returning to pre-pandemic work levels. Michael Fesen, director of government relations for Norfolk Southern Railway, said that when “there is a decline in the general economy, that’s a decline in the amount of freight moving.”
The House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials held their first hearing of the 117th Congress last week to start setting a legislative agenda for railroad infrastructure.
“Rail benefits all of us — urban and rural, rich and poor, Republican and Democratic — by contributing to a more robust economy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions,” said subcommittee Chairman Donald Payne Jr., D-N.J.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., the top Republican on the subcommittee, emphasized the importance of freight rail, saying Congress “must ensure that freight railroads keep growing in an uninhibited manner so that Americans can continue to benefit from their irreplaceable contributions to our economy.”
On the campaign trail Biden had outlined a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would include repairs and improvements and increase the use of public transportation vehicles that output no emissions.
The New York Department of Transportation looks “forward to working with both the new Congress and administration on additional opportunities to enhance the speeds and reliability of passenger rail services, especially upstate,” said Glenn Blain, a department spokesman.
Fesen urged the Biden administration to consider “moto-equity” for the freight industry in regards to competition with other modes of transportation such as trucking.
“What we asked for is just an equity in realizing that we have to compete with trucks,” he said.
Scott Wigger, executive director at the Railroads for New York, an industry group focused on advocating for freight rail and it’s workers, said spending more money on infrastructure such as rail lines would help the freight industry.
“Unless we keep investing in our infrastructure here, there’s going to be no place for it to go,” said Wigger, referring to the building of new highways rather than expansion and repair of rail services.
Passenger services like Amtrak are working with the Biden administration and the state Department of Transportation to expand services to different communities across the country as well as provide sustain and improve services to individuals who already use rail for transportation.
“The country hasn’t stopped growing and people still need to move between cities which means that rail has the opportunity to be more relevant for more people post-pandemic if we make the right investments now,” said Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams.
The Biden administration has emphasized environment-friendly options for infrastructure and transportation spending.
Abrams said expanding Amtrak services will contribute to the de-carbonization of the transportation network because cars and trucks combine contribute more carbon emissions than trains do.
Wigger said that the freight industry is embracing new technologies that make train engines more efficient and environmentally friendly.