Today, the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the US House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan bill called the Passenger Rail Reform and Reinvestment Act of 2014 (full text). Though unlikely to pass this year, this seems at very first glance (full disclosure, I haven’t read the whole thing) to be a creative, intriguing approach to better (or at least different) investment in Amtrak, and the Northeast Corridor especially.
The major thing that caught my eye, though, is a section on, of all things, Amtrak boarding procedures. Why would the House involve itself in anything so very technical and minor? Other than the eternal explanation that Congress just loves screwing with people, the answer probably is related to the way that Amtrak’s nutty, inefficient airline-style boarding procedures (briefly: rather than having passengers wait on the platform like EVERYHWERE ELSE, Amtrak makes them queue at “gates” like in an airport) have become something of a media sensation.
This prominence for a relatively obscure topic is largely due to the efforts of Matt Yglesias, first at Slate and now at Vox. Over the last several years, Yglesias has repeatedly called out Amtrak’s inefficient boarding procedures at major stations, and offered sneaky workarounds for those who feel like making an end run around security theater; others have taken up the torch as well. Amtrak, for its part, has shown little inclination to budge.
As usual in politics, ignoring a burgeoning media firestorm for years just gets you in deeper trouble in the end. The House has apparently taken notice of Amtrak’s intransigence, and the new bill contains a section (covering parts of pages 48 and 49 in the PDF linked to above) that reads thus (edited for clarity and formatting):
SEC. 211. AMTRAK BOARDING PROCEDURES.
10 (a) REPORT.—Not later than 6 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Amtrak Office of Inspector General shall transmit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report that (1) evaluates Amtrak’s boarding procedures at its 10 stations through which the most people pass; (2) compares Amtrak’s boarding procedures to– (A) commuter railroad boarding procedures at stations shared with Amtrak; ( B) international intercity passenger rail boarding procedures; and (C) fixed guideway transit boarding procedures; and (3) makes recommendations, as appropriate, to improve Amtrak’s boarding procedures, including recommendations regarding the queuing of passengers and free-flow of all station-users.
(b) CONSIDERATION OF RECOMMENDATIONS.—Not later than 6 months after the release of the report required under subsection (a), the Amtrak Board of Directors shall consider each recommendation provided under subsection (a)(3) for implementation across the Amtrak system.
The bill’s demands might as well have been ripped from an Yglesias piece; indeed, the text hits almost all of the points of comparison that Yglesias and others have brought up with regards to Amtrak’s procedures. Perhaps some bright young staffer has been following the controversy; in any case, maybe the media pressure is getting somewhere after all. This particular bill may be unlikely to pass, but now we know the idea of boarding procedure reform is percolating in the House, and (regardless of the other qualities of this bill), maybe we’ll eventually see some progress on the issue.