At the end of March (March 27 through 30) the Rail Passengers Association (RPA) held RailNation DC 2022 in Alexandria, Virginia. This was the first of the twice-a-year gatherings of RPA’s council members, state representatives and interested advocates from all across the nation; the second meeting will be in the fall of this year. As a first time attendee in person, (I had attended two previous conferences via Zoom along with fellow CAPT member Don Yehle) I wanted to make new contacts, represent Don Yehle, who is also our South Carolina state RPA representative, in order to vote as his proxy and, of course, to learn more about RPA.
As always, the event allowed registrants to hear of what is going on legislative-wise to reform and improve Amtrak; to learn of fiscal appropriations to expand and sustain passenger rail service throughout the country; to meet with (virtually or in person) elected officials in Congress to advocate for passenger rail; and to take care of other association business such as voting for council members, officers and changes to bylaws.
Beginning with a board of directors meeting on the 27th, which was open to all, the RPA’s president, Jim Mathews, set out what the two and a half day event hoped to accomplish.
On Monday morning, the 28th, we heard first from Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose who underscored the significance of the Biden administration’s Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA), now more popularly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or BIL. He noted that he really regarded the important advocacy work of the RPA as crucial in getting this law passed. Mr. Bose emphasized the importance of staying on top of the unfolding developments that pertain to the bill so that we can continue to advocate forcefully and intelligently.
After Mr. Bose spoke to us, we heard, via Zoom, from Larry Chestler, Amtrak’s Vice President of Long-Distance Service Lines. Mr. Chestler assured the audience that Amtrak was most interested in receiving any and all inputs regarding suggestions for improvements in service that RPA members may have. He talked about the past couple of years explaining how Amtrak has met the challenge of reduced service due to the pandemic and how the company is working diligently to restore services that had to be curtailed or eliminated. Acknowledging that Amtrak needs to bring national passenger rail service back to Congressionally mandated levels as soon as possible, Mr. Chestler noted that the railroad is endeavoring to hire more staff to not only replace employees lost during the pandemic but to enable Amtrak to expand services with new workers. He observed that Amtrak was certainly pleased to be able to replace some aging equipment with new trainsets (as in the Northeast Corridor Service) and new cars (such as sleepers) used on other routes.
Next and also on Zoom, we heard from the chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, Marty Oberman. He, too, lauded the work of the RPA in encouraging lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Mr. Oberman encouraged RPA members to continue to press their members of Congress to ensure that the nation’s rail passenger services receive their authorized share of the BIL funding that will allow continued expansion and restoration of routes that are sorely needed.
In the afternoon, attendees were able to participate in two workshops led by RPA staffers. First up was a session on ‘Customer Service and the Passenger’ led by Madison Butler, RPA Communications Manager. She talked about the coming improvements to food service that Amtrak is going to launch and what RPA can do to encourage further changes and improvements to this service. Madison also discussed other amenities that Amtrak can put into place that will greatly enhance the overall customer experience. She gave us suggestions on ways to make our opinions known to her and she will convey our views to Amtrak working groups that will, hopefully, result in new amenities and services.
The second workshop was conducted by Sean Jeans-Gail who is RPA’s vice president of government affairs. In his session called ‘Drawing the Political Map’, he outlined ways to involve local officials and elected leaders in garnering support for Amtrak expansion and improvements. One of the first things necessary was an assessment of what already exists in the way of documentation. This would include corridor capacity studies, environmental impact studies, state and regional rail plans and any recently awarded grants. Then working groups would perhaps need to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the existing planning studies. Among the next tasks would be to identify the “key players” who may be, in addition to the aforementioned local officials and elected leaders, regional transportation authorities; host railroads; state rail advocacy groups; and Amtrak.
Then, Sean suggested that a working group rank the current level of support from these players or stakeholders on a scale from 1 through 10 with 10 being the most supportive. He noted that it was also important to address how the working group should be structured.
Lastly, Sean had those in the room divide into small discussion groups to brainstorm some concrete, tangible products that a corridor working group could deliver over the next six months (hypothetically). These products may include an elected officials’ sign-on letter; an op-ed campaign; an in-person event; a speaker’s bureau; a grant request for a study or project; and perhaps an IMPLAN assessment of the economic benefits. We were encouraged during this discussion to get creative!
The last full day of the conference, March 29th, was made up of RPA business which included reports from the president; the financial report; chairman’s report; the determination of proxies; and establishing a quorum so that voting could be carried out. Voting for officers such as chairman, vice chair, secretary, treasurer, director and various bylaw amendments took up the remainder of the day. Many of the bylaw changes and amendments were referred back to the appropriate bylaw committees as they were not considered ready to be voted upon due to the need for additional research and study.
At the very end of the day, Jim Mathews, assisted by his staff, reviewed the issues and discussed preparations for the “Day on the Hill” meetings. As I recall, members were given the option of meeting with their Congressional representatives in person if that is what they had scheduled themselves for and virtually if that is what they or their representatives preferred. I was told earlier on that the “Day on the Hill” meetings had been cancelled so I had not made any appointments and therefore, did not participate in this phase of the conference.
On the final half day of the gathering, the delegations who had opted to visit Congressional offices did so and those who did not were able to remain at the conference venue to hold committee or regional meetings. I chose to sit in on the staff office hours and listen (and learn) to some of the staff’s discussions. I might add that I learned a good deal from other representatives in attendance both during this time and during breaks and “free times”.
I shall look forward to my next attendance at an RPA RailNation conference as I believe I will be better informed and able to be an even better advocate for passenger rail in my state.