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Section 2: Rail Service Assistance

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National Passenger Railroad Corporation (Amtrak)

Amtrak was created by the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 to operate and revitalize intercity passenger rail service. Prior to Amtrak’s creation, intercity passenger rail service was provided by private railroads, which had lost money, especially after World War II. The act, as amended, gave Amtrak a number of goals, including:

  • providing modern, efficient intercity passenger rail service
  • giving Americans an alternative to automobiles and airplanes to meet their transportation needs
  • minimizing federal subsidies.

Through fiscal year 1998, the federal government has provided Amtrak with over $20 billion in operating and capital subsidies.

Amtrak provides intercity passenger rail service to 44 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, Amtrak operates commuter rail service under contract. TxDOT, through the Multimodal Section, is the liaison for Amtrak in Texas.

Currently, Amtrak provides service in Texas through three passenger rail routes: Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Heartland Flyer.

Texas Eagle. The Texas Eagle is Amtrak’s service from Chicago to Los Angeles via Texarkana, Marshall, Mineola, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Del Rio, Sanderson, Alpine, and El Paso in Texas. The Texas Eagle operates four trains per week in each direction. It connects with the Sunset Limited in San Antonio three times per week.

Until 1994, the Eagle operated on a daily basis and until 1995 there was service from Dallas to Houston as well. In 1996, the composition of the Eagle (equipment operated) was reduced to one coach car, one lounge car, and one dormitory car for passenger sleeping accommodations.

Sunset Limited. The Sunset Limited is the transcontinental service operated by Amtrak between Orlando, Florida, and Los Angeles. It operates three times per week in each direction, and serves Beaumont, Houston, San Antonio, Del Rio, Sanderson, Alpine, and El Paso in Texas. The Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle share a single train set west of San Antonio on the three days the services coincide.

Heartland Flyer. The Heartland Flyer is Amtrak’s newest route in Texas. It is a daily service operated between Ft. Worth and Oklahoma City. It is subsidized by the State of Oklahoma using funds provided by Congress to states that had no Amtrak service in 1997.

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Funding of Texas Eagle Service by TxDOT

In the summer of 1996, Amtrak announced that it would discontinue several trains, including the Texas Eagle. At that time, the Texas Eagle ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, three trips per week in each direction, through Texarkana, Marshall, Dallas, Fort Worth, McGregor, Temple, Austin, San Antonio, Del Rio, and El Paso.

Many groups, both public and private, voiced their concerns about the potential loss of rail service. They argued that the absence of the Texas Eagle train would significantly impact accessibility of interstate rail travel to Texas residents. Amtrak serves many communities that do not have scheduled passenger air service and is therefore an important resource for travelers.

The 75th Texas Legislature instructed TxDOT to loan Amtrak $5.6 million from the general revenue fund. TxDOT provided these funds to Amtrak with the provision that they continue the Texas Eagle train for a specified period of time. The Multimodal Section monitored the use of these funds through the loan period. The loan was repaid with interest in May 1999.

Amtrak noted increased profit due to continuation of the Texas Eagle service during the loan period. The strategy of carrying express freight via the Texas Eagle contributed substantially to the increased profit level. As a result, the number of Texas Eagle trains has been increased to four trains each way per week, with further increases proposed for the future.

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Rural Rail Transportation Districts

State legislation passed in 1981 and amended in 1997 allows for the creation of Rural Rail Transportation Districts (RRTD) by a single county or multiple counties acting together. The initial legislation was adopted in response to concerns over the negative economic impacts of railroad abandonment on rural portions of the state. The laws authorized one or more eligible counties to form a district.

A district may be established based on approval of the county or the county’s commissioners court. The legislation grants RRTDs relatively broad powers to purchase existing railroads, to develop new rail systems, and to finance, maintain, and operate these services. Districts may acquire needed property through eminent domain, may enter into agreements with other public and private entities, and may perform a variety of other functions. Districts do not have taxing authority. A board appointed by the county commissioners is responsible for overseeing the activities of the district.

With the intent of providing continued rail service, TxDOT has entered into grant funding agreements with selected rural rail districts. Funds have been made available by the legislature through appropriation bill riders expressly for the purpose of funding these rail transportation districts. The Multimodal Section monitors the activities of rural rail districts and acts as the department’s liaison.

South Orient Rural Rail Transportation District. The South Orient Rural Rail Transportation District (SORRTD) received a secured grant in 1991 after prior approval by TTC (Minute Order No. 100061) and the Public Transportation Division of TxDOT. TxDOT continues to monitor the SORRTD.

Northeast Texas Rural Rail District. The Northeast Texas Rural Rail District (NETEX) received a secured grant in 1995 after prior approval by TTC (Minute Order No. 106154). TxDOT continues to monitor NETEX and receives status reports from the district on a regular basis.

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