The rail-haters never quit. On Wednesday, columnist George Will trotted out one of his familiar jeremiads against the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak. From Will’s perspective, Amtrak leeches taxpayer dollars, few people ride it, the airlines are greener, it gets priority over freight rail, and so on—bashing Amtrak never gets old.
It’s not news that Amtrak, a quasi-public entity, depends on government subsidies. American train enthusiasts salivate over Western European rail, where subsidies for public transportation are higher, because taxes are and people pay them. Which is why Western Europeans have great train service and Americans do not.
But in some American cities, rail is prized, despite the assumption that neither cities nor mass transit were supposed to survive the pandemic. Short hops that do not involve navigating stop-and-go traffic or merit flying are sparking plenty of interest from travelers interested in sustainability and staying off the roads—if the crowds returning to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) trains are any indication. Amtrak ridership currently is more than 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
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There’s always been interest in passenger rail on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle. The dream of high-speed rail (HSR) remains elusive, undone by the implosion of California’s ambitious high-speed rail plan, which set the national debate about train travel back years. Democratic members of Congress are major supporters of regional networks like NEC that connect urban cores. Republicans work overtime to introduce or maintain stops in rural locales, where Amtrak is public transportation disguised as scenic long-distance travel trips for vacationers. That’s good enough to preserve Amtrak as a nationwide service, but barely.
A case in point: Amtrak gets showered with positive media attention thanks to the presidency of frequent rider and rail booster Joe Biden. But the fight club that passes for the world’s greatest deliberative body continues to drag the United States transportation networks into developing-nation status. Biden’s initial infrastructure proposal sent $80 billion to passenger rail; that’s now been reduced to $66 billion, and split with freight rail, no less, in the latest bipartisan infrastructure package. Biden has said specifically that a second bill in reconciliation wouldn’t increase these numbers for the projects in the bipartisan package. So Amtrak’s cut has been more than halved already.
Amtrak is pressing ahead with a 15-year plan that opens up new rail lines and expands existing ones. If any of the logical proposals materialize, it will be the closest that the U.S. may come to accelerated, if not high-speed, travel in major urban corridors. Between Chicago and Minneapolis, adding a second train daily on an existing Amtrak route would provide nearly $3 million in annual economic benefits and serve nearly 125,000 people who might otherwise drive. Minnesota alone plans to dedicate $10 million toward the service. Upgrades are also planned to improve services between Washington and Richmond, Virginia, and Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Amtrak is not alone anymore, however. Microsoft is partnering with Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia to explore building a new HSR line along the Interstate 5 corridor between Portland and Vancouver. A proposal for a new route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas pits Amtrak against Brightline, a private passenger rail company that’s seen success in Florida on its Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach route (expanding to Orlando next year and eventually to Tampa). Clark County, Nevada, Commissioner Michael Naft told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the competitive edge would go to the carrier that runs the first trains. That could go to Brightline, which plans to start construction this year on what the company projects will be a three-hour trip at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.
Not only is Amtrak hostage to the whims of congressional appropriators, but now private companies are eager to dip into the federal pot. Brightline intends to compete for federal grants: The House version of the $547 billion surface transportation bill would allocate $25 billion for high-speed rail projects, but the Senate version includes a provision that would enable private companies to apply for that money. The Hill has reported that Brightline has nine lobbyists in Washington, including a former Transportation Department official and former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who supported the Miami-Fort Lauderdale route.
But a plan to build a Northeast maglev train between Baltimore and Washington careened to a halt after Baltimore transportation and planning officials opposed the HSR line that would provide a 15-minute trip between Baltimore and Washington (and eventually a one-hour trip to New York), citing “equity, environmental justice, and community impacts” as well as incompatibility with current Amtrak infrastructure improvements, like replacing the B&P Tunnel dating from 1873. The projected cost of $60 for a one-way ticket also raised questions about who exactly would be riding those trains.
In some American cities, rail is prized, despite the assumption that neither cities nor mass transit were supposed to survive the pandemic.
Western cities may yet experience true high-speed rail, but Northeast Corridor passengers will have to settle for upgrades or replacements of antique infrastructure, like the 113-year-old Connecticut River rail bridge between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, Connecticut. The bridge opens and closes erratically and leads to cascading delays along the NEC. The Gateway rail project between New York and New Jersey will replace the 111-year-old Portal Bridge. Upgrading these choke points would help Amtrak travel faster than a slow creep, shaving time off NEC trips. (True high-speed rail in the Northeast would require property and land takings to straighten out curves on the route to make high speeds possible—which would lead to fights of epic proportions in the densely populated region.)
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of members of Congress called on their leadership to carve out multibillions for dedicated high-speed rail corridor planning and development funding. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) is a leader of this quixotic quest to dedicate new federal monies to high-speed rail development, in part through public-private partnerships. His “American High-Speed Rail” white paper is an impressive analysis of the challenges and the benefits that reasonable people can support, though it barely tackles the consequences for Amtrak. Barack Obama also unveiled a similar “what’s not to like” set of HSR proposals: The only plan still extant from that period is the Central Valley segment of the infamous California HSR line. What is hard to fathom is how Moulton’s group makes any progress against a phalanx of committed obstructionists.
The upshot? Passenger rail at any speed remains undervalued in the U.S. A few new rail carriers will pick off potentially lucrative city pairs, and Amtrak will try to run a somewhat reliable service on even more limited federal dollars if private carriers end up getting a cut. It’s a dangerous trend since Amtrak, like the U.S. Postal Service, provides a vital service, going places that private carriers wouldn’t consider. Even for skeptics like George Will, who was once caught riding Amtrak by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, it beats flying into JFK or LaGuardia , or sitting in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike.
This article is part of our ongoing series on sustainable mobility, transportation, and climate.