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Could Freight Derail Amtrak Expansion Plans?

What Are Amtrak’s Expansion Plans?

President Biden, otherwise known as Amtrak Joe, has a $75 billion plan to transform passenger train travel across America over the next 15 years, with hopes to provide rail alternatives to short-hall flying and long-distance driving nationwide.

If the infrastructure bill is accepted, it could be the largest infusion of federal capital in Amtrak’s 50-year history, giving the company the chance to prove that it can expand the Northeast Corridor model of service to new cities across the country.

The multi-billion-dollar plan will help to provide more frequent daily services with a hope to generate gains in ridership, subsequently increasing profits for the company.

President Joe Biden intends to pour $75 Billion into upgrading Amtrak's network

How Might Freight Prevent These Plans?

Although Amtrak owns most of the tracks where its flagship service is offered on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, tracks across the rest of the country are owned by freight railroads. Subsequently, Amtrak relies on its relations with freight companies to maintain its service nationwide.

Although, by law, Amtrak trains can take precedence over freight when running over train networks, in practice this fails as Amtrak passengers frequently suffer delays caused by freight train interference. Relations between the two are often bitter as a result.

Difficult relations are causing issues with the proposed Amtrak expansion, with the seven major freight carriers resisting calls to make more room on their tracks for trains carrying people rather than commodities such as coal and grain, causing further delays for passenger trains utilising freight tracks.

In a bid to change this, Amtrak is seeking legal changes to force freight carriers to provide better access to passenger trains.

However, opposition from the freight train industry could easily halt these plans as shippers worry that sharing the line will delay trains carrying essential goods and drive-up costs for consumers.

Most railway lines are owned by freight companies

What Do The Experts Have To Say?

Speaking on behalf of both Amtrak and the rail freight industry, Jessica Kahanek of the Association of American Railroads reiterated that both services depend on each other to encourage efficiency on the tracks.

“Passenger and freight railroads share the same goal: dependable, on-time passenger service coupled with efficient, reliable freight service,” she said.

Individuals from the Surface Transportation Board, Amtrak (unsurprisingly) and the Federal Railroad Administration have spoken on the matter in favour of Amtrak’s proposed plans.

Committee chairman of the Surface Transportation Board Rep. Peter DeFazio has said that “right now they’ve [freight] got it the way they want it, so we’re going to change the law and give Amtrak better access.”

To add, Amtrak President Stephen Gardner has shown optimism for the plan. However, this is peppered with an understanding of why individuals may be sceptical, as most of the country hasn’t had any viable inter-city train service for decades.

Upgrades to the railroad could also dramatically help with the pressure put on the highways, a study by the Federal Railroad Administration has found. The researchers found that such upgrades could help avoid “up to 6 billion vehicle miles travelled per year by 2050.”

To contrast, Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation, has said that, although the plan seems positive on paper, in reality it simply shifts the issues elsewhere.

“When Amtrak is talking about expanding service, they’re not talking about building parallel track. Whenever we’re talking about Amtrak service expansion, the other side of that is freight rail service degradation,” he said.

He adds that freight rail companies transport goods with far lower emissions than trucks. Should more passenger rail service lead to more freight being shipped on highways, this would counteract against Amtrak’s own goal of more environmentally friendly transportation.

Scribner also believes that the money put into the Amtrak plan will simply be lost, as the current railroads continue to lose money for Amtrak today.

So, What Next?

$75 billion worth of funding to improve passenger train travel across America is an opportunity that can’t be missed for Amtrak. To add, as global warming and climate change become ever present on the global stage, America must play its part in decreasing the number of cars travelling on its roads.

An open dialogue between Amtrak and large freight companies will help reduce the rift between them which can be seen currently. Leaving their egos at the door would allow both sides to work through a potential resolution, overcoming logistical and timing issues which are seen today, allowing a smooth-running rail service for both freight and passengers.

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