The Inside Track: Interview with Dennis Newman, EVP of Planning and Strategy at Amtrak
Long-time railway lover Joe Biden has kickstarted his government’s colossal overhaul of the US economy with a $2 trillion infrastructure programme, $80 billion of which is earmarked for Amtrak.
Amtrak, which this year celebrates its 50th year of service, will now be empowered to establish greater railway connectivity across the US, constructing vital new routes and improving old ones. To get the inside track on this transport revolution, USTN speaks to Dennis Newman, executive vice president of Amtrak for planning and strategy.
A veteran of the transport sector, Dennis joined Amtrak in 2017 as VP for schedule and consist planning, where he worked to refine train schedules and capacity deployment in order to improve ridership, revenue and the financial and operating performance of Amtrak’s routes. Before this he worked in the airline industry, serving as vice president of North America network planning at Northwest Airlines and later as vice president of international network planning at Delta.
Immediately prior to joining Amtrak, Dennis worked at DISH Network: a satellite television company. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Princeton University and a master’s in business administration from the Tuck School at Dartmouth College.
President Biden is well-known for his love of Amtrak and has even promised a “second great railroad revolution” for the US. Where, in your view, should the administration begin in revolutionising rail travel in the US?
Amtrak looks forward to working with President Biden, Secretary Buttigieg and Congress to get the economy moving and help Amtrak and our employees through this unprecedented situation.
COVID relief funding has enabled Amtrak to recall furloughed employees, restore service frequency on long-distance and state-supported routes, and make investments that will advance critical capital projects such as bridges and tunnels on the Northeast Corridor and new equipment, infrastructure improvements and major station upgrades throughout our network.
A key step is to invest in critical projects to replace aging infrastructure and bring elements of infrastructure into a state of good repair. In addition, corridors across the country that have seen significant population growth and increased population density over the last several decades are ripe for the introduction or expansion of intercity passenger rail service, and the administration’s support for service development in those corridors would be welcome.
What difference will it make having an administration that is – at least outwardly – pro-railroad and pro-environmentalism?
Traveling on our electrified system in the Northeast Corridor emits up to 83% less greenhouse gases than driving and up to 73% less than flying. Across our national network, Amtrak is 47% more energy efficient than driving and one third more efficient than flying.
We continue to make incredible investments in the customer experience. Amtrak has a bold vision for the future of rail that includes investing in new equipment, reimagining our stations, modernizing vital rail infrastructure, leveraging new technology, combating climate change and expanding service to enhance the mobility of more Americans. As we celebrate our 50th year of service, we stand ready to work in tandem with this administration to help our nation recover and grow for the future.
Amtrak, like most in the transport sector, suffered heavily during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. How have you positioned yourself to move forward from this crisis?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have focused on adaptability and becoming more agile through our response to the crisis.
Amtrak is now ready to launch a new era of passenger rail expansion and improvement across the nation, connecting more people by train. We also continue to deliver a new standard of travel with enhanced safety and cleaning measures.
Soon, we’ll be introducing new high-speed trainsets along the Northeast Corridor — the next generation of Acela. This new service will provide our customers with world-class accommodations and amenities, along with a smoother and even more comfortable ride.
We’re also upgrading our infrastructure with significant station expansion and modernization efforts in New York and Washington, D.C., and improved track capacity and ride quality along the Northeast Corridor.
All of this is being done in an effort to make Amtrak the smarter way to travel.
Rail travel is often touted as the future in terms of low-emissions transit. What are the key technical obstacles to be overcome in establishing trains as a preferable alternative to cars and planes.
The key obstacles are not necessarily “technical.” Where train service exists with adequate frequency and with competitive trip times, as in the Northeast Corridor, travelers demonstrate their preference for trains. We need to bring frequent, trip-time-competitive service to more regions of the country to give travelers the opportunity to choose rail travel. Cooperation from host railroads in providing access for and efficient dispatch of Amtrak trains is essential to establish those conditions.
We strive to reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions while safely moving people between large cities and rural towns. Both Amtrak customers and the general population have rated trains as the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation in comparison to other modes. *
The California High Speed Rail Project has given rail infrastructure something of a bad name with its high costs and numerous delays. What lessons can Amtrak learn from this?
Many projects over time have taught valuable lessons for planning. We aim to be prudent and realistic in our schedule and cost assumptions and careful to recognize the risks to project delivery and success, then include appropriate contingency and identify ways to mitigate those risks.
*The survey referenced was comprised of individuals who live in the Acela, Northeast Regional and long-distance service markets who take one or more trips over 75 miles a year.