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What Would an Amtrak Revival Look Like?

By Angie Schmitt July 14, 2023 at 12:36 PM EDT

Amtrak service between Seattle and Portland is, like much of the US passenger rail system, underwhelming.

Just four trips a day roll between the two Pacific Northwest cities, a 175-mile journey that takes just over three hours. Limited service and a typically spotty on-time performance means that the Cascades route struggles to compete with driving and flying on this corridor, which sits at the sweet spot for intercity rail.

But by US train travel standards, anyway, Cascades is something of a success story.

Supported with generous state subsidies, fares hover around $30. Between the two major metros, which are home to a combined 7 million people, Amtrak carried about half a million riders in 2019 — more than all the airlines combined.

Soon, however, Pacific Northwest residents could see what’s really possible. Under the national rail carrier’s proposed 15-year, $75 billion expansion plan, Portland-to-Seattle service would be more than tripled to 13 trips a day.

The Cascades upgrade is just a taste of what could be coming for huge expanses of the American landscape that have been underserved or unserved entirely, thanks to a historic $66 billion investment in passenger rail via the federal Infrastructure Bill.

“There’s never been funding like this before,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesperson. “It’s the largest amount of funding for passenger rail ever in the 52 years of Amtrak.”

For Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, the spending commitment represents “the inflection point of half a century of grassroots advocacy” from the private nonprofit lobbying group, as well by rail boosters from around the country who have looked on in dismay as Amtrak struggled to overcome anemic investment, regulatory hurdles, and — arguably, anyway — management failures. “It’s hard to overstate” how significant the cash injection will be, he said.

Amtrak’s expansion plan, dubbed Amtrak Connects US, proposes service improvements to 25 existing routes and the addition of 39 entirely new routes. If the vision were to be fully realized, it would bring passenger rail to almost every major city in the US in 15 years. (Right now, only 27 out of the top 50 metros are directly served.) The agency estimates that this would add 20 million trips annually — about double the number currently served on state-supported routes, or those less than 500 miles.

It’s a long way from the giant network of interurban trains that Americans relied on to get around early in the 20th century, but the plan would still mark a dramatic expansion of passenger rail. And it would bring critical environmental benefits. The transportation sector is the country’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with most of that pollution coming from cars and trucks. (Rail currently contributes a mere 2%.) Overall, train travel is 34% more energy efficient than flying and 46% more efficient than driving, according to Department of Energy estimates — and on partly electrified routes such as the Northeast Corridor, which carried about 40% of Amtrak ridership in 2022, its environmental advantages stretch even further. A modernized and expanded passenger rail network could be a powerful lever of decarbonization.

If Amtrak's vision to boost service and adapt its coverage map to better reflect where Americans now live is realized, the nation’s mobility landscape would be transformed. So what would this dramatic rail revival look like?

Coming ’Round the Bend

For residents of cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Nashville and Columbus, Ohio, the Amtrak plan is bringing the prospect of being restored to the rail system. In total, Amtrak hopes to add new service in 160 communities in 16 new states, including outposts like Pueblo, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin; and Salisbury, North Carolina.

In major cities like Columbus, which have lacked passenger rail for decades, there is a good deal of excitement about the proposal from rail advocacy groups like All Aboard Ohio — as well as some skepticism. The long-dreamed-of “3C+D Corridor” that could reconnect Columbus with Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton has been discussed since the Obama administration. The Columbus Convention Center, near downtown, has been proposed as a potential passenger depot; the Peter Eisenman-designed facility sits on the site of the city’s now-demolished Union Station.

In Cleveland, Amtrak has proposed turning the Midwest city into a mini-hub, with three daily trips to Detroit; currently, its served just twice daily in the middle of the night. Local rail advocates also want to bring passengers back to the city’s ornate downtown station, the former Cleveland Union Terminal, which was converted into a mixed-use development called Tower City Center after Amtrak departed in the 1970s.

Similar service expansions would be coming to other cities with miserable schedules. Houston — the nation’s fourth most populous city — now sees just three trains a week; Amtrak is floating three trips daily between Houston and San Antonio.

All US regions would see some improvements, but one of the goals of the plan is to better align service with new population centers in the Sun Belt and US South. New trains could connect Nashville to Savannah via Atlanta; another proposed new line would link Charlotte to Birmingham, by way of Atlanta.

“Our map is largely unchanged from the time of our start in 1971,” said Magliari. “[It] does not reflect our population growth.”

A ‘Rolling Museum’

Most of the Infrastructure Bill’s passenger rail funding — about $44 billion of the total $66 billion — will be administered by the Federal Railroad Administration, dispersed to fund projects like new routes and service expansions, which means states will have to apply and compete for the funds. But a significant portion, $22 billion, will be awarded directly to Amtrak, to be used, among other things, to replace the agency’s aging rolling stock. “We’re running railcars that were built in the ’70s,” Magliari said. “The customer experience should change pretty dramatically.”

The upgrade is long overdue, Mathews agreed, calling Amtrak’s familiar fleet of silver Amfleet passenger cars a “rolling museum.”

The next-generation equipment, dubbed Airo, will be brighter and more spacious, Magliari promises, with amenities like power outlets, USB ports and reliable WiFi service. Overnight and regional trains are first in line for replacement, with some routes getting the replacement trains in 2026.

New equipment will also translate into faster trains — the next generation of Acela trains will be able to (briefly) hit 160 mph — and shorter trips. The kind of bullet trains that exceed 200 mph remain out of reach in the US as construction on California’s long-delayed line, which is not an Amtrak project, continues. But the proposal notes, somewhat boldly, that “interest exists to support development of a dedicated high-speed rail corridor between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland.”

More than delivering truly high-speed rail, Amtrak’s plans focus on improving on-time performance — a chronic challenge given that Amtrak often must share tracks with freight trains — as well as boosting average speeds on the most well-used corridors. Of particular importance: a series of costly tunnel and bridge replacement projects in the Northeast Corridor that currently serve as pinch points and slow down journey times considerably. The Gateway Tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey, which was just awarded nearly $7 billion, is the most pressing one.

Increasing speed stands to be a priority for former New York City Transit head Andy Byford, who was recently brought on as Amtrak’s vice-president for high-speed rail development. During his tenure overseeing the city’s subways and buses, Byford became a beloved figure in straphanger circles, displaying a remarkable talent for managing complex systems and earning the nickname “Train Daddy.” The New York Times recently reported he improved on-time performance from 58% to 80% over just two years.

On the management side — always a source of criticism for Amtrak — the agency seems to be putting the pieces in place for an ambitious new expansionary era.

Avoiding Derailment

Key to the success of this process will be surmounting the kinds of political barriers that doomed earlier efforts to upgrade US passenger rail.

Rail advocates in places like Ohio still bear wounds from the last major attempt to expand Amtrak. In the wake of the Great Recession, President Barack Obama succeeded in making an additional $8 billion in recovery funds available “to develop America’s first nationwide program of high-speed intercity passenger rail service.” But a handful of Republican governors, including Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Rick Scott in Florida, refused the funds and effectively scuttled that vision. (The funds were redirected to places like Michigan and Missouri, where they went into track upgrades that allow some trains to hit speeds up to 110 mph.)

Rail transit remains a frequent target of Republican lawmakers: House Republicans recently proposed a raft of cuts to Amtrak’s budget and rail infrastructure projects. But on other fronts, the Amtrak rescue seems to be flying below the culture war jockeying. In February, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, sought federal funds for a “corridor ID” study, the first exploratory step to expanded service. And GOP-dominated Texas took a first step putting itself forward for funds, exploring expanded service in the “Texas Triangle” between Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.

That kind of state-level support is critical, says Mathews.

“If a community applies in this grant program and the governor and the Senate delegation are not behind it, it is not going to happen,” he said.

This time around, rail advocates feel more confident that political brinkmanship can be avoided. That’s because the legislation was written in a way that makes it more attractive even for states that have been hostile in the past. States that apply for funding for new service will be offered not just the capital funding for construction, but operational costs will be heavily subsidized, especially in the early years: 90% of the operating costs for new service will come from the feds in the first year, followed by 80% the second year and 70% the third, and so on.

“It’s not a deal that states have ever been offered,” said Magliari. “It’s a much lower bar to get over and it gives service a chance to prove itself.”

Even if Amtrak is able to fully realize its vision, the US isn’t going to suddenly become competitive with European and Asian countries that have spent decades investing in and expanding their passenger rail networks. Train-loving countries like France, Switzerland and Japan also have more supportive land use policies and more advanced technical expertise in the industry — as well as populations that never lost their taste for riding the rails in the post-war era. But if a large portion of Amtrak’s plans are realized, it could help return train travel into the mainstream in a way most Americans have never experienced in their lifetimes.

The RPA’s Mathews says the important thing for rail-hopeful states right now is not to get bogged down in studying these routes to death.

“It’s a five-year authorization,” he said. “There’s no time to call lots of consultants to chew on the end of their pencils. We don’t need more studies. What we need is someone to take the study that was finished three or four or five years ago and say, ‘Now we have the money: Let’s do it.’”

This article originally appeared on Bloomberg

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