U.S. is finally going big, but needs to go even bigger

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Like just about every American who supports and enjoys passenger trains and rail transit, I am elated by this week’s announcements from the White House and Amtrak headquarters surrounding the American Jobs Plan, President Biden’s proposed multi-trillion-dollar multi-year outlay for transportation infrastructure and other investments in the country’s physical and social capital. The proposed legislation — which is now in the hands of the narrow Democratic majority in Congress — includes an $80 billion outlay for intercity passenger rail. This would exceed the previous highest-ever federal spending on passenger trains by a factor of eight and would go a long way towards turning long-held dreams into reality, but it’s still not enough to get to where we really need to be.

The top map is Amtrak's current vision in response to the American Jobs Plan. The bottom one is a more expansive vision that could be achieved with the same level of investment. Sources: Top: Amtrak. Bottom: 'Amtrak Fans' on Facebook.
One unheralded but key aspect of the plan is that, on the highway side, it makes historic investments in bringing existing roads and bridges into a state of good repair, but does not fund or encourage new highway construction or expansion — a “fix it first” approach. On the rail and transit side, however, it invests in both fixing existing systems and in new and expanded service. This is as it should be — the interstate and U.S. highway systems should be considered fully built out at this point. 

Federal transportation leaders seem to have finally learned the lesson that economists have known all along: that adding road capacity only encourages more driving and winds up making congestion worse. However, thanks to decades of underinvestment, American rail and transit systems pale in comparison to those of most developed countries in terms of scope and service levels. They need to be expanded so as to provide a more viable alternative to driving to more Americans.

Another important aspect that is rumored to be included in the Administration’s proposal (though I have yet to see it in writing from a federal source) is legislative language that would streamline the process for Amtrak to gain the necessary track access and infrastructure support from host railroads for new routes or added frequencies on current routes. Amtrak has already taken the commendable step of petitioning the Surface Transportation Board to grant it access to CSX’s tracks between New Orleans and Mobile in order to run two daily round-trips by the start of 2022 after failing to reach an agreement with CSX on its own despite over two years of negotiation. The STB’s ruling in this case will set a notable precedent, but clear statutory language guiding a more constructive relationship between Amtrak and host railroads would further smooth the way for new services to start on a shorter timeline with lower start-up costs.

The $80 billion figure for rail would allow hundreds of shovel-ready or nearly shovel-ready projects to be fully funded and would fully fund the addition of new routes, and new frequencies on existing routes, to the Amtrak system. However, as the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation’s Jeff Davis pointed out in a webinar Thursday, the entire $80 billion could be consumed by the Northeast Corridor’s longstanding capital needs. Any of the currently planned or under-construction new high-speed rail lines could also expend the entirety of this sum. 

Luckily, the political reality makes it highly unlikely that all, or even most, of this money would go to one project or corridor. However, the fact that all $80 billion could go to one corridor and still not be enough to fully meet the needs of that corridor makes it clear that even this historic dollar amount still falls well short of what is needed to truly modernize intercity passenger rail in America. (It is worth noting that the Northeast Corridor’s single most expensive shovel-ready capital project, the Gateway Project to rebuild and augment the stretch between New York City and Newark, N.J., is being funded largely from a separate pot of money and is a top priority for the Biden Administration.)

In conjunction with Wednesday’s release of the American Jobs Plan, Amtrak put out a map, under the heading “Amtrak Connects Us,” showing what its network could look like 15 years from now if the Federal Railroad Administration and its state partners allocated the $80 billion in a way Amtrak’s leadership would favor. In these pages and elsewhere, I have long urged Amtrak to be a more vocal advocate for itself and to show what it could do if it were adequately capitalized. I am glad to finally see Amtrak speak in a more visionary manner.

That being said, Amtrak leadership and its stakeholders — state partners, labor unions, passenger advocates, etc. — would do well to pursue a growth strategy that maximizes the national system’s cohesion and network benefits. It would be tremendous to see the envisioned new corridors, such as Los Angeles-Las Vegas, Atlanta-Nashville and Cheyenne-Denver-Pueblo added to the system. It would be even better from a connectivity standpoint to see, for example, the Los Angeles-Las Vegas route be served by at least one daily round-trip that connects on to Salt Lake City, and Atlanta-Nashville be served by a train that connects on to Louisville and Chicago. 

Given that the amount of available capital is still limited, Amtrak and its partners should prioritize longer routes that connect more city pairs and lay the groundwork for developing even more frequent service on shorter corridors within those routes. Current successful high-frequency corridors like the San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento Capitol Corridor and the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service were given a tremendous leg up in their initial development by the fact that Amtrak already served these routes as part of the long-distance train network. The same could happen to routes like Atlanta-Nashville if, for example, a Chicago-Atlanta service were first restored.

I realize that prioritizing longer-distance routes means investing in different types of equipment, working with more states and more expansive dialogues with host railroads, as well as developing new crew bases. But it would also let Amtrak take maximum advantage of the infrastructure it has at existing national network hubs and allow equipment to spend less time idling and more time in revenue service. Not to mention that, under the current legal framework (which Congress should revise), Amtrak has the prerogative to expand the long-distance network on its own accord without having to secure state funding.

This is a time of great hope and exciting possibility, but is also a perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity to think carefully about what shape we want our national passenger train network to take. Do we want greater interconnectivity between regions with perhaps less frequency initially but more city pairs served? Or do we want to prioritize high-frequency corridors that meet demand within regions but provide less inter-regional mobility? These are discussions that should continue regardless of what shape the American Jobs Plan takes if and when it comes out of the divided Senate.

Disclaimer: The author is a freelance contributor to Trains and an independent consultant specializing in writing, research and communications with a focus on passenger rail and transit. His clients have included Herzog Transit Services, Inc., the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators, DB Engineering & Consulting USA, ELERTS Corp. and the Eno Center for Transportation. He is also an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his current or former clients or associations.

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