There won’t be any 200 mph trains to compete with Europe’s and Asia’s best, nor will there be any cheaper fares.
The infrastructure bill, according to transportation experts, could be the start of a new era for the country’s ailing rail system. However, the bill does not address the long-term consequences of Americans looking past rail. Rail travel continues to face significant obstacles in the United States and other developed countries.
With President Joe Biden’s election, the focus on passenger rail has shifted. After his first wife and one of his children were killed in a car accident, he earned the moniker “Amtrak Joe” for his regular rail commutes back to Wilmington to care for his two sons. He was also involved in a high-speed rail push during the Obama administration.
The Senate passed an infrastructure bill last week that includes $66 billion for passenger and freight rail. However, before the bill reaches Biden’s desk, the House must still negotiate the details.
Whatever the figure is, it will be a sizable infusion of cash for an industry that has seen its competitors — road and air travel — receive far more government support. Rather than competing on an equal footing with other modes of transportation, American passenger rail has had to fight attempts by several presidents to cut funding.
“Amtrak was set up to fail,” Robert Puentes, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation told CNN Business. “It wasn’t designed to last as long as it has.”
That means money will have to be spent right now just to get it back to where it was.
The majority of the new funding will go toward maintenance, rather than the futuristic high-speed trains that European and Asian passengers have been enjoying for decades. According to the White House, 5,000 rail cars as well as thousands of miles of track, signal, and power systems need to be replaced. Amtrak has stated that it will require $38 billion to bring the Northeast corridor back into good working order.
“This is an improve the status quo bill,” said Jim Mathews, CEO of the Rail Passengers Association. “Passengers won’t have to bring Velcro and duct tape to repair their own train cars.”
Rail proponents, including Biden, have long emphasized the enormous potential of passenger rail.
“You and your family could travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas onboard a high-speed train,” Biden said earlier this year. He’s also mentioned the possibility of trains traveling at 220 mph between Atlanta and Charlotte, or of taking 92 minutes to travel between DC and New York if three curves along the route are straightened.
Train travel, according to proponents, can make getting around the United States safer, greener, and more efficient. Traveling by rail has a lower environmental impact than other modes of transportation. Rail travel also has a better safety record than driving.
Even with the additional funding, however, the full potential for world-class rail will remain untapped. The ongoing high-speed rail project in California is estimated to cost $100 billion, far exceeding the infrastructure package’s entire new rail investment.
The new funding, according to the White House, is the largest federal investment in passenger rail since Amtrak was founded in 1970. However, when inflation and population growth are taken into account, it lags behind a surge in rail investment in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Yonah Freemark, an Urban Institute researcher.
The $66 billion, most of which will go to Amtrak, will most likely result in more frequent service and stops across the country, as well as new equipment. Choke points along the Northeast corridor, such as those in Baltimore and New York, may be alleviated, allowing for faster travel.
In a statement, Amtrak praised the investment, but also urged Congress to ensure that it receives on-time performance and preferential treatment from the host rail lines that its trains travel on. Because freight railways can give top priority to their own trains while Amtrak trains wait their turn, Amtrak faces delays and inconveniences.