What’s the point of Amtrak?

Amtrak may be expanding service with 50 new routes, but it's still too slow.

Source : Pixabay

September 2, 2021

Author : Alex Bustillos

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill, if made into law as in its current form, will give $66 billion in new funding for Amtrak, which has a wish list of more than 50 new routes it wants to construct.

This is all well and good, but there are some critical problems with Amtrak besides its lack of service in many regions. Chief among those problems is its speed, or lack thereof.

As CNN Business put it in mid-August, “don't expect any 200 mph trains that rival Europe and Asia's best, or even cheaper fares.” In a more recent article the same outlet took a critical, in-depth look at this issue.

This is at odds with the White House's very first fact sheet pushing the infrastructure package, which said in its very first paragraph a goal of the plan was to “position the United States to out-compete China.” It's also at odds with campaigning by the administration which heavily emphasized high-speed rail investments.

CNN Business analyzed Amtrak routes that are actually faster to drive than to take the train. Of the top 10 with the biggest gap, seven are more than two hours faster to drive than to take Amtrak. One is close to two hours faster to drive, at one hour and 56 minutes. The other two are more than an hour and a half faster to drive.

As reporter Matthew Gertz put it on Twitter, “So the plan is to spend the money on: 1) Maintenance for routes whose ridership is so low that the revenue can't pay for upkeep. 2) New routes that will get ridership so low the revenue can't pay for upkeep.”

Simply put, this is not the kind of service the Biden Administration campaigned for the infrastructure bill on.

Back in February, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that in the United States, “we’ve been asked to settle for less in this country. I just don’t know why people in other countries ought to have...more investment in high-speed train service than Americans.”

“We shouldn’t limit our imagination to just tinkering around the edges. It’s time to go big and build first-rate infrastructure, including investments in high-speed rail.”

The $66 billion in new funding for Amtrak will do no such thing.

In March, Jen Zhu, executive chair of the Commons Project Foundation, pointed out that the distance between Beijing and Shanghai is “slightly shorter than Boston to Chicago,” but while it only takes four hours and 18 minutes to travel by train between the Chinese cities, Amtrak takes 21 hours and 35 minutes to get from Boston to Chicago.

In response to Zhu’s tweet, Secretary Buttigieg said that “Americans should have the best transportation services and infrastructure in the world. Period.”

The new funding for Amtrak doesn’t do that, however. It’s just more of the same.

Meanwhile, even (or especially) with new routes, if Amtrak expands but remains unpopular, it will be an even harder sell to the public to get the support necessary for high speed rail investment.

Category : Department of Transportation Federal Government Investment in Infrastructure Railroads

Related Cover Story