- Amtrak has unveiled a plan to further connect the US by rail but it doesn’t include high-speed rail.
- New routes will be added and current routes will be upgraded as Amtrak aims to repair its network.
- Private companies and states have taken up the costly task of building high-speed rail on their own.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Americans are all-aboard for high-speed rail but Amtrak’s new rail plan is putting the brakes on bullet train dreams.
Amtrak is getting ready to spend $80 billion of the federal government’s money as part of President Joe Biden’s planned $4 trillion infrastructure bills. The “Amtrak Connects US” plan calls for greater rail connectivity across the US with the addition of new routes and improvement of old ones in a major step forward for America’s rail system.
But one phrase is notably missing from Amtrak’s proposal: high-speed rail. Amtrak’s fact sheet doesn’t mention the phrase even once.
Rather, Amtrak is using the billions to give service to rail-strapped cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Nashville, Tennessee, and upgrade existing lines. Not one penny will be spent towards building a clean-slate high-speed rail line even though getting America’s high-speed rail network in line with those in Europe and Asia is a desire for many Americans.
Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, told Insider that Amtrak may still be decades away from true high-speed rail and is still readjusting from an era of extreme cost-cutting.
“As recently as three years ago, Amtrak senior leadership was out talking about how routes have to make a profit and long-distance routes shouldn’t exist,” Mathews said, referring to the tenure of former Delta Air Lines chief executive officer Richard Anderson that saw Amtrak’s most nostalgic offerings cut in a bid to save costs.
Before Amtrak can even consider a brand-new high-speed rail network, there’s still a backlog of repairs to work through on its existing lines. And unlike regional transit authorities, Amtrak’s network stretches from sea to shining sea, leaving a lot to maintain and update.
“There’s all these sort of boring infrastructure investments that you got to do,” Mathews said.
On the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak has its only high-speed service with the Acela, Mathews said that it would cost around $50 billion just to get the line to a “state of good repair.” That’s 62.5% of Amtrak’s proposed $80 billion funding from the infrastructure bill in just repairs alone and not even laying the foundation for true high-speed rail in the Northeast.
True high-speed rail would require new infrastructure, including straight lines of track so trains can achieve their top speeds. In congested regions like the Northeast, that means spending millions if not billions just to purchase property along the line’s planned route.
“Politically, high-speed has a different ring to it and I think Amtrak is probably unwilling to step into that,” Mathews said. “From their point of view, they’re like, ‘Hey, we just want to run our trains. We want to run more trains and we want them to be on time.'”
Amtrak is already spread thin in its languishing nationwide network. Existing infrastructure across the US has fallen into disrepair and battles with freight railroads prohibit Amtrak from being competitive on existing lines.
Private companies have instead spearheaded the effort to bring high-speed rail to the US. Brightline built a high-speed line to connect West Palm Beach and Miami in Florida that will soon be connected all the way to Orlando. In Texas, the Texas Central Railroad is developing a high-speed rail line that will connect Dallas and Houston in only 90 minutes.
California has even taken up the mantle with a new high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Construction is currently underway with the 1,287km line taking at least 14 years to complete at an estimated cost of at least $68 billion, according to Architect Magazine.
Amtrak is introducing new trains to the Acela line but those will only travel slightly faster than the current train sets. And pre-pandemic non-stop service between New York and Washington still took two hours and 30 minutes, despite being a comparable distance to the planned route between Dallas and Houston.
“What about grandma?”
Critics of Amtrak and its money-losing ways look too much at the big picture, according to Mathews, and not at the smaller journeys that are more in line with Amtrak’s original congressional charter. Only around 10% of riders take the full length of a long-distance service like the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle, for example, whereas most customers are taking the train between intermediary stops.
“The vast majority of trips take place in between,” Mathews said. And those short-distance trips between say Staples, Minnesota and Wolf Point, Montana, where convenient air service is a distant dream, is Amtrak’s bread and butter. Fares are comparatively lower than flying and trains can better accommodate passengers that face issues when flying, whether it be because they require medical devices or the nearest airport is hours away.
Keeping those smaller cities connected is also the reason why Amtrak rushed to get long-distance trains back to daily service after they were reduced to three-times-weekly service during the pandemic. Restoring them to daily service may have seemed counter-intuitive from a revenue perspective but the move ensures more Americans that rely on the rails have access to it.
When Amtrak does eventually enter the high-speed rail realm, it may be relegated to the lines that private companies haven’t already scooped up. But Mathews believes that’s alright because the rail corporation’s purview, after all, is to serve the entire country – profitable or not.