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Biden Seeks Unprecedented Investment in Passenger Rail

The president is famous for his love of riding trains. He's ready to put serious money into the Amtrak system, proposing billions more than have been spent throughout its entire 50-year history.

Joe Biden gestures during a campaign stop at Alliance Amtrak Station Sept. 30, 2020 in Alliance, Ohio.
Alex Wong/TNS
Fifty years ago, Amtrak was created to bury passenger rail.

Back then, America’s struggling freight rail companies were required to carry passengers — a proposition that’s always been a money loser — and they wanted out. The Nixon administration created a quasi-public corporation to handle passenger service, with the expectation it would wither away in the age of air travel. In the process of Amtrak’s creation, at least half of the nation’s passenger rail network was eliminated.

In Philadelphia on Friday, President Biden used the anniversary of Amtrak’s inauspicious beginnings to highlight his plan to spend $80 billion on freight and passenger rail infrastructure. If approved by Congress, it would be the country’s most significant investment in passenger rail service since 1971.

One estimate from 2009 found that Amtrak had received only $30 billion in support over its then-nearly 40-year history.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position Amtrak and rail to play a central role in our transportation future,” said Biden, speaking in front of Acela high-speed trains that went into service this year. “We can make improvements that get America back on track, no pun intended.”

Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan includes $600 billion for transportation, counting the funding for rail. Half the rail money would be used to address a backlog of repairs and capacity expansion on the heavily used Northeast Corridor line, which is one of the only stretches of railway actually owned by Amtrak. The other half would be used to expand service across the country. “Imagine a two-hour train ride between Atlanta and Charlotte going at speeds of 220 miles an hour,” Biden said.

For years, observers have bemoaned how weak the U.S. passenger rail system is in comparison with wealthy nations in Western Europe and East Asia. Many major American cities don’t have Amtrak service of any kind, including Phoenix and Las Vegas, while even Houston — the fourth most populous city in the country — only gets a three trains a week in each direction.

“It’s pathetic,” says David Gunn, who was president of Amtrak from 2002 until 2005. In comparison to other wealthy countries, he says, “There's no question that the transportation dollars from the federal government have always been inadequate and heavily biased towards highways and waterways.”

Biden’s Love of Rail

It makes sense that Biden would be the president to propose an expanded commitment to passenger rail. He’s long been one of Amtrak’s most vocal political supporters, well-known for taking the train home to Wilmington, Del., most nights while he was in the Senate. As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden helped champion a stimulus package in 2009 that included the last major federal investment in passenger rail service.

Standing outside Philadelphia’s soaring, art deco 30th Street Station, Biden waxed nostalgic about his time riding the rails. He highlighted trains as a climate-friendly alternative to planes for short distance travel, as well as a means to stimulate economic opportunity outside big cities. Biden placed heavy emphasis on the possibilities for increased capacity in the South and West, where population growth has exploded since Amtrak’s creation, yet service remains frozen at 1970s levels.

“Most of the [carbon] emissions in this country come from transportation,” Biden said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, when I think about fighting climate change, I think about jobs. An expansion of rail would provide good union jobs, while also connecting people to economic opportunities they can reach from wherever you live.”

The bill’s future is unclear. Biden’s infrastructure plan is expected to have a tougher path through Congress than the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that was approved in March solely with Democratic support. Republican senators have put forward a counterproposal that is one-fourth as large as Biden’s proposal in terms of both total spending and commitment to Amtrak. Conservative commentators have also attacked the president’s proposal for spending so much on repair needs.

“Some transportation experts call maintenance backlogs a ‘black hole’: An excuse to spend vast amounts of money without visible results,” complained Connor Harris, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “And other projects that Amtrak has announced give few signs that cost control is a priority.”

But due to the long history of underinvestment in Amtrak, rail proponents argue that Biden’s record level of investment would be well-warranted. Gunn, the former Amtrak president, says many of the bridges and tunnels in the rail system are in need of serious repair. A number of proposals to expand the rail network have been ready for years but have lacked funding to move forward.

Service in and out of New York City is tightly constrained, for example, with additional tunnels long planned to connect New Jersey with the urban core. Currently, only 20 trains per hour are possible each way, with these shared between Amtrak, commuter rail and freight companies.

“There's no question that you've got to put money into the rail system and add to the amount of money that goes into passenger rail,” says Gunn. “They [infrastructure repair and capacity building] have to happen and government money is the only way to make it happen.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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