Created in 1971 from the creaking remains of the classic US railroads that helped build modern America, Amtrak has often lived a precarious existence.
Subject to the whims of politicians in Washington D.C. and constantly under pressure from the well-funded and hugely influential oil, automotive and airline industry lobbies, the national passenger rail operator has been threatened with oblivion on several occasions.
But as it celebrates a 50th anniversary that few would have been brave enough to predict, there are signs that Amtrak’s moment may finally have arrived.
The United States remains firmly wedded to the automobile and the sheer size of the nation means that air travel is often the only option for long-distance journeys.
Yet dotted across the country are numerous routes where population density and distances make rail a viable option – and a social necessity.
That’s not news – those routes have existed since the earliest days of the railroads. What is novel is the renewed enthusiasm of Americans for commuting or taking long-distance leisure trips by train.
What is most significant right now is the presence of a passionate Amtrak advocate in the White House.
President Joe Biden, a long-time rail commuter rejoicing in the nickname “Amtrak Joe,” is calling on Congress to invest $80 billion in the rail network.
This massive chunk of change is needed to address Amtrak’s repair backlog; modernize the flagship Northeast Corridor; improve existing corridors, create new intercity connections; and enhance grant and loan programs that support passenger and freight rail safety, efficiency and electrification.
Amtrak has already secured $1.7 billion in federal funding under the “American Rescue Plan” to stimulate its recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, including reinstating suspended services and returning around 1,200 staff from furlough over the next two years.
But finding the rest of the money Biden wants to transform passenger rail will require a huge political effort in Washington and across the nation, and a level of cross-party support for railroads not seen for many decades.
Speaking at Philadelphia’s 30th Street station at an event to celebrate Amtrak’s anniversary on April 30, Biden spoke of being a proud member of the the rail network’s “family.”
“Amtrak doesn’t just carry us from one place to another, it opens up enormous opportunities and it will make it possible to build the economy that we need,” he said. “The expansion of rail provides the well-paid jobs that we need in America. We can’t just build back, we have to build back better; Amtrak and intercity rail will play a central part in that.”
There was no celebration when Amtrak’s first train rolled out of New York City on May 1, 1971, heading for Philadelphia.
Passenger rail in the United States was in its death throes. Once proud railroads such as the New York Central and Pennsylvania RR went bankrupt after years of huge losses, their trains dated, dirty and unable to compete with the speed, comfort and modernity of airliners, intercity buses and contemporary cars.
City center stations, not always in the best part of town, were dirty, dingy and dangerous with years of neglect and rising crime providing a further deterrent to passengers.
Amtrak’s challenge was to knit together a disjointed collection of battered remnants, focusing its attention on saving the most viable routes.
With a country as large as the United States, a coherent national passenger rail network of the type found in Europe and Japan was never a practical prospect.
Instead, busy corridors such as Boston-New York-Washington D.C. would sit alongside a network of low-frequency (daily or less) long-distance services aimed at leisure travelers.
In some cases, these trains were also necessary to maintain communications with communities that had grown up alongside the railroad – although countless towns were still abandoned as passenger rail services contracted in the 1950s and 1960s.
New trains, faster speeds
Today, Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations in 46 US states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces on a network of more than 21,400 miles.
In 2019, despite repeated threats to its existence and the prospect of swingeing budget cuts in every year of the Trump administration, the company posted its best-ever results.
Between 2015 and 2019 annual operating losses fell from $306.5 million to just $29.8 million as new records were set for ridership and revenue.
Operational breakeven was forecast for 2020, until the pandemic caused ridership to drop by almost 50%.
Despite that sudden and traumatic intervention, the overall trend of the last decade is growth, especially on the profitable Northeast Corridor, or NEC, linking Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
In his April 30 speech, Biden said: “A single day without the Northeast Corridor would cost the US economy $100 million and we’d have to add an extra seven lanes to the interstate to accommodate all the extra cars if it wasn’t there. Compared to the alternatives this railroad is the bargain of bargains.”
Since the turn of the century, Amtrak has seen ridership increase in the corridor as a result of its 150 miles-per-hour Acela trains – introduced in 2000 – as well as road congestion and steadily rising gasoline prices.
In 2022, the next generation of Acelas will enter service on the NEC. Built in the United States by global rail engineering giant Alstom, the 28 Avelia Liberty trains are derived from the latest iteration of France’s high-speed TGV trains.
Fitted with tilting bodies to allow faster travel through curves and capable of 160 miles-per-hour in everyday service, the new trains offer the possibility of further acceleration to 186 miles-per-hour once the infrastructure allows it.
Compared to the trains they will replace, the new $2.4 billion Acela fleet is bigger, with eight additional trains (28, rather than 20) allowing a more frequent service with more seats per train.
‘Enjoyable and efficient’
Prototype trains started testing at the Federal Railroad Administration’s test center in Pueblo, Colorado and on the NEC in 2020. By the end of that year, the trains had completed 20,000 miles of tests, reaching a maximum speed of 166.8 miles-per-hour at Pueblo.
On April 21, another huge investment in new hardware was unveiled when a contract for 83 hybrid electro-diesel train sets was awarded to Siemens.
Intended to replace almost 500 of the classic stainless steel Amfleet I cars dating from the mid-1970s, the new Intercity Trainsets will feature locomotives capable of working on diesel or electric power and comfortable new Venture passenger cars.
The trains are expected to be similar to those now being delivered by Siemens for the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha service. They will be deployed on medium-distance NEC services, the Palmetto between New York City and Savannah, Georgia and on the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver ‘Cascades’ route.
“This new state-of-the-art equipment will not only provide Amtrak customers with an enjoyable and efficient travel experience, it will also enable us to improve safety, increase passenger capacity and reduce carbon emissions,” commented Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn.
More Venture cars are also on order to replace life-expired vehicles on state-supported services in the Midwest and California, including 97 cars for routes radiating from Chicago to cities in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin and 49 for the Bakersfield-Oakland/Sacramento San Joaquins.
‘The real America’
Long-distance routes such as the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight and Chicago-San Francisco Southwest Chief will also gain new equipment for the first time in over two decades this year when 4,200 horsepower Charger locomotives and 130 new Viewliner II sleeping, dining and baggage cars start to be rolled out.
While the long-distance routes are unlikely to play a significant role in US transportation needs, they are a valuable asset for tourism and the often-isolated communities they serve.
Sean Jeans-Gail, vice-president of government affairs and policy at the US Rail Passengers Association, highlights the network’s potential to give travelers a real connection to the nation it criss-crosses.
“We have an extraordinary, beautiful country but the ‘Great American Road Trip’ is on life support because when you do it you hit traffic and the same homogenized strip malls over and over again across the highway network,” he tells CNN.
“If you really want to see the real America, Amtrak is better.”
Intercity and interurban routes away from the NEC offer Amtrak the greatest opportunity for growth in the coming years.
Airlines have slashed back regional flights of around 300-400 miles in recent years, leaving many cities such as Memphis and Cincinnati with poor communications.
These routes offer huge potential for rail, which is competitive with air for journeys of three to four hours between city centers, while at the same time transforming connectivity for towns in between.
Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the US Rail Passengers Association says these factors present a strong case for reversing the dismantling of rail services and enhancing links between rural and urban centers.
He says transportation planners and the Department of Transport are coming around to this way of thinking, looking at shifting populations and how they create new travel patterns, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast.
But, he says, although America could be on the brink of a rail revolution, it is unlikely to be traveling at any great velocity.
“A lot of us are guilty of getting zeroed in on the shiny object,” he tells CNN. “Sure TGV [high-speed rail] would be cool but it’s not necessary to see dramatic improvements in rail travel.
“With targeted investment in track, straightening curves or new signaling you could get average speeds of up to 79 miles-per-hour. There are places now where the average is 25!”
In his April 30 speech, Biden said his spending plans were crucial to leveling up America on the global stage.
“I propose spending $10 billion a year on passenger and freight rail, repairing this vital infrastructure and expanding passenger rail services,” he said. “It’s going to provide jobs and accommodate jobs – towns that have been left behind will be back in the game if we can provide them with fast, clean, safe infrastructure.
“We’re way behind the rest of the world on this now, and we have to move if we’re going to compete with the likes of China. There’s so much we can do, and it can have an incredibly positive impact on jobs and the environment, but we have to invest now.”
Republicans have proposed an alternative infrastructure plan costed at $538 billion, just $20 billion of which would be dedicated to rail improvements. Amtrak estimates that the Northeast Corridor alone requires $31 billion to overcome a repairs backlog.
Much-needed investment in equipment is also being accompanied by federal spending on infrastructure as part of President Biden’s $621 billion American Jobs Plan but there’s also increasing support at state level.
In late March, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam outlined a 10-year program to expand intercity and regional rail services across the state.
As well as investing in infrastructure improvements, Virginia also plans to double its financial support for Amtrak’s Washington-Richmond intercity route, allowing a near-hourly service to operate and commuter rail operations could increase by up to 60%.
More than 200 miles of little-used, abandoned or freight-only lines could also be acquired at a cost of $3.7 billion to allow the reinstatement and expansion of intercity and regional rail services across the state.
“I think there’s support coalescing both on left and right for investment in rail and I’m confident that the Biden team sees it as a worthwhile ambition for the current administration,” Mathews adds.
“They’ve talked about more electrification for rail, a nod to the ‘Green New Deal’ but also an important preparatory step for high-speed rail. One thing we’re terrible at compared with Europe is the lack of electrified railroads.
“There are limitations that come with that, but I can see much more robust electrification in California which is preparing for high-speed rail.
“Californian electrification would have benefits for the environment, speed and maintenance and I can see the Biden administration going very solidly for it.”
Fifty years on from US rail’s darkest days, the stars seem to be aligning for Amtrak at last.
And while it will always be at the mercy of shifting political priorities and competing interests, there is a growing recognition that the world’s richest nation can no longer get by with a public transportation system that many regard as unfit for purpose.