Fast Trains Will Not Just Show Up at the Station
As President Trump has called for new investments in our infrastructure, he has routinely criticized our nation’s passenger rail system, lamenting America’s lack of ‘fast trains’. There is no denying that America should have more frequent and faster train service. But those fast trains will not just show up at the station. They will emerge across America if we implement a serious public investment plan focused on long-term modernization of Amtrak and other passenger rail systems.
The rest of the world gets it. China says it will spend over $500 billion to upgrade its rail network by 2020. Japan has committed more than $100 billion to faster train service. Many countries are in a race to develop the next generation of high-speed trains exceeding 400 mph. Meanwhile, America dabbles in passenger rail as our government gives Amtrak just enough to get by, and fails as a partner in modernizing dangerously old and highly inefficient equipment and infrastructure.
California’s forward-looking high-speed rail system faces fierce political headwinds. When completed, Phase 1 of the California High-Speed Rail project will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles at speeds of 220 miles per hour. Yet, despite an economic impact study showing that high-speed rail would increase economic development, ease congestion, boost tourism and connect consumers to new businesses, the project continually faces backlash from politicians who see it as a waste of money. When it comes to creating jobs, high-speed rail is no joke — this project will also put tens of thousands to work.
For too long Amtrak has survived on austerity budgets. The latest Trump Administration budget is no different, as it calls for Amtrak cuts and ends congressionally supported long-distance trains. Year after year Amtrak runs its system — and manages the upkeep and upgrades to its massive infrastructure — with insufficient resources. Some think tanks and lawmakers have even tried to bankrupt the company — yes, with calls for zero budgets.
Despite these conditions, nearly 50 years after its creation, Amtrak remains a staple American institution — and its popularity is soaring. The carrier regularly breaks its own ridership records, and 2016 marked the sixth straight year that Amtrak served more than 30 million passengers.
With strong bipartisan consensus, the 2015 FAST Act secured Amtrak’s place as our national passenger rail carrier. Lawmakers across the political spectrum reaffirmed their support for a national system operated by Amtrak. But sadly, funding shortfalls persist. Amtrak has estimated that $7.6 billion (a rounding error in China’s passenger rail budget) is needed to meet growing infrastructure and operating needs over the next four years. Simply put, unless a new paradigm emerges on Capitol Hill, Amtrak faces another budget cycle of deferred investments. That now-familiar Washington mantra, “do more with less,” does not cut it here.
Many urgent needs are in the Northeast Corridor, which is home to six of Amtrak’s 10 busiest stations and more than 17 million passengers. There, the carrier relies on infrastructure compromised by age, neglect and natural disasters. Four of Amtrak’s tunnels into and out of New York City are more than 100 years old and must be replaced. Superstorm Sandy flooded both tunnels under the Hudson and two of four tunnels under the East River. A critical stretch of track between Newark’s Penn Station and Penn Station/Moynihan Station in New York City urgently needs to be upgraded and replaced. Moreover, Amtrak relies on the 144-year-old Baltimore & Potomac tunnel, which also supports critical commuter and local freight operations, for one-fifth of its trips and one-third of its revenues. America’s largest rail system should not have to rely on infrastructure built just after the Civil War.
Jobs are on the line, too. The Northeast corridor is home to one in seven Americans, creates and supports 30 percent of the nation’s jobs and contributes 20 percent of our GDP. If this corridor experiences a severe transportation breakdown, the effects would reverberate across Amtrak’s entire system and throughout the national economy.
Americans across the country get it. Polling shows that the vast majority of Americans, in both red states and blue — and in states far outside the Northeast such as Missouri and Wisconsin — not only want more passenger rail service, they are willing to pay for it.
President Trump and lawmakers in both parties have said they want to advance a package of investments in our infrastructure. Many have said we need to invest more in rail. I agree.
However, if the President wants to spur the revival of faster trains in America, the solution is staring all of us in the face: fully appropriate Amtrak’s budget request, make the federal government a willing partner in financing the pipeline of critical Amtrak infrastructure projects and stop using heavy-handed Washington tactics to attack high-speed rail projects. Time is not on our side.