American trains need more than railfan nostalgia

A review of "Amtrak, America's Railroad"

Transportation technology is awe-inspiring. Supersonic airplanes, autonomous vehicles, and hyperloops enlarge our imaginations and lead us down unpredictable YouTube click holes.

Amtrak conjures less of an image of the technological sublime and more, if we are being generous, of a nostalgia for the past mixed with some frustration about sitting on a track waiting for a freight train to pass.  

When it was formed 50 years ago as a publicly-owned private corporation to take over the money-losing passenger operations from 20 private railroad companies, many expected that within a few years intercity rail travel would be replaced entirely by “modern” bus and air travel. 

The United States Government provided Amtrak with $40 million while the private railroads contributed a more significant sum, roughly $200 million to ensure a smooth transition from passenger rail to intercity bus and air travel. But most of the cash flowed back to the private railroads for use of their trains, crews, and tracks. Today Amtrak remains in a liminal state. It has neither faded away, as many expected, nor become a modern passenger railroad that contributes meaningfully to transportation, decarbonization, or economic development goals outside of the Northeast Corridor. 

So what went wrong? A new book, Amtrak, America’s Railroad: Transportation’s Orphan and Its Struggle for Survival from Geoffrey H. Doughty, Jeffrey T. Darbee, and Eugene E. Harmon delves into Amtrak’s rich history in search of answers — concluding fundamentally that America has failed Amtrak more than Amtrak has failed America. While they make a strong case against the short-sighted, penny-pinching mentality that Congress and Amtrak have had toward passenger rail, they fail to confront important questions about rail’s utility versus flying and driving and what it would take to bring American rail advocacy out of the realm of nostalgia.

Shaky origins

Despite close to a quarter-billion dollars in startup capital in the 1970s, Amtrak’s long-term viability was uncertain because it was conceived in a period of immense turmoil. Passenger railroad ridership was in free fall: between 1946 and 1965, annual ridership declined from 790 million to 298 million, with local commuters making up most of what remained. As passengers fled from rail, public money funded intercity rail’s biggest competitors: road building and aviation. While America’s reliance on the automobile is well known and documented, aviation made enormous gains as the federal government subsidized airlines through loan guarantees, developing and operating the air traffic control system, and direct infusions to carriers.

Last, the existing network of rails, which totals tens of thousands of miles, was in need of repair and was still owned by freight railways with different standards and needs than a passenger-oriented railroad. The infrastructure issues ran the gamut from decrepit legacy rails to handmade tunnels dating back to the Grant Administration to a hodgepodge of rolling stock cobbled together from the fleets of the private companies. 

The Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, the act that created Amtrak, insisted that it be an unsubsidized, for-profit corporation. Born out of this mess, Amtrak’s first president, Roger Lewis, is reported to have said that if Amtrak failed to turn a profit within three years, “it would simply shut down and go away.”

Though it was saved from this fate by the energy crisis of the 1970s, this gloomy outlook has dogged Amtrak since its inception. Not only did Amtrak emerge amid a terrible passenger rail crisis, but the governance of Amtrak and the accompanying policies and financial support have been equally challenging. David Gunn explained that, even though Amtrak had managed to ward off its critics for 30 years, when he became the railroad’s seventh president in 2002, “It was a crapshoot whether it would survive.”

At the root of Amtrak’s troubles is trying to remain in the good graces of elected officials — whom it depends on for funding every two years — while also trying to operate a national railroad on tracks it doesn’t own. 

Courting political favor has led Amtrak to pursue an operating strategy that maximizes the extent of its footprint but doesn’t prioritize useful service. As an example, the Cardinal, a long-distance train connecting New York and Chicago, runs through Cincinnati three times a week at 3:27 a.m. on its way to New York. Who exactly benefits from this schedule pattern? By maintaining service in Cincinnati and other cities and towns across 46 states, Amtrak can lobby elected officials in those states to continue appropriating funds to Amtrak, even if the service is useless to anyone who can find an alternative. Since Amtrak hasn’t secured a long-term funding commitment in the last 50 years, it’s hard to argue that this has been a good strategy;  though, to be fair, that may all change

In addition to unworkable schedule patterns, Amtrak primarily operates on other railroads’ tracks. 97% of the route miles operated by Amtrak are owned by host railroads that either move freight or local commuters. Managing access to these tracks requires 37 different operating agreements. Since the 1980s, rail freight has more or less doubled, which has added to the competition for track space. At the same time, freight railroads have abandoned duplicate tracks to reduce excess capacity and improve their financial returns. Diminished capacity and limited autonomy manifest themselves in substantial delays that Amtrak’s passenger service absorbs as freight railroads prioritize their own trains ahead of Amtrak’s. 

As grave as these direct challenges are to Amtrak, there are always the looming existential threats of privatizing Amtrak (a favorite idea of the Reagan administration and John Mica, an influential former transportation committee chair from Florida) and eliminating or restructuring routes, all of which has contributed to high rates of turnover among Amtrak leadership and highlighted Amtrak’s 50 years of impotence. 

A case for rail

Amtrak, America’s Railroad combines descriptive data from annual reports, books, and articles with in-depth interviews from former Amtrak presidents and employees, elected officials, and passengers. The authors argue in favor of greater long-term investment in Amtrak and against the direction recent Amtrak presidents Richard Anderson, William Flynn, and Stephen Gardener have taken the company. 

Outlined clearly in the book, Amtrak’s greatest problems stem from transportation policies that disadvantage passenger rail, uncertainty stemming from two-year allocations from Congress, and a governance structure that has inevitably pit the Amtrak board against the revolving door of Amtrak presidents.

Without a clear direction from Amtrak leadership, recent presidents have prioritized cutting services, eliminating amenities, and mimicking practices adopted by the airlines — all geared towards reducing costs. While in the short term, these moves may appear to be prudent, the authors argue that degrading service is not a recipe for building a successful passenger railroad. Instead, they want to see greater investment in Amtrak’s assets, improved passenger experience — there are lots of paragraphs dedicated to Amtrak’s food and theorizing about whether millennials want to listen to their headphones while they eat a meal out of a box or instead would welcome a more intimate setting with strangers and freshly prepared food — and an ongoing commitment to the national network, which they maintain feeds state-supported services and provides benefits to the towns it connects. 

With a clear preference for long-distance passenger service, which ran at an operating loss of nearly $500 million in fiscal year 2019, the authors strenuously defend the merits of venerable sounding trains like the Silver Meteor, Empire Builder, and Coast Starlight that travel across the country, connecting big cities like Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Seattle with small towns like Waterloo, Indiana, Raton, New Mexico, and Greenwood, Mississippi along the way (Image 2). By the authors’ logic, the money invested into roads and airports more than justifies the subsidy Amtrak receives to keep these routes afloat. 

Furthermore, these services, according to the authors and the local officials they quote to justify them, provide a vital connection to the broader transportation network, a needed source of tax revenue, and a catalyst for economic development. Pamela Howard, the city manager of Waterloo, Indiana, sees the Lakeshore Limited and Capitol Limited providing the impetus for much-needed downtown redevelopment. Redevelopment that, with any luck, will include “a coffee shop that may serve the passengers waiting on the train.” 

Land use, modal competition, and international experiences

Unexamined in the book, however, is the connection between railroads, land use, and alleged economic development goals. 

If towns and cities want to retain Amtrak service that operates at a loss, they need to cultivate a land-use mix that attempts to support rail travel by making the stations an anchor of development that can serve as a destination for, or source of, riders. A closer look at Waterloo, Indiana’s existing land use (Image 3) shows a pock-marked development pattern of industrial facilities, single-family homes, open space, commercial, and undeveloped lots flanking the station. While Charleston Metal Products is a perfectly reasonable land use abutting a freight-rail right-of-way, it’s unlikely that many of the 62 daily passengers boarding and alighting in Waterloo need a quote on machining services. 

Rail, be it intercity passenger rail, light rail, high-speed rail, or subway, centralizes users and land development. When cities and towns work against this through zoning, height and density restrictions, or incentives to develop new areas with cheaper land or fewer obstacles, they undercut the intrinsic benefits of rail. If riders have to drive dozens of miles to reach the station, they’ll probably drive the rest of the way to their destination or to the airport. Intercity rail stations need not be surrounded by a forest of skyscrapers, but absent a reasonable cluster of activity reachable from the station without recourse to an automobile, the train services have little purpose. By the 1840s, it was already clear to Ralph Waldo Emerson that  "[r]ailroad iron is a magician’s rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water."  

The romance of cross-country rail journeys is undeniable to many. At the same time, it is nice to get where you are going quickly. And the flexibility and convenience of the personal automobile is a real fact of life that is bolstered by nearly 3 million miles of paved roads crisscrossing cities, towns, and states. The authors fail to engage the existing research on the limits of long-distance passenger rail vis-a-vis flying and driving, and they fail to survey the international railroading scene to see how the U.S. compares. Foreign intercity rail networks succeed where they succeed not just through boosterism but with realistic assessments of what kind of city pairs, distances, and railroad speeds are genuinely viable in a competitive marketplace. Instead, they argue that focusing solely on end-to-end trips on the long-haul routes misses the activity going on between the terminals. After all, prior to Covid, Amtrak had set new ridership and revenue records and appeared to be on the brink of scratching out an operating profit. 

These achievements, the authors argue, highlight the potential and appeal of intercity passenger rail, but miss the point of Amtrak. They argue that holding Amtrak to the standard of a business is counterproductive. Amtrak, like the National Park Service and US Postal Service — both of which charge fees — are not expected to be profitable. There’s a kernel of truth to this line of argument. At the same time, if the mail didn’t arrive in a timely manner, even those sympathetic to the US Postal Service would be justified in asking, “how can we do better?” And on some level, there is simply no separating the benefits of passenger rail from ridership — an empty train does not reduce pollution, promote economic development, or achieve any of the other non-business goals we might have for Amtrak. 

Beyond nostalgia

High-speed rail, which doesn’t exist in the United States, is most competitive with automobiles and airplanes on short- to medium-length journeys that are less than 5 hours, or about 500 miles. Slower conventional rail is competitive only on even shorter distances. This is unfortunately the challenge for most Amtrak services outside the Northeast Corridor. In many cases, they struggle even to compete on travel time with the automobile. The Cardinal’s 196-mile journey from Chicago to Indianapolis is scheduled to take 5 hours. By car, according to Google Maps, it should take 3 hours and 6 minutes to make the same trip (both American and United will take you by air in slightly over an hour). The problem with such a route is not that it requires subsidy to operate, but that no level of subsidy makes this a useful service.

In France and the Netherlands, high-quality, reliable train networks have emboldened government officials to ban short-haul flights that can be completed by rail in under two hours. In Italy, intercity rail is so successful that high-speed rail’s cannibalization of domestic flights between popular city pairs like Milan and Rome contributed to the bankruptcy of Alitalia. There, it’s the airline that’s been taken over by the government and now relaunched and reorganized with a new mission to focus on transatlantic markets that can’t be served by rail. 

Using rail to eliminate short flights has significant climate benefits, but Amtrak’s routes are currently an unsuitable substitute, either because the trains run too infrequently, arrive at awkward times of day, or travel too slowly. Most airlines see roughly hourly service as essential to attracting business travelers on major city pairs. There are very few Amtrak corridors that run hourly service. Furthermore, many major corridors that look ideal for passenger rail on a map, like Los Angeles-San Francisco (the busiest flight route in the United States under 500 miles), Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati, Dallas-Houston-San Antonio-Austin, or Miami-Orlando-Tampa have little or no Amtrak service. 

For too long Amtrak has been about keeping mid-20th century passenger rail on life support, with the policy debate dominated by the question of whether or not to pull the plug. 

But successful intercity passenger rail in the 2020s is not successful rail from the 1940s with a little Wi-Fi added on top. Amtrak has never had the long-term plan to transform into a modern passenger railroad. To function properly, it needs the upfront investment to build a comprehensive network of frequent services that will actually be attractive to passengers. That is going to take a lot: building additional tracks in freight rail corridors so that passenger and freight rail can be separated, new trains up to date with the latest technology from Europe and Asia, and higher speeds that can match at least car travel and ideally be competitive with air travel. But Amtrak also needs management, leadership, and advocacy that can outline a clear vision for turning investment into results. If the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework that’s already passed the Senate lands on the president’s desk, it will result in an unprecedented infusion of funds into American rail. But Amtrak’s preliminary plans double down on infrequent service patterns and slow travel times that aren’t competitive with driving or flying. 

A proposed service connecting Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Tucson makes sense, but providing one round trip per day repeats the mistakes of the existing long-distance services that operated at a $500 million loss prior to Covid. A proposed connection between San Antonio and Houston looks good on a map, but its planned travel time of 4 hours and 45 minutes doesn’t compare favorably with 3 hours by car or 1 hour by plane. Similarly uncompetitive travel times mar many of the proposed services. The investment may be spread so thin across the country that few of the individual corridors will receive enough to produce a service that is frequent and fast enough to be competitive. It is therefore maybe fortunate that the BIF’s actual legislative text vests considerable discretion in the Department of Transportation, and DOT has the capacity to insist on better plans.  

Both Amtrak and Amtrak, America’s Railroad give a warm nostalgic feeling for the traditions of American passenger railroading. But nostalgia and tradition aren’t going to keep Amtrak alive for another 50 years.

A guest post by
Eric is an assistant professor and program director of the Transportation and Land-Use Program at NYU Marron. He is currently studying the cost drivers of transit-infrastructure projects with Alon Levy and Elif Ensari. @ericgoldwyn
Subscribe to Eric
A guest post by
Dr. Jonathan English is a fellow of the land-use and transportation program at the Marron Institute of Urban Management, New York University.