Amtrak should bring in foreign experts to make trains great again

We're on the verge of a transformative investment — or $30 billion in waste

Perhaps not surprisingly given that Joe Biden is president, the Bipartisan Immigration Framework that seems likely to become law is a big win for Amtrak. Mainline rail in the United States is getting $66 billion, of which roughly $30 billion is destined to go to the Northeast Corridor.

This is great to see. Railfans sometimes go crazy drawing lines on a map, but the Northeast Corridor is by far the most promising corridor for investment. What’s more, the next most promising investments are essentially bolt-ons to a hypothetical NEC high-speed rail system. In other words, if you already had a 3:30 trip from D.C. to Boston, then the case for a fast Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia connection suddenly looks a lot more compelling because you get the northward connections to New York and Boston for free.

The other thing that’s great about this is that $30 billion really ought to be enough to make a genuinely transformative investment in the NEC. That’s about $40 million per kilometer of distance. In Spain they’ve built high-speed rail for an average of $21 million per km, and in France it’s $30 million. And in theory, an NEC HSR project should be on the cheap side comparatively because most of the existing track is fine. Running the trains faster is a non-trivial project that requires building some new, straighter segments, addressing some bridge/tunnel issues, installing some constant-tension catenaries, and other things. It’s not trivial. But it’s not actually a 735-kilometer track construction project.

Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn of the Transit Costs Project have studied the issues and think it should be doable for about $15 billion. They are also actively seeking grant money to do this work in more detail and write up a proper proposal. So if you know any rich people, please forward this to them. Alternatively, Pete Buttigieg should hire Alon as a special advisor at DOT to red team Amtrak’s plans. Because as Henry Grabar points out, while $30 billion should be a game-changing investment in the Northeast Corridor, the actual plan from Amtrak is to spend about $30 billion on one tunnel under the Hudson River.

This raises a larger issue about Amtrak, namely that this is an institution that has no idea what it’s doing. A game-changing investment requires changing the game — I would say by bringing in a number of executives from foreign passenger railroads that have actual experience running modern operations and supervising successful construction projects.

Amtrak is a mess

I sometimes like to tell the story of the time an Amtrak executive told me “to be honest, I don’t know that much about trains.” Then sometimes I feel bad about it, because it’s not like the guy’s job involved supervising the operation of trains.

But then I think about it more, and I genuinely don’t think it’s a cheap shot. The specific context is he had a complaint about the MARC Penn Line and I said he should take it up with his colleagues. He was confused. Then I was confused. Then it emerged that he didn’t realize Amtrak operates the MARC Penn Line (under contract with the Maryland Transit Administration), so he was complaining about his own organization’s operations. He shrugged and said the thing about not knowing too much about trains.

And I think this is emblematic of Amtrak. It is run by people who are not curious about trains.

In March, Grabar interviewed Amtrak’s new CEO, William Flynn, and he asked him about the cost of the Gateway project “which is almost $5 billion a mile, and that’s many times the cost of similar projects in other countries. This is a recurring issue, as I’m sure you know, in tri-state area projects, where the cost is way out of whack with international best practices. What’s going on there?”

Flynn just has no answer for this. He doesn’t say “look, there’s a good reason and here it is.” And he also doesn’t say it’s a big problem and he’s working on fixing it. And he also doesn’t say he finds it puzzling and he’s looking into it. He just reiterates that he thinks the project is important.

This is a recurring issue. After years of me blogging about Amtrak’s odd boarding procedures, we finally got an Inspector-General inquiry into it, but all the IG turned up was that nobody could explain why they do what they do. Amtrak officials had previously represented to me that it’s a security requirement but could not provide further details. They didn’t want to lie to the IG so they admitted this isn’t really the reason. But they didn’t come up with a reason. And then they also didn’t change the process.

They spent $1.6 billion on a new train station in New York that I previously characterized as having no positive impact on transportation. Several friends noted to me that Moynihan Station actually makes transportation worse because it’s further west and puts the trains further from most midtown jobs and the 1/2/3 Subway lines. There’s a desperate need to bring people in from the outside who have real knowledge and can start answering these questions or cleaning house until jobs are filled with people who can answer them.

The case for a foreign CEO

In what I think is an implicit admission that Amtrak doesn’t know what it’s doing, whenever a CEO steps down, he’s never replaced by an internal candidate.

What we get instead is a freight rail guy like Charles Moorman, or an airline guy like Richard Anderson, or the new guy, Flynn, who has experience with both airlines and freight.

But it’s not like anyone in the world thinks the United States of America is a global leader in intercity passenger rail or that Amtrak is the world’s premier passenger railroad operator. What we are is a big rich country that can afford to spend some money to bring some folks in from better intercity passenger railroads abroad and have them try to fix things. Now unfortunately none of the other English-speaking countries are world leaders in passenger rail either. But English is a pretty widely spoken language. I refuse to believe that you couldn’t find a handful of English-speakers who’d be interested in a challenge if you shake the trees of the guys near the top of the French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, etc. railroads.

What you’d be looking for is exactly what we don’t have at Amtrak — namely someone with real experience understanding what success looks like and genuine curiosity about the situation.

The Byford precedent

I believe we have a successful template for success in Andy Byford’s run at the MTA in New York.

New York officials did something unusual and brought in an outsider with experience working in foreign countries that are more transit-oriented to try to fix up a troubled operation. And as best I can tell, it was working. The subway’s speed and reliability improved, problems were getting fixed, things were happening, and people were praising Andy Byford.

This then led to two problems.

One is that when you bring a skilled outsider in, he starts fixing some stuff and gaining credibility. But he also starts identifying stuff that for some reason or other he can’t fix and starts saying things like “I can’t fix this because of X Rule or Y Person or whatever we else.” Lifetime managers of dysfunctional systems learn to just live with these points of dysfunction, but outsiders have fresh eyes and they say “this is not how a world-class system would work.”

At that point you start making enemies, and either the politicians have your back or they don’t.

And in New York, they didn’t, seemingly in part because Andrew Cuomo was annoyed that Byford was getting so much praise. There were these “train daddy” memes and people were saying he was fixing the subway. Cuomo didn’t like that, and he was pushed out. The MTA has been in limbo ever since, kind of loosely overseen by Sarah Feinberg — a Democratic Party political operative who kind of backed into transit accidentally during Obama’s second term.

What I take from this is that an effort to make Amtrak good would probably fail because the relevant elected officials probably don’t actually want to make it good. But if they did want to make it good, then they could bring in an experienced passenger rail executive from a high-functioning European system and empower him to do some house-cleaning. It would be risky, but it would also be ambitious. This would say not just that the Biden administration is interesting in spending a lot of money on mainline rail, but that they actually want to create excellent passenger rail in the United States.

The case for ambition

Unfortunately, rail dialogue in the United States tends to get polarized between fantasists and plane-haters doing things like drawing lines between Kansas City and Denver versus people who dismiss the whole country as geographically unsuited to intercity rail.

The truth is that the United States is just really big. Most of the country does not have nice sandy beaches. But America also has lots of nice sandy beaches. Beach towns, oceanfront real estate, Olympic beach volleyball teams, etc. are all important parts of American culture, and it’s good to have good beaches notwithstanding the fact that most of the country isn’t near the water.

If you look at the D.C./Philly/NYC/Boston corridor, you see a swathe of land containing nearly one-sixth of the nation’s population and more than that of its economic output. This swathe of land is mostly very dense. Its main cities have strong downtowns and real mass transit systems that make it attractive to arrive in the central city rather than a peripheral airport. And the smaller cities on this route (Baltimore, Wilmington, New Haven, Providence) are old, have traditional downtowns, and are often poorly served by airports.

All of which is to say that while I think advocates tend to get detached from reality when they draw their maps, there’s nothing unrealistic about the idea of first-class passenger rail in the Northeast Corridor.

Italy has 60 million residents to the NEC’s 50 million. The populations get even closer if you throw out the 5 million or so living on Sardinia or Sicily. The main Italian high-speed rail route from Salerno through Naples, Rome, Florence, and Bologna then onto Milan runs about 500 miles. The current NEC is 457 miles of track.

But Italy’s high-speed rail network (which, as I understand it, excludes a lot of the Italian rail system that has a lot of slower trains on legacy routes as well) carried about twice as many passengers pre-pandemic as all of Amtrak. And really, when you dig further in, the numbers should be more in America’s favor. Italy’s two biggest metro areas, Rome and Milan, are about Boston-sized — New York, Philadelphia, and D.C. are all bigger.

An ambition that makes a lot of sense for the United States is to generate Italian levels of ridership in that key zone. And that means bringing in foreign experts, asking tough questions, and improving operations.

A plausible daydream

This is all obviously a bit unlikely. Biden has been involved in Amtrak for decades and always seems to have seen his role as a booster rather than as a reformer.

But this big rail investment does raise some fundamental questions. He’s the president of the United States right now, not a senator from Delaware. Bringing home some pork isn’t a particularly impressive achievement. Building a successful Northeast Corridor would be. The money Biden wrung out of the legislative process here is enough to become a significant legacy item. But absent reform, his $30 billion is going to vanish into the State of Good Repair maw instead. I think presidents want to accomplish memorable things, and in this case, we’re on the verge — but only if we get reform.

The other relevant actor is Buttigieg, who I assume at the age of 39 hasn’t given up his presidential aspirations yet.

You know my advice to Kamala Harris, which is premised on the observation that she’s on autopilot to receive the nomination. Buttigieg’s not like that. Everyone likes him. He’s a “rising star.” He went from obscure mayor to cabinet secretary in the flash of an eye. But it’s still not obvious how you go from Secretary of Transportation to president. It seems like accomplishing something noteworthy and unusual might be the answer.