Amtrak's plans for a cash infusion aren't good enough

More money ought to get us better train service

Two pieces I recently read illustrate to me the toxic nature of the current dialogue around Amtrak, which is polarized between an institution that’s unwilling to try to improve and critics who insist it’s not worth trying to improve.

On the one hand, there’s Matt McFarland of CNN who leads his piece by saying “don't expect any 200 mph trains that rival Europe and Asia's best, or even cheaper fares.”

Yet remarkably, McFarland isn’t condemning Amtrak. He’s channeling their viewpoint that the $66 billion infusion of funds the agency is set to get if the bipartisan infrastructure bill becomes law simply shouldn’t lead us to expect noticeably better train service. Instead, “most new funding will be for maintenance, rather than the futuristic high-speed trains that riders in Europe and Asia have enjoyed for decades.”

But this is a terrible plan. As I wrote on August 3, the amount of money in play here should be more than enough to bring speeds on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) from D.C. to Boston up to world-class levels. Amtrak is simply choosing not to set ambitious goals and realistic budgets for itself, preferring instead to chuck it at vague maintenance. Then on the other side, you have Steve Ratner in the New York Times saying Amtrak shouldn’t get any money at all because it wastes too many resources running pointless money-losing long-distance routes.

Both of these perspectives are wrong. Amtrak should not double down on pointless money-losing routes, but it also shouldn’t spend $0 on new infrastructure. What it ought to do is spend money on good routes!

The two Amtraks

What Ratner gets right is that when thinking about Amtrak you need to distinguish between the NEC and the rest. One difference here is that the geography of the NEC — a bunch of big, dense cities basically in a straight line — is great for passenger rail. The other is that Amtrak actually owns the NEC train tracks.

In the rest of the country, the geography is less fundamentally promising, and Amtrak is contracting to use tracks that are owned by freight.

As businesses, Ratner makes the point that the NEC is basically successful — Amtrak sells a lot of tickets at a high price on this market, and if you ignore the pandemic, ridership was rising — while most of the rest of the business is a failure.

Where Ratner I think loses the plot a little bit is in not considering the quality of the service. The NEC has great geography for passenger rail, better than anything in Europe and comparable to Asia, but the passenger train service on the NEC is obsolete by European or Asian standards. The fact that Amtrak has a successful business running trains at Acela speeds just goes to show that demand for trains on this corridor is really high. If you upgraded the quality of the service to something that would be considered good in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Korea, Japan, or Taiwan, you’d get many more riders. Right now, for example, the NEC runs from D.C. to Boston, but actually riding from D.C. to Boston is pretty unattractive compared to a plane. If you can make that a three-hour train trip (versus an hour flying) then that’s a very competitive offering. What’s more, the train can service markets like D.C./Providence or Wilmington/Boston (or even Providence/Wilmington) that don’t have convenient plane alternatives.

So while Ratner is right to be down on Amtrak’s actual “vision” for adding more low-performing routes, he’s wrong to argue for the approach of just sticking with the NEC. Amtrak ought to increase its investment in its most promising area and then use that as a cornerstone for future expansions.

Amtrak’s vision — lines on a map

The Amtrak bureaucracy seems to have decided that since what they mostly do is run low-performing low-speed passenger service on legacy freight rails, the future for Amtrak is to look at where legacy freight rails exist and find opportunities to run more low-performing low-speed passenger service on them.

Hence this proposed map of midwestern services, enhancing frequency on existing routes that generally have few passengers and proposing new services that nobody will use.

The issue here is that while the idea of a train link between Chicago and Madison is certainly not absurd — both American and United fly planes on this route — the actual proposal on the table is for a train that will take over three hours to make this trip.

Part of rail’s margin of advantage over airplanes is that it’s usually more convenient to be deposited in the city center than at an airport. Trains are also more comfortable than planes. So high-speed rail can win at distances like D.C. to Boston or Chicago to Madison, which put it at a mild speed disadvantage. But that needs to be high-speed rail so that the speed disadvantage is mild. Otherwise, what you have is a proposal that basically only appeals to people with serious phobias about flying — that’s not nobody, but it’s not a business.

Amtrak tries to justify these plans by comparing trains to driving single-occupancy cars. But there are a bunch of problems with this:

  • Amtrak is often (as on Chicago/Madison) proposing trains that are much slower than driving.

  • While arriving at a train station is more convenient than arriving at an airport, driving directly to your destination is more convenient than arriving at a train station.

  • You can fit four or five passengers into a car, while they’d all need separate tickets on a train.

None of that is to say that nobody would ever want to ride a train from Chicago to Madison. As I’ve said, plenty of people fly that route. But for a train to make sense as an alternative you’d have to build a fast one. If you can demonstrate an ability to build cost-effective high-speed rail lines, I think it’s a perfectly plausible idea. But Amtrak has not currently demonstrated such a capacity, and it’s not what they’re proposing to do.

But beyond that, while a Chicago/Milwaukee/Madison HSR line seems like a plausible idea to me, it’s obviously not the number one place where you would make an HSR investment. That’s the NEC. And then the next investment you would make is extensions from the NEC.

Building on strong corridors

An advantage that trains have over planes is that the infrastructure is cumulative.

An HSR line connecting D.C. to Raleigh via Richmond would not, on its own, attract a particularly large ridership. But if you already had HSR from D.C. to Boston, then the D.C./Raleigh route would, for free, also be a Raleigh/Philadelphia and Raleigh/NYC train. And even though the market for something like Raleigh/Boston is back to Amtrak’s current customer base of plane-o-phobes, in this case it’s all for free, and the fact that the ridership is non-zero means it’s just gravy.

Similarly, while Pittsburgh to Philadelphia HSR via Harrisburg is an appealing vision for the state of Philadelphia, there are just not that many people living in Pittsburgh. But with NEC HSR already in place, then you get the onward connections for free to NYC and D.C. to make it pencil out.

This is the same as the logic of a well-designed Texas HSR system — you would not build a San Antonio to College Station via Austin train line on its own. The point is that because the Houston/Dallas corridor is already strong, by building the spur from College Station you get those onward connections for free.

Given the bleak population growth numbers in the Midwest, I’m a bit skeptical the case for a midwestern HSR system would ever make sense.

But if we adopted the “One Billion Americans” agenda, then we’d have population growth everywhere, and the logic of Midwestern HSR would follow on the case for building on strong corridors. Chicago to Pittsburgh via Cleveland is pretty iffy, but because Pittsburgh already connects to New York via Philadelphia and because New York and Chicago are both huge, it actually does make some sense. And then you have a Chicago hub to build off of.

Again, though, the point is that any of this starts with building good trains on the promising route from D.C. to New York — explicitly what Amtrak is promising us we won’t get.

The SOGR maw

What you can see in the CNN expectations-lowering article is why plowing all your capital budget into State of Good Repair initiatives is appealing to a failed bureaucracy.

You read the whole story and there isn’t one concrete promise in it as to what kind of improved train service Americans can expect for their money. So if the project timelines slip or the costs escalate or contractors steal it all, nobody will ever know. If you say you’re going to do a 10-year project to cut the NYC/Boston trip time to three hours, then after 10 years it’s either done or it’s behind schedule. And when the project is eventually complete, the trains either go as fast as promised or they don’t. With SOGR, there’s no promise to keep.

But don’t the trains need to be in good repair?

I think for Amtrak, a pretty obvious idea is that they should not run routes that do not generate enough fare revenue to cover maintenance costs. That’s not the same as saying that everything needs to “turn a profit,” since rail might have other social, economic, or environmental benefits. But those benefits do all fundamentally turn on someone riding the train. If demand is so low that safe service can’t be provided without open-ended subsidy from the capital budget, then you are looking at a weak candidate for service.

Amtrak apologists like to note that America’s state highway departments are not held to this standard, which is true but irrelevant.

Many states build incremental highway expansions that are wasteful in the sense that all the state’s main cities are already connected by highways. Spain got so good at building HSR in the early 21st century that they started doing “wasteful” projects in this sense: the cost per track-kilometer was low, but there are only so many large cities in Spain. Right now they’re connecting Madrid to Jaén in Andalusia which is a really small city that’s not on the way to anything.

But the whole point here is that the United States has not met its passenger rail capital needs. The United States of America does not have a modern, high-speed passenger rail connection running through its most promising passenger rail geography. Stubbornly insisting on operating low-ridership lines that can’t cover operating costs does not own the highwaymen or the airline executives. What would own them would be the construction of high-quality lines on high-quality routes that attract large numbers of riders. The amount of money that’s in the mix for Amtrak in this infrastructure bill should be sufficient to deliver that to the Northeast Corridor. If you get that done, you’ll have more riders, more fare revenue, more political support, and a logistical foundation for further expansion. But you need to actually go do it and not waste time and money on trains nobody rides.