Amtrak is in crisis. That could be the best thing that ever happened to it
Photo: One of the new Acela trains being tested between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA. Credit: Matt Donnelly - Amtrak
Amtrak has had a rough ride lately. Like the airlines, its ridership fell by roughly 90 percent because of the covid-19 pandemic. As a result, Amtrak is planning dramatic service reductions on October 1. It also announced a 20 percent cut in its workforce.
Amtrak has always been a low national priority, and it was hardly in great shape before the pandemic. It’s underfunded. Its trains frequently run late because freight railroads under-invest in their tracks. And most of its routes depend on funding from state legislatures, which can be cut on a whim.
So that’s the bad news.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. This moment of crisis is also a great opportunity for Amtrak.
Across the nation, demands for equity are rising as we grapple with how to guarantee all people the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The truth is: Amtrak needs to be part of this conversation. Because a better Amtrak will mean a better America. Trains mean freedom. They expand opportunities for everyone. They deliver widely shared prosperity. They’re part of the solution to some of the most urgent problems we face.
And—despite the grim news lately and decades of under-funding—Amtrak actually has a good foundation to build on. In fact, it’s approaching one of the most important milestones in its history as it rolls out a fleet of new, high-speed Acela trains.
Testing is underway at a site in Colorado and on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor lines. The new fleet, designed to run at 186-mph by the French manufacturer Alstom, will run at maximum speeds of 160 mph (versus the current maximum of 150 mph). The first trains will begin running next year, and the entire fleet of 28 trains is expected to be in operation by 2022. An Amtrak vice-president said that the project keeps the organization “very focused on what is going to be a real game-changer for train travel."
The tension between its falling ridership and its fleet of new high-speed trains sums up Amtrak’s situation in general. There are steep and serious challenges ahead. But there’s also plenty of potential for progress—and even truly transformative change.
The data from 2019 is a case for optimism. Amtrak’s Acela ridership grew by more than 4 percent, and its revenues grew by 5.4 percent. Hopefully that kind of growth will resume as safety precautions are implemented and fears about covid-19 transmission ease.
One obstacle to Amtrak’s growth is the fact that its corridor routes depend on states appropriating the money for them, and only 15 states do so. That means Amtrak doesn’t offer regular, daytime service for many of the most obvious corridors in the nation, including Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit, Jacksonville-Atlanta, and Indianapolis-Louisville.
Fixing these service gaps must be a high priority, but it’s a long-term project. In the near-term, Amtrak should emphasize the many ways it’s superior to flying and driving. As Amtrak’s outgoing CEO recently noted, trains are better than planes “because we don’t pack ‘em in like the airlines do.” It should do much more to market and leverage that advantage.
And there are many relatively minor changes Amtrak could make to attract riders, like improving the on-board food and beverage service and adding runs on existing routes. But making Amtrak into the kind of passenger-rail system that America really needs will take more than tweaks and a new high-speed fleet in the Northeast Corridor.
A big first step forward would be for Congress to create a federal agency that plans and finances the construction of advanced tracks, signals, stations and other infrastructure. Centralizing authority and decision-making in a single agency is likely the only way Amtrak will ever offer fast, frequent service in the dozens of corridors across the U.S. that beg for it.
That would demonstrate a serious commitment to trains by Congress. And it isn’t utopian thinking. We know that rapidly transforming our transportation system is doable—because it’s been done. Twice. In a few short decades, through federal financing and planning, we built more than 40,000 miles of highways. We also linked hundreds of airports with an air-traffic control system.
We’re in a time of rethinking systems and institutions that once seemed impervious to change. The transportation systems we’ve poured money into over the last 70 years aren’t at the forefront of those conversations, but they should be. Because they affect every person’s access to opportunities and resources in concrete and measurable ways.
If Amtrak makes that argument and helps start that conversation, it could not only save itself and muddle through this crisis. It could become the passenger-rail system this nation truly needs and wants--and, even more, help America fulfill its dedication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
(You can do your part to create a better Amtrak—and a better America—by signing the Alliance’s petition to Congress.)