At one time in American history, trains were the future. They brought prosperity, allowed for a new kind of freedom, and caused not a small deal of disruption, to a vast continent, helping to stitch together the pieces of a far-flung and fledgling nation.
People still use the train these days. In 2019, Amtrak, America's long-distance train service, hosted more than 32 million trips, a record for the quasi-public company. But outside of some crowded corridors on the East Coast and some localized commuter services in scattered big cities, train travel to most people in the United States now generally seems an anachronism.
The American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden's audacious and wide-ranging infrastructure push, offers up a multi-billion-dollar infusion of cash that aims to change that. In short, Biden's plan is designed to bring train travel back to the future.
Amtrak, for one, says it's about time.
"We were created for the country to have a national rail network," says Amtrak representative Kimberly Woods. "We want to continue to build and grow on what we have and offer the country more. That's why we have this vision that we're talking about now."
The New Plan for Trains
When Biden made his announcement of the American Jobs Plan late in March 2021, it included $80 billion "to address Amtrak's repair backlog; modernize the high traffic Northeast Corridor; improve existing corridors and connect new city pairs; and enhance grant and loan programs that support passenger and freight rail safety, efficiency and electrification."
Also new to the plan that Amtrak says could boost ridership by 20 million trips by 2035: Routes from Phoenix to Los Angeles; from Los Angeles to Las Vegas; and Houston to Dallas. More than 30 extra routes could be added. Many existing ones would be expanded. Every state but South Dakota would have at least one stop.
The $80 billion figure, just part of the $2.7 trillion Jobs Plan, was eye-popping. It's also far from guaranteed. Biden's plan is just that; a plan. It's up to Congress to settle on the final figures.
As bold as the $80 billion, though, was what Amtrak says it can do with that kind of financial boost. The company — it's celebrating its 50th anniversary, created by Congress when other railroads abandoned the passenger side of the business for more lucrative freight trains — this year released a map of what the rail system might look like in 2035 with the right kind of investment. Included were routes connecting Southern cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Savannah and Montgomery, Alabama, — services that at this point do not exist.
Adding routes and improving the ones already in existence, both the Biden administration and Amtrak claim, will provide more Americans with more opportunity for travel, especially many who are shut out of more expensive means of transportation. The plan also checks off two more of Biden's campaign promises: to create more jobs and to attack the climate crisis. Traveling on Amtrak, the company claims, means some 83 percent fewer greenhouse gases emitted than driving and up to 73 percent fewer than flying.
"We believe it will address the global climate crisis, it will get people out of their vehicles and onto the trains for more travel, whether it's for work, a weekend trip or a vacation trip," Woods says. "We just believe that better rail service means cleaner air, less traffic and happier people."
The Challenges Ahead
Ahh, but the cost. For years, Amtrak, which already is heavily subsidized by federal and state governments, has struggled to get the funding it says it needs to carry out its mandate to connect America. Building out train service in a country as huge as the United States — laying down rail, buying equipment like the new high-speed trainsets that run on the popular Boston-New York Acela route, maintaining the system, making sure it's safe — is expensive. Some think prohibitively so.
Even the $80 billion, many say, is not nearly enough to do what Biden and others envision.
The libertarian Cato Institute — a group opposed to big government spending — compared a desire for America to be among the leaders in high-speed rail to "wanting to be the world leader in electric typewriters, rotary telephones or steam locomotives, all technologies that were once revolutionary but are functionally obsolete today." According to Cato, investing in rail is much more expensive than airlines or highways with much less chance of making that money back.
As it is, the $80 billion money earmarked for Amtrak will be hard to push through Congress, even though both the House and the Senate are currently controlled by Democrats who are behind Biden's plan. Many politicians agree with the need to improve infrastructure. Many agree on the rail system's potential to fight the climate crisis, and to provide transportation solutions to some of the neediest people in the country.
But that cost ...
For Amtrak's part, the money — whatever figure Congress finally lands on — would be money well-invested, in America and its future.
"Our vision is to connect new city pairs across America," Woods says. "We believe that our vision rises to the urgent challenges of our times."