Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Case for Railroad Reform

By Kiersten RhodesPublished November 5, 2017

As a nation of cars and car-drivers, public transportation in America is often overlooked and pushed to the wayside, especially long-range intercity options like Amtrak. Legislators in Congress also have been reluctant to address its problems, ranging from slow service to lack of stations in rural areas. However, supporting a robust and modern Amtrak system will be beneficial both to Americans and America's economy by creating more alternative travel options and infrastructural improvements.

By Kiersten Rhodes

    It is a universally accepted fact that America is a nation of cars and car-drivers, the long-distance road trip is an American tradition. Yet the ubiquity of cars does not mean that they are an adequate means of transportation for all Americans. Millions of people are unable to drive or fly, either due to financial or physical reasons, making traveling long distances by car or plane a hassle or impossible. Despite these gaps in transportation that cars can't fill, the long-range intercity public transportation systems in America, namely Amtrak, are severely lacking in coverage of the country and services to their passengers.
    It was with the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 that Congress created today's Amtrak (officially the National Railroad Passenger Corporation) system. Amtrak was designed to be a for-profit corporation, but one that received subsidies from the government. Today, while still operated as a corporation, the majority of its stocks are owned by the federal government. Money is allocated to Amtrak in the yearly federal budget, usually around $1.4 billion a year for the past 10 years.
    The language of the Rail Passenger Service Act delineates creation of a "modern, efficient, intercity railroad passenger service" as a "necessary part of a balanced transportation system." However, today's Amtrak is neither modern nor efficient: on-time performance has an average of 72%, but this number is artificially boosted by the fact that the majority of Amtrak's traffic runs on the Acela Corridor (the stretch of track from Boston to Washington, D.C.), which has by far the best performance. For more long-distance yet still heavily-traveled routes such as the Lake Shore Limited (New York to Chicago), which has only arrived on time 48% of the time over the past 12 months, performance is far worse. And even when these trains arrive on time, they're still incredibly slow, with speeds often averaging around 50 mph. These problems can be partly attributed to the fact that thousands of miles of Amtrak trips are made on tracks owned by other corporations and leased to Amtrak. Complicated laws surrounding track usage often result in Amtrak getting the short end of the stick, and being forced to stop and wait for a freight train to finish passing on a single track. Another source of the problems is the 79 mile per hour limit imposed on all Amtrak trains outside of the Acela corridor due to existing signals, gates, crossings, and ties.
    Despite these aforementioned problems facing America's Railroad—as Amtrak terms themselves—and the fact that the government controls and influences such a large part of Amtrak's operation, there has been shockingly little legislation regarding its reform in Congress. Two major pieces of legislation have addressed flaws in America's train infrastructure: first, 1997 saw the passage of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act. This act focused on providing more federal funding for replacing older trains and tracks and creating an Amtrak Reform Council, comprised of industry officials, financiers, and law experts, to develop a plan for Amtrak to operate more efficiently. Later, in 2008, Congress adopted the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. This second act sought to "improv[e] service, operations, and facilities" by focusing largely on improving the Acela (Northeast) Corridor and also approved the development of more high-speed rail corridors. However, it authorized mostly the creation of oversight and planning committees, and stressed heavily the role of private corporations investing in these development projects. A 2015 bill entitled the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act passed the House, which proposed the authorization of money specifically for Acela Corridor improvements, the creation of new operational standards, and the streamlining of handling funds. However, this bill has since languished in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
    Overall, the modus operandi seem to be for legislators to wash their hands of dealing with the problems facing Amtrak, preferring instead to cut allocated funding and let America's railroads fail. However, this doesn't have to be the status of America's trains. Despite a lack of government intervention, Amtrak is not a failing, underused system; in fact, ridership has grown steadily over the past decade. FY 2016 saw Amtrak's highest ridership statistics ever, with 31.2 million total riders. Yet President Trump's proposed FY 2018 budget seeks to cut $938 million from transit construction grants and $630 million in subsidies for long-distance Amtrak routes. These cuts would hit Americans in rural areas and commuters the hardest, as over 200 cities in 23 states would lose all rail service completely. According to Will Geary, a graduate student at Columbia University who has mapped pre- and post-budget cut Amtrak routes, 145 million people, mostly those living west of the Mississippi, are at risk to be disconnected from their nearby Amtrak service. However, rural areas and Western states are not the only ones that will be affected by a cut in funding. Slashing funding for transit construction grants would undermine proposed improvement projects on the Acela Corridor, such as introducing a new fleet of trains for Acela by 2021. These modernizing reforms are crucial to ensure timely performance of this corridor; as the busiest train passage in the United States, it moves more than three times as many travelers between Boston and New York than all airlines combined.
    For a president who campaigned with the promise of a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, Trump would do well to invest in Amtrak and America's railroad system. Rather than shuttering the railroads' doors once and for all, as many legislators and wonks feel is the only option, it is in America's interest to nurture a fully-functioning and expanded rail network through significant federal legislation. Building Amtrak-exclusive rails, expanding high-speed service to new routes, and constructing modern, fuel-efficient trains would add thousands of jobs to the economy. For Americans who commute and/or live in rural areas, intercity rail connects them to cities with job and cultural opportunities; for poorer Americans it provides a less expensive option than air travel; for many areas, it is the only alternative to car travel. An efficient Amtrak network will also reduce traffic on overcrowded highways, such as between Boston and Washington, D.C., and mitigate cars' polluting effects, as all trains in the Acela Corridor are electric.
    To create a truly modern and effective transportation network, America must recognize the vital role intercity railroad company Amtrak plays in connecting rural- and suburban-dwellers to cities, mitigates the effects of overcrowding and pollution, and allows greater numbers of people the freedom to travel easily. As the largest stockholder and creator of Amtrak, the federal government has a duty to introduce major legislation that will attack specific problems of cost, timing, and outdatedness of the Amtrak system, paving the way for far greater reforms.