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Amtrak Zephyr Train

An Amtrak engineer leans on the locomotive as passengers disembark Amtrak’s California Zephyr at the end of its daily 2,438 mile journey to Emeryville / San Francisco from Chicago, which lasted approximately 52 hours on March 25, 2017 in Emeryville , in California. Credit – Joe Raedle – Getty Images

In much of the United States, taking the train is not very convenient. Slow service, delays, and poor access often make alternatives like flying or driving more appealing. But on March 31, President Joe Biden – nicknamed “Amtrak Joe” for his frequent trips between Delaware and Washington, DC – unveiled his U.S. Jobs Plan, which includes $ 80 billion in new funding for Amtrak, the country’s leading passenger rail service. . Would that be enough money to give the country the high-speed rail network it deserves?

Probably not. But Amtrak CEO William Flynn, who took over the for-profit, semi-public rail operator last spring, has big plans anyway. Ahead of the pandemic, Amtrak, which turned 50 on May 1, appeared to be on the right track: it posted revenue of around $ 3.5 billion in fiscal 2019, up from nearly 3.5% year-on-year, largely due to record attendance. But revenues fell about 31% in 2020 amid the COVID-19 outbreak, dropping to $ 2.4 billion in fiscal 2020. After overcoming the pandemic, Flynn’s next job is to revive Amtrak – as well as to deal with skeptical lawmakers who say – subsidized service is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

In a recent interview with TIME, Flynn said his first priority was to expand passenger service to new cities, while assessing and repairing existing infrastructure, primarily along the vital northeastern corridor, which connects Washington, DC, to New York and to Boston. and carried 12.5 million passengers in 2019. Flynn says about half of the $ 80 billion would go towards long-awaited repairs to century-old infrastructure along this route, like the East River Tunnel, the Tunnel from the Hudson River and the Susquehanna River Bridge. The remainder would be used to expand intercity passenger rail service and repair infrastructure outside the northeast corridor.

“It really underscores the level of investment required from two perspectives,” says Flynn. “Bringing our northeast corridor and the overall underlying infrastructure from Washington to Boston in good shape, because there have been decades of underinvestment in this corridor. But in addition, the president talked about expanding intercity passenger rail service across our country, and that’s something we also have a very clear plan and strategy for.

Last News   The boss of Amtrak has a plan to make you love trains again.  Will it work?William Flynn, right, President and CEO of Amtrak, and Senator Steve Daines, R-Mont., Testify at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing titled “Passenger and Freight Rail : The Current Status of the Rail Network and the Track Ahead “on Wednesday October 21, 2020.Tom Williams – CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

What about the high speed train? The United States leads the world with more than 125,000 miles of rail lines crisscrossing the country, but it is lagging far behind in terms of speed. The United States does not have a single high-speed rail line, as measured by the International Union of Railways, which maintains that “high-speed” trains should reach speeds of 124 to 155 miles per hour. ‘hour. A myriad of super-fast projects have been proposed over the years. Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., Has invested more than half a million dollars in feasibility studies around the high-speed Cascadia Rail project, an effort to connect cities in the Pacific Northwest. Texas Central Railway, a private railway company, is in talks to build a high-speed line connecting Dallas and Houston. Finally, after multiple delays and budget overruns, the California High Speed ​​Rail Authority’s plan aims to commission around 2029, according to CEO Brian Kelly. But none of these projects are far from complete, and any of them could be derailed along the way.

Amtrak is planning some minor speed improvements. Improvements along the northeast corridor will allow Amtrak’s latest Acela trains to reach a top speed of about 155 miles per hour, but this will only be possible on about 35 miles of track between Boston and New Haven, in Connecticut. For the remainder of the route, runners can expect a more ho-hum top speed of around 90 miles per hour. In contrast, true high-speed rail systems in countries like Japan and France can achieve up to 200 miles per hour on long stretches of railroad. But the real bullet train is not on the table for Amtrak, which is in desperate need of basic repairs and other investment before major upgrades are possible.

Nonetheless, Amtrak drivers can expect smaller improvements in the near future, such as more frequent trains and service to new cities including Chattanooga, Tennessee and Columbus, Ohio. “As we look to grow, as we look to these very large communities that have little or no passenger rail service today, a lot of that growth will be on freight rail infrastructure,” he said.

It may be a sensible short-term strategy. After all, it’s easier to put more trains on existing lines than it is to build high-speed trains, which requires massive investments as well as solutions to issues like land rights. But the plan may not appeal to runners. Amtrak lines that rely on freight rail transport often suffer from delays as freight trains have priority over their passenger cousins, which contributes to Amtrak’s reputation for slow service. Additionally, Christopher Barkan, a professor at the University of Illinois and executive director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center (RailTEC), says operating more passenger trains on freight lines could reduce operator profits. freight railways. “They have just enough infrastructure to meet their needs,” says Barkan. “So if we want to add passenger trains to this network, we have to add more sophisticated infrastructure and control system.”

Last News   The boss of Amtrak has a plan to make you love trains again.  Will it work?Passengers line up to board a delayed Amtrak train at New York Penn Station on June 19, 2019 in New York City.Drew Angerer – Getty Images

Some railroad advocates argue that getting train speeds in the United States to match other countries is the only way to get Americans back on track – and there are environmental gains to be started. , because high speed lines are usually electrified, which eliminates the need for diesel. engines. At least one member of the US Congress is pushing the Biden administration to think bigger. “If we just put more passenger trains on already congested freight lines, people won’t leave their cars to take the train,” said Massachusetts MP Seth Moulton, a Democrat. In December last year, he introduced a bill calling for the construction of an ambitious national high-speed rail network. Its American High-Speed ​​Rail Act, currently referred to the committee, calls for a federal investment of 205 billion dollars over five years and “would promote the growth of the national high-speed rail network, in particular by allowing the designation of new corridors” , according to a summary from his office, as well as encouraging public-private partnerships, a strategy that has proven successful in countries like Japan.

“Americans will take the train if the service is better, that’s key,” says Moulton. “If you have the choice of a five- to six-hour ride in congested traffic or a 90-minute ride with a huge reclining seat and bar service, you’ll take the train.”

For now, Flynn is hopeful that a more realistic strategy will help Amtrak come out of the pandemic and return to the hearts of Americans, especially as people increasingly feel more comfortable traveling as mass vaccination continues. “There is so much latent capacity in the existing structures that in some places requires reinvestment where… we can create train schedules and services that you and I would like to take,” says Flynn. “This investment must be the key to the strategy, to the national strategy.”

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