If passenger rail is going to be a major part of American transportation in the 21st Century, the country needs to deal with some infrastructure left over from the 19th.
David Royse | LedeTree
As the new president and CEO of Amtrak, Richard Anderson is as bullish as you would expect on the notion that passenger trains will play a major role in how Americans get around in the coming decades.
But there are some big challenges for Amtrak and any other companies that may think the market may be finally right again for rail. Probably first among them: an old and deteriorating infrastructure that makes it hard to modernize to faster trains, Anderson said Thursday.
“Right now, in the Northeast Corridor, we have a tunnel in Baltimore that was dedicated by General Ulysses S. Grant,” said Anderson, speaking in Chicago at the RailNation conference, put on by the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
The Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel is far from the only bottleneck in the system. But it highlights Amtrak’s problem, particularly in the crowded Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., and points to a critical issue for the burgeoning idea of private passenger rail. Speed is good, and high-speed rail can’t be all that fast when trains need to go 30 mph through tunnels that once carried soldiers home from the Civil War.
And it’s hard to grow because of that aging infrastructure, including a tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York City that was built in 1910, and a bridge over New Jersey’s Hackensack River that was also built when President Taft was in the White House. The overhead wires that supply electricity to trains dates in some stretches to the 1930s.
Amtrak needs capital investment if rail travel is going to continue to be viable, said Anderson, who took over the switch at Amtrak this past summer. A commission that develops recommendations for the Northeast Corridor said earlier this year that Amtrak needs nearly $40 billion just for repairs on that busy stretch. Amtrak has gotten federal money since its creation in 1971.
Trump Not on Board
The Trump Administration isn’t on board with Amtrak, so much. The administration has proposed a major budget cut that would eliminate the train’s long-distance routes across the country outside the northeast corridor. But Wick Moorman, the outgoing Amtrak head who is sharing the Amtrak presidency with Anderson during a transition period, said recently that the administration’s approach will also cost Amtrak its ability to upgrade in the northeast.
Anderson, however, said Amtrak remains focused on trying to bolster the infrastructure it uses – particularly in parts of the network it controls like in the northeast – and touted its recent completion of major renovations at New York’s Penn Station. He said another major focus is on improving customer service – making it attractive to ride the train. Eliminating delays is also a major focus as he takes over, Anderson said, though he noted that most of the delays outside the northeast are caused by “host” railroads, which own the rails Amtrak uses.
Amtrak Part of Future
Anderson said changes in how we live favor rail service. Particularly, he noted that young Americans aren’t as enamored with driving, and that population density continues to shift to urban and suburban areas.
— Peter J LeCody (@railadvo) November 2, 2017
He said that some of the change will be concentrated in those urban areas, and made the case that Amtrak needs to find ways to link up with other modes of urban transportation. In particular, he said, traveling into a city on Amtrak would be easier if it were easier to link up to other modern transportation options once you get there – the so-called “last mile,” issue.
“We need to be available to every ride-sharing partner and basically have the Amtrak mobile app so that when you arrive in Chicago or San Francisco the local app displays all the ways to hire the local ride-share firm,” Anderson said. Amtrak also needs to look for more ways to make inter-modal links, such as getting buses to serve train stations directly, and for Amtrak and local commuter rail systems to serve the same stations so riders can end a trip on one, and hop onto the other.
“You ought to have a seamless experience,” Anderson said.
But even in an age where other more seemingly high-tech transportation options are being proposed, such as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea, Anderson said there’s room for rail in the mix if the rail infrastructure can keep up with demand for fast, reliable, enjoyable travel.
“I think it’s wonderful in a society to have innovators and people with very good long-term vision,” Anderson said when asked about Hyperloop and other new transportation ideas. “Innovation is great in this country.”
But those ideas have the same need as Amtrak – they need financial help, Anderson argued.
“They want a big government grant to get that done,” Anderson noted. “We need to fix the assets we have that millions of Americans rely on everyday up and down the Northeast Corridor. We should fix those first….
“I’m hyper-focused on that.”