It’s a question rail enthusiasts have raised for years: When might U.S. train travel more closely resemble that of Europe and Asia?
When you travel abroad, it’s natural to ask.
On a recent trip to Europe, I saw the ease of train travel across the continent. From London Gatwick Airport (LGW) there is travel on the Tube via the Gatwick Express – a similar concept, itself, to the Heathrow Express which connects London travelers to Heathrow Airport (LHR).
You can travel 186 mph on a Renfe train in Spain.
Likewise Italy has a bewildering array of rail travel options, such as a quick, two-hour journey between Venice and Florence.
Still, the past few years have given travelers plenty of reason to be pessimistic about rail travel in the United States
From seemingly endless delays to California’s long-planned ‘bullet train,’ to Amtrak’s operational challenges and financial losses, and dilapidated, century-old bridges and tunnels (not to mention billions of dollars in damage). delay) along the important Northeast Corridor.
These days, however, there are signs of a renaissance in American train travel — one Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., DNJ, likened to “the beginning of the interstate highway system” during a June congressional hearing.
“I really think we’re on the cusp of a new era for passenger rail,” echoed Laura Mason, Amtrak’s executive vice president for capital delivery, in a recent interview with TPG.
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“I think all the indicators are going in the right direction,” Mason said.
A huge federal funding push for rail
The boost that commuter rail has received from the White House in recent years is as profound as it is fitting. For decades, President Joe Biden has been known to drive Amtrak from his home in Wilmington, Delaware to Washington, DC.
The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Act (passed by Congress and signed by the President) appropriated $66 billion in funding for rail—including more money raised for Amtrak than every dollar the rail company had previously received in its half-century of federal funding.
In recent weeks, the law’s impact on rail has become clear.
In early November, the White House announced more than $16 billion in grants aimed at transforming the Northeast Corridor — far and away Amtrak’s busiest rail line, which runs between Washington and Boston via Philadelphia and New York. It hosts more than 2,200 trains and 800,000 passengers daily.
The grant money will help build two new tunnels under the Hudson River, which will ease traffic to and from Penn Station in New York.
A total of $4.7 billion will fund the construction of a new Frederick Douglass Tunnel in Baltimore — helping to dramatically speed up trains, eliminating years of prevalent traffic jams. The Baltimore “chokepoint,” Biden said, contributed to 12,000 minutes of delays in 2020 and caused frequent disruptions up and down the East Coast.
Additional federal grants will fund improvements, expansions and new stations to the New York subway system. Maryland has money for new bridges. Infrastructure dollars will help Amtrak straighten curves and improve technical aspects of the Northeast Corridor, allowing trains to move faster.
And the huge money the federal government is pouring into rail in the coming years follows plenty of other signs of momentum for American rail in recent years.
In 2021, for example, Amtrak opened its new Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan, ushering in a new era at its busiest station.
The company is investing billions to replace scores of trains and cars, many of which are decades old — a move that brings increased comfort to passengers.
Once in service and after several delays, its new Acela trains should also be a big improvement for commuters.
Meanwhile, in Florida, privately funded operator BrightLine unveiled a groundbreaking extension of its high-speed rail service this fall. Brightline trains now connect South Florida with terminals at Orlando International Airport (MCO) in just three hours.
Brightline plans future expansion to Tampa and an entirely new line to the west, which would connect Southern California with Las Vegas via high-speed rail.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, Brightline West got a big boost with the announcement of $3 billion in federal funding to help build it.
That December series of funding announcements also included: billions of dollars aimed at getting the ill-fated ‘bullet train’ closer to the finish line, and plans to build additional rail corridors — including more service in Ohio and Richmond, Va. and with a line between Raleigh, NC
It’s a lot of progress, to be sure.
And yet, even among rail experts and Amtrak executives, the sentiment about the future of U.S. train travel might be more accurately characterized as cautious optimism than outright celebration.
Many obstacles remain
While announcing the latest batch of federal grants for the Northeast Corridor, Biden raised a question while speaking from a rail facility in Delaware.
“Why, in the United States of America, don’t we have the best railroad system in the world?” asked the President.
But even as the federal government pours money into improving the nation’s rail system, experts warn that the ultimate benefits of these investments are far from over.
“Ultimately, it’s going to make a big difference,” said James Hughes, distinguished professor of urban planning and policy development at Rutgers University. His work focuses heavily on the Northeast Corridor.
“The problem is, ‘finally’ can be a very long time,” Hughes added, noting that much of this infrastructure funding is designed, first and foremost, to bring dilapidated rail facilities up to date.
“It’s been on the starvation diet for decades,” he said. “So we have to make up for it.”
Significant construction planned for the coming years will not be painless. Although Amtrak has said it plans to reduce delays, this infrastructure funding, by its nature, will make much of the Northeast Corridor a work zone for the next decade or so; CEO Stephen Gardner alluded to this on Capitol Hill over the summer.
“Amtrak is no longer just a passenger rail operator. We are now a major construction company undertaking a massive capital program,” Gardner told Congress.
To that end, recent years have exposed the potential obstacles inherent in large capital projects. Years of delays have plagued Amtrak’s fleet of high-speed Acela trains. Currently in the midst of computer-simulated testing, the train set manufacturer faces a myriad of mechanical, technical and regulatory hurdles.
Originally scheduled to enter service in 2021, Mason told TPG that the fleet will be in service by the end of 2024.
An even more existential barrier? Despite the huge pot of money authorized for specific projects by the 2021 infrastructure law, Amtrak’s future success will largely depend on year-to-year funding decisions in Washington, Mason told TPG.
“We are incredibly grateful for the funding,” he said. “But we have to keep it coming.”
Looking to the future
While challenges still lie ahead, things are looking up for optimistic rail travelers — not to mention Amtrak.
The pandemic recovery is clear: The Northeast Corridor served 1.22 million passengers in September, up 23.5% from 2022, Amtrak reported. Every weekend this summer, the corridor carried “2019 Thanksgiving levels” of passengers, Mason said — a sign of continued growth in rail interest among leisure travelers even as business travel hasn’t fully recovered.
Additionally, there is good reason to believe that more rail systems like the Brightline may appear in the coming years; Brightline’s CEO told me this summer that the company is looking at other corridors … and that he regularly fields calls from others looking at similar ideas in other parts of the United States.
No, the U.S. may never reach as strong a rail system as Europe or Asia, Hughes said — especially with private railroads controlling most of the country’s tracks outside of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.
“We can never Plow through neighborhoods in developed areas to create the right path that can run at 150, 160 mph,” Hughes said.
However, Mason remained steadfast in his vision for 20 years.
“We will connect all the major population centers of this country. We will connect all the mega regions and we will have complementary long-distance and regional travel,” he said. “We will have more trains connecting more people to more places.”