Rail riders may soon be packing dinner jackets for their travels as traditional dining is back on Amtrak.
Starting June 23, six long-distance routes including the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle will offer dining options for sleeper car customers that harken back to the golden age of rail travel.
Amtrak’s catering has been lacking in recent years following cuts to the dining service, as Insider’s Graham Rapier found when riding between New York and Chicago in 2019. But new options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be available that will make riders look forward to mealtimes.
New tabletops hadn’t been installed by the time of the tour but they are coming. Meanwhile, the old blue cushions and coverings with which loyal Amtrak riders are familiar will be replaced with a cleaner looking design.
White tablecloth service is resuming and being upgraded to beyond what was offered even before the pandemic. For the interim, a full spread of Amtrak-branded plates will be used but they’ll soon be replaced with full china in around three to four months.
Customers will once again have multiple choices for each meal, featuring both new items and old favorites.
For breakfast, “Amtrak signature railroad French toast” is back by popular demand but with a twist as fresh cream and mixed berries will be added on top.
Also on offer for the optimistic morning meal is a made-to-order three-egg omelet, scrambled eggs, and a continental breakfast. Sides include hardwood smoked bacon, pork sausage links, and chicken sausage links.
For lunch, comfort food is the name of the game. The “artisan grilled cheese” and “natural Angus burger” are two classic handheld choices.
But there are some healthier options on the table. Caesar salad with grilled chicken and “savory chili” are also menu options.
Dinner then caps off the meal service and another treat for customers is that appetizers are back on Amtrak. The lobster crab cake is the signature appetizer but other options include a green chile cheese tamale that’s served in the husk, as well as a mixed green salad with baby brie.
Then it’s time for the entree, where the flagship dish is the “signature flat iron steak.” The eight-ounce black Angus steak is accompanied by a cabernet reduction sauce and served with baby green beans, carrots, and either cheddar polenta or a baked potato.
Other options include pan-roasted chicken breast, grilled Atlantic salmon, and tortellini with pesto cream.
Both lunch and dinner are topped off with dessert. Three options are available including a flourless chocolate torte, Philadelphia cheesecake, and carrot cake.
One complimentary alcoholic beverage is offered with dinner but there is a bar selection that includes new wine options from Kendall-Jackson, Chateau Ste. Michelle, and Dark Harvest.
For younger travelers, a children’s menu is also available with kid classics like grilled cheese, roasted chicken breast, white cheddar macaroni and cheese, and a hot dog.
And to top it all off, a fresh flower will also be on display at each table.
While a three-course meal with drinks might seem like a multi-hour affair, Amtrak has a train full of patrons to serve and have limited time to do it. Riders won’t be rushed out but won’t be spending hours in the dining car.
Customers traveling in sleeper cars, whether they be full rooms or the smaller roomettes, have the dining service included in the price of their ticket. Reservation times for the dining car are given to passengers by the cabin attendant.
Communal dining will be available with the new service and the premise is simple: a table full of different passengers sit at one table and share a meal, as Insider’s Áine Cain experienced on an Amtrak train from Orlando, Florida to New York in 2019.
The rear section of the car, however, will be available for individual seating should riders not want to dine with others. Some prefer the individual setting and now with the pandemic, Amtrak wants to ensure that riders can feel comfortable by offering the service.
Sleeper car customers can also take their meals in their rooms if they don’t want to venture to the dining car.
Coach customers won’t have access to the dining car and instead will get their meals from the onboard cafe, located in the Sightseer Car.
But Amtrak is working on ways of getting coach customers into the dining car, including selling dining plans that allow them to buy a certain number of meals.
Pickup or seat delivery options are also on the table for coach customers, Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president of operations customer services, told Insider.
Amtrak will look to expand more dining options to coach customers after a period of three or four months, once the traditional dining offering has been fully implemented.
But at least in the dining car, rail travelers will get to enjoy the best Amtrak dining experience in years when traveling long-distance through the American West.
Amtrak and the state of Maryland last week came to an agreement on a $4 billion plan to replace the deteriorating Baltimore & Potomac (B&P) Tunnel in Baltimore, a key bottleneck along Amtrak’s heavily trafficked Northeast Corridor, according to The Washington Post.
The replacement tunnel is slated to be built in the next decade, with the tunnel having the ability to transport electric-powered trains.
For years, the current tunnel has transported Amtrak, Maryland’s MARC commuter trains, and commercial rail traffic through the state’s largest city.
But trains slow down to 30 miles per hour along the 148-year-old two-track tunnel, which often creates delays throughout the rail corridor.
A replacement tunnel, roughly half a mile north of the existing tubes, would allow trains to move up to 100 miles per hour. It would be named after the noted abolitionist and Maryland native Frederick Douglass.
According to The Post, the B&P Tunnel, built in 1873 and the oldest tunnel inherited by Amtrak, is “the biggest chokepoint between Washington and New Jersey.”
Funding has not yet been appropriated for the project, which would need federal and state money to proceed.
As Congress tries to hammer out a comprehensive infrastructure plan, projects like the B&P Tunnel reflect what is at stake in the national debate over the country’s aging transportation networks.
REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo
While there has been no guarantee of money for the B&P Tunnel project, President Joe Biden, who routinely took Amtrak during his 36-year Senate career representing Delaware and is one of the railroad service’s biggest advocates, would likely identify the new tunnel to lawmakers as an exigent project.
Four years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed a replacement project that would have included four single-track tunnel tubes, while the current plan calls for two tunnel tubes to be built, according to The Post.
Two additional tunnel tubes could then be constructed in a potential second phase of construction, according to Amtrak.
The FRA has classified the current tunnel as “structurally deficient,” with Amtrak stating that it “is not suited for modern high-speed train operations due to tight clearances and sharp curves.”
Amtrak is asking for $257 million for the project from Congress this year.
GOP Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland last week emphasized the multi-jurisdictional importance of the B&P Tunnel project.
“This is a critical project not just for Baltimore and the state of Maryland, but for the entire Northeast Corridor of the United States, and we plan to work with Amtrak and the federal government to move it forward as expeditiously as possible,” he said.
The White House maintains that the funding will “Improve healthy, sustainable transportation options for millions of Americans by modernizing and expanding transit and rail networks across the country while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Amtrak is ready to support this vision for greater public transit,” an Amtrak spokesperson told Insider.
But the compromise comes with billions of dollars being left behind at the station. Only $66 billion will go to combined passenger and freight rail projects instead of the $80 billion initially allocated for Amtrak.
The national rail provider quickly jumped on board the infrastructure train in March and unveiled its “Amtrak Connects US” plan. New rail lines were imagined and major cities without existing rail services like Phoenix and Nashville, Tennessee were promised connectivity to the national rail network. An investment in high-speed rail was notably absent.
Parts of the plan may still be implemented as the infrastructure plan still represents “the largest federal investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak,” according to the White House, but the key victory for Amtrak would be a new weapon in its arsenal against freight trains.
Amtrak trains outside of the Northeast Corridor primarily run on tracks owned by freight companies that are, by law, required to give preference to Amtrak trains. But that’s not often the reality on America’s tracks and lengthy delays are often incurred by long-distance passenger trains as a result.
Rep. Peter DeFazio’s House Transportation Committee is spearheading the effort to give Amtrak the right to have federal courts settle disputes with freight companies.
“Right now they’ve got it the way they want it,” DeFazio said of rail freight companies in an interview, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. “So we’re going to change the law and give Amtrak better access.”
Amtrak’s enthusiasm surrounding the planned $80 billion investment also didn’t go to waste. States and localities across the US, excited by the idea of new rail service, have been eager to work with Amtrak on new state-sponsored routes.
In Colorado, officials are working towards a new rail line along Interstate 25 in what’s known as the Front Range corridor between Fort Collins and Pueblo, according to the Denver Post. Amtrak is also petitioning Congress to make it easier for states to get new services by not forcing them to foot a lion’s share of the bill, which is what the law requires at present.
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Molinari attributes the excitement to Amtrak finally going on the offensive instead of having to constantly defend itself and its spending.
Roger Harris, Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer, told Insider on June 15 that the $80 billion plan was “extremely ambitious” but “even part of it would be revolutionary.”
It’s been an exciting year for Amtrak. After devastation by the pandemic in 2020, the National Rail Passenger Corporation this year released its plan to better connect the US with $80 billion from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.
Since then, rail travel has been making a comeback with more travelers staying within the US while vacationing and choosing Amtrak as an alternative to driving or flying.
Riding the rails has also been cheaper than ever with Amtrak offering incredible sales to stimulate demand. The latest sale on offer is for the USA Rail Pass, which offers 10 trips on any of its train lines for only $299.
Now, Amtrak is investing $28 million in upgrading its long-distance trains, known as Superliners and Viewliners. Riders can look forward to upgraded seats and rooms plus a new dining experience on six long-distance western routes.
Amtrak unveiled the new products in Chicago on Tuesday. Take a look inside the upgraded Superliner experience.
All classes of service with see upgraded products with the investment, from coach to the sleeper suites.
The tired blue cloth seats of Amtrak’s past have been replaced with more modern-looking seats with improved cushioning and upholstery.
For riders in the Northeast, the seats are similar to the updated products on Northeast Regional trains.
Seats are still arranged in a 2-2 configuration with no middle seats.
And each seat has a pitch of 50 inches, giving riders nearly double the legroom compared to a coach seat on a US airline.
Paper headrest coverings have been removed entirely from the cars, which Amtrak says reduces waste onboard the trains.
As many as 120 coverings per car needed to be discarded and replaced multiple times over the course of a single trip. Massive amounts of waste were created from the covering alone and it added to the cabin attendant’s workload.
Tray tables remain where riders can eat, drink, or get work done on a laptop using Amtrak’s free WiFi.
And two power outlets are still offered at every row.
The new seats also feature footrests that come in handy during long stretches of sitting.
Coach tickets don’t include many amenities, besides a generous baggage allowance of two checked bags and two carry-on bags, but a cabin attendant does assist passengers throughout the journey.
The coach cabin extends across both levels of massively tall Superliner and better views can sometimes be had on the top level.
One little-known fact is that conductors can actually reverse the orientation of seats so groups of up to four can face each other.
Routine maintenance programs are also being implemented to ensure that seats and carpeting don’t reach a state of disrepair. Seats will always look as close to brand-new as possible.
Coach passengers will also enjoy better sleeping arrangements as the new seats offer a deep recline complete with leg rest.
There are no dividers in between the seats, offering greater room to stretch out if riders don’t have a seat neighbor. The two seats are roughly the size of a twin-size bed.
Amtrak still doesn’t plan to offer bedding to coach passengers but riders are more than welcome to bring their own. Each passenger, after all, is permitted to bring up to two carry-on bags that can be used to store some pillows and blankets.
The next updated space is the Sightseer Car which features larger windows so riders can take in the views of the journey.
The configuration of the seats remains largely the same but the seat cushions are changed. Riders can choose from a two-seat pair…
Or a single-seat, depending on their preference and how many passengers are in a given group.
All coach and sleeper passengers have access to the shared space with first-come, first-serve seating.
Also offered in the car are standard tables where groups of four can sit.
All tables are open for seating with Amtrak moving away from a pandemic policy of blocking certain tables for distancing.
Cushioning on the bench seating has also been updated with a cleaner look, similar to the style of the coach seats.
Food and drinks from the cafe car can also be enjoyed here as coach customers currently don’t have access to the dining car.
Another change that riders can be excited about is that Amtrak is returning to traditional dining on select long-distance routes.
California Zephyr, Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle trains, which see the most meals in Amtrak’s network, will be the first to see the new program.
Three meals in the dining car are included in the sleeper car fare and communal dining will be offered once more.
Riders that choose to dine independently, however, can choose to do so.
Amtrak-branded plates will be first used when traditional dining is restored on June 23 but china will soon be used in the service.
New staples include French toast with fresh whipped cream, flat iron steak, lobster crab cakes, and Philadelphia cheesecake. And to top it off, fresh flowers will be placed at every table.
Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s vice president of operations customer services, told Insider that the dining service will better than what was offered even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next to be upgraded are the rooms. This is the largest room available on the train and can house up to two adults traveling together.
Inside is a sofa and armchair, both of which have been updated in the new design. Gone are the paper head dressings that constantly needed to be replaced.
Here’s what the old rooms looked like with the blue cloth seats.
Riders in these compartments also have a dedicated attendant, dining car access, and get lounge access at Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounges.
Showers in the rooms remain largely the same but feature one big change: individual soap, shampoo, and conditioner bottles are being replaced with dispensers.
The move saves costs and reduces Amtrak’s environmental footprint by not having to dispose of single-use plastic bottles. Hotels have been making the shift towards dispensers, as well.
New towels are also being introduced in the showers.
A new lotion dispenser has also been added to the in-room sink.
Next on the list are the roomettes, the smaller two-person rooms that are a fraction of the size of standard rooms.
Roomettes are set up in a simple configuration with two seats that face each other.
It’s tight quarters at just six feet and eight inches long and three feet and six inches wide. But the closeable door offers additional privacy.
Roomette seats are markedly bigger than standard coach seats, however, and are ideal for couples traveling together.
Once again, the newer roomette seats replace the old blue cloth seats.
The bedding, pillows, and linens in both the rooms and roomettes are also being updated with a new design.
Roomette passengers do have dining car access but can choose to take their meals in their rooms, using the center table.
The car attendant can make the bed while riders are enjoying their meal to minimize disruptions.
Amtrak will have the entire Superliner and Viewliner fleet converted in the next three years.
Riders seeking out these train cars specifically, however, won’t be able to do so just yet. Amtrak says there will be no way to tell if a particular service will have updated products because the cars are interchangeable.
Northeast passengers, particularly long-distance trains departing from New York’s Pennsylvania Station, won’t see the new Superliner cars as they can’t fit in the Hudson River and East River tunnels. But smaller Viewliners that can access New York will be similarly upgraded with the new products.
Chicago-based lines, as well as the Auto Train, will be the first to see the updated products.
After a year-plus of coronavirus-induced stress and boredom, many Americans are eager to travel again.
Looking ahead to an expected boom in summer travel, Amtrak is luring travelers in with the relaunch of its USA Rail Pass. The ticket, which Amtrak launched last week, allows people to spend a month criss-crossing the country on Amtrak trains for a flat fee.
Through June 22, the pass is discounted by 40% to $299 from its usual price of $499. It doesn’t allow for unlimited train travel, but rather the $299 includes the purchase of 10 rail segments over the course of 30 days.
According to Amtrak, each segment of a trip occurs when a passenger gets off of a train. So a trip with one connection uses up two segments, but one long direct ride would only be one segment.
The USA Rail Pass is only good for coach seats and doesn’t let passengers book more premium accommodations like sleeper cabins or first-class seats. Still, at an average cost of $30 per segment, the pass offers massive discounts, given that a single segment can cost hundreds of dollars.
For instance, one round-trip ticket on the 1,377-mile-long Crescent line from New York to New Orleans can run you close to $500. The USA Rail Pass would pay for itself after that trip alone.
Buyers have 120 days to book trips using their USA Rail Pass after purchase. They then have 30 days to use up the 10 segments from the date of their first trip.
Companies across the US are joining in the largest-ever vaccination effort by offering employees perks if they receive the two-dose COVID-19 vaccine.
Receiving the vaccine is voluntary, but most companies have strongly encouraged employees get the immunization when it’s their turn. The two-dose vaccines, one from Pfizer and BioNtech and the other from Moderna, were emergency approved in the US in December. Since then, almost 34 million people have received one or more doses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many states and localities have begun moving from the first phase of vaccinating health care workers and elderly living in long-term care facilities to immunizing front-line workers. With that, some companies are giving workers two to three hours of paid time off per dose received, and others are offering a stipend for employees who voluntarily get the shots when it’s their turn.
Recently, Publix, Petco and AT&T joined the growing list. Here’s the 18 Insider knows about so far:
Know of a company not on this list that’s offering employees time off, pay, or other perks to get vaccinated? Email Natasha, the reporter of this piece, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Target is offering workers up to four hours of paid time off to get both shots of the vaccine and will pay for Lyft rides up to $15 for employees needing transportation to and from their appointment.
2. Dollar General
The discount chain was the first major retailer to announce an incentive for workers to get vaccinated. Dollar General employees can earn up to four hours of pay for receiving both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and will receive extra time off if they have an adverse reaction.
Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, and The Capital Grille, will offer workers four hours of paid time off, two hours per dose, Bloomberg reported. Employees must show proof of their vaccination to earn the time. The company doesn’t require the shots, but strongly encouraged workers to get them.
4. Shake Shack
The burger-and-shake restaurant chain will give workers 3 hours of pay per shot of the two-dose vaccine. Shake Shack didn’t mandate employees receive the vaccine but “strongly encouraged” it.
5. Noodles & Company
Workers will earn up to four hours of paid time off for receiving the vaccine, the company said in a Feb. 10 statement to Insider. The restaurant strongly recommended employees receive the vaccine but did not require it.
The grocer is giving employees a one-time $100 payment for getting the vaccine. On top of that, Kroger said it would give associates an added bonus of a $100 store card and 1,000 fuel points to “thank and reward” workers during the pandemic.
7. Trader Joe’s
The grocery retailer will offer all 50,000 employees two hours of pay per dose and allow for flexible scheduling so workers can make it to appointments.
The app will offer its US and Canada shoppers, who deliver groceries to customers, a $25 stipend to get vaccinated.
The German grocery chain is encouraging workers to get vaccinated by offering its US workers $200 in extra pay if they receive the immunization.
The fast food chain is giving workers four hours of pay for receiving the vaccine. Though getting the shots is not required, the company said it will connect employees with groups that can answer questions on the vaccination, Restaurant Business reported.
The coffee chain is offering workers two hours of pay per dose of the COVID-19 vaccine they receive.
Amtrak is allowing employees to get vaccinated during work hours, and will pay for two hours off if employees provide proof they received the shot. Workers will also be excused with pay for up to 48 hours if they have side effects.
15. JBS USA and Pilgrim’s
The meat-packing company is offering employees a $100 bonus incentive if they receive the vaccine voluntarily.
The pet-supply retailer told Insider it would offer employees a one-time payment of $75 for getting vaccinated. Plus, it will give a $25 donation to the Petco Partner Assistance Fund for each person who receives their shots.
AT&T is giving employees up to four hours of paid time off per dose, adding up to eight hours total for anyone who needs the hours to get the vaccine, a spokesperson said in an email to Insider. The company is also giving workers access to Castlight, a tool to help them find available vaccines in their area based on eligibility.
Publix will give associates a $125 gift card to the store after they get both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Workers aren’t required to get the shots at Publix, but they will need to show proof of vaccination. The vaccine is optional, though encouraged, the company said.
19. Walmart and Sam’s Club
Beginning May 18, Walmart and Sam’s Club will give its associates below the store manager level $75 for being fully vaccinated, the companies announced on May 14. Workers are required to show their vaccine card in order to receive this bonus.
When President Ronald Reagan in 1981 moved to trim $884 million from a budget used by Amtrak, Senator Joe Biden was the only member of the Senate Budget Committee to vote against Reagan’s plan.
“You can’t come back next year or the next year and change it,” Biden said, according to a report from United Press International. “Those railroads will have gone.”
Now, four decades later, Biden’s in the seat once held by Reagan. And he’s announced a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which would include $80 billion for Amtrak. The money would go toward expanding and fixing the country’s crumbling railway infrastructure, which he’s fought in favor of for his whole career in Washington.
It’s often said that Biden’s nickname is “Amtrak Joe,” although it’s difficult to pinpoint when that nickname started to solidify.
In the late 2000s, as Biden joined Barack Obama on the presidential ticket, the nickname started popping up regularly on CNN. The first record that Insider could find of a prominent news outlet using “Amtrak Joe” was from August 2008, when CNN’s Soledad O’Brien called him by the nickname on air.
“Coming up next, more on the Washington insider who is also a proud Delaware outsider. They called him the Amtrak Joe Biden. God, I have seen him on Amtrak a lot,” O’Brien said as she threw to a commercial, according to a transcript.
The following month, The New York times published a blog post using the nickname.
We’ve combed newspaper archives dating back to Biden’s early days as a senator, pulling some of his long-ago quotes about Amtrak. Here’s a brief history of Biden’s interactions with Amtrak.
In October 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act to create Amtrak, which was then called the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, according to Amtrak’s official history.
Three years later, Biden entered office.
During his decades in the Senate, Biden commuted home to Delaware each day via Amtrak to be home with his sons at night. CNN estimated he took about 8,000 round trips on the same route.
Throughout the 1980s, Biden’s name popped up in budget stories about Amtrak. He often butted heads with Reagan about railroad spending. In May 1985, for example, Reagan had proposed slashing Amtrak’s budget. Biden at the time said the cuts were “a creeping regionalism,” according to The Providence Journal.
“I’m really beginning to wonder if we’re seven regions or one country,” he said. “Why should we help? I’ll tell you why we should help: We’re Americans. A simple reason.”
In 1987, when Biden launched his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, he chose a Delaware train station as his backdrop, according to UPI.
Amtrak announced in the late 1990s that it was developing a high-speed rail for the north-east, called the Acela. Biden said it was “the single most important transportation need in America,” according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“That would be hundreds of thousands of tons of pollution,” Biden said, according to the report. “Amtrak is important not only because it helps our quality of life. It literally impacts our health.”
A few years later, after Obama won the presidential election, the first and second families travelled together via the railway to the inauguration.
As vice president, Biden was often sent to blue-collar states to campaign for Obama’s reelection, using the political skills he’s honed riding the train for all those years, as The Daily Beast reported in 2012.
“This is, after all, a guy famous for making friends with anyone and everyone – fellow travelers, train conductors, red caps – he crossed paths with on his old Amtrak commute from Delaware,” the magazine said.
Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was also interwoven with Amtrak. During 2020, he travelled by train to several states, making whistle-stop speeches as he went.
He’d planned to take a train to Washington, as he’d done with Obama 12 years earlier but cancelled the trip amid security concerns, after rioters mobbed the Capitol.
In a statement, Biden’s team said: “In the week since the attack on Congress by a mob that included domestic terrorists and violent extremists, the nation has continued to learn more about the threat to our democracy and about the potential for additional violence in the coming days, both in the National Capital Region and in cities across the country. This is a challenge that the President-elect and his team take incredibly seriously.”
When Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson held their first trans-Atlantic phone call, some of their conversation reportedly focused on a mutual love of train travel.
More recently, a few days after announcing the infrastructure deal, he said. “Imagine a world where you and your family can travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas, or in a high-speed train, close to as fast as you can go across the country in a plane.”
Amtrak published a map of an expanded US rail network based on Biden’s funding proposal. Materials prepped for the announcement said the plan would bolster transportation options for diverse populations throughout the country.
The new routes include cities that haven’t before been connected to the national rail service, including western outposts like Las Vegas and Phoenix.
It would also break ground on routes throughout the southern US, including ones to Nashville, Tennessee; Montgomery, Alabama; and Macon, Georgia. Materials prepped for the announcement said the plan would bolster transportation options for diverse populations throughout the country.
“Millions of people, including large populations of people of color, do not have access to a reliable, fast, sustainable, and affordable passenger rail option. This is neither fair nor equitable,” the railway said.
Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, told Insider that Amtrak may still be decades away from true high-speed rail and is still readjusting from an era of extreme cost-cutting.
“As recently as three years ago, Amtrak senior leadership was out talking about how routes have to make a profit and long-distance routes shouldn’t exist,” Mathews said, referring to the tenure of former Delta Air Lines chief executive officer Richard Anderson that saw Amtrak’s most nostalgic offerings cut in a bid to save costs.
Before Amtrak can even consider a brand-new high-speed rail network, there’s still a backlog of repairs to work through on its existing lines. And unlike regional transit authorities, Amtrak’s network stretches from sea to shining sea, leaving a lot to maintain and update.
“There’s all these sort of boring infrastructure investments that you got to do,” Mathews said.
On the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak has its only high-speed service with the Acela, Mathews said that it would cost around $50 billion just to get the line to a “state of good repair.” That’s 62.5% of Amtrak’s proposed $80 billion funding from the infrastructure bill in just repairs alone and not even laying the foundation for true high-speed rail in the Northeast.
True high-speed rail would require new infrastructure, including straight lines of track so trains can achieve their top speeds. In congested regions like the Northeast, that means spending millions if not billions just to purchase property along the line’s planned route.
“Politically, high-speed has a different ring to it and I think Amtrak is probably unwilling to step into that,” Mathews said. “From their point of view, they’re like, ‘Hey, we just want to run our trains. We want to run more trains and we want them to be on time.'”
Amtrak is already spread thin in its languishing nationwide network. Existing infrastructure across the US has fallen into disrepair and battles with freight railroads prohibit Amtrak from being competitive on existing lines.
Private companies have instead spearheaded the effort to bring high-speed rail to the US. Brightline built a high-speed line to connect West Palm Beach and Miami in Florida that will soon be connected all the way to Orlando. In Texas, the Texas Central Railroad is developing a high-speed rail line that will connect Dallas and Houston in only 90 minutes.
California has even taken up the mantle with a new high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Construction is currently underway with the 800-mile line taking at least 14 years to complete at an estimated cost of at least $68 billion, according to Architect Magazine.
Critics of Amtrak and its money-losing ways look too much at the big picture, according to Mathews, and not at the smaller journeys that are more in line with Amtrak’s original congressional charter. Only around 10% of riders take the full length of a long-distance service like the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle, for example, whereas most customers are taking the train between intermediary stops.
“The vast majority of trips take place in between,” Mathews said. And those short-distance trips between say Staples, Minnesota and Wolf Point, Montana, where convenient air service is a distant dream, is Amtrak’s bread and butter. Fares are comparatively lower than flying and trains can better accommodate passengers that face issues when flying, whether it be because they require medical devices or the nearest airport is hours away.
Keeping those smaller cities connected is also the reason why Amtrak rushed to get long-distance trains back to daily service after they were reduced to three-times-weekly service during the pandemic. Restoring them to daily service may have seemed counter-intuitive from a revenue perspective but the move ensures more Americans that rely on the rails have access to it.
When Amtrak does eventually enter the high-speed rail realm, it may be relegated to the lines that private companies haven’t already scooped up. But Mathews believes that’s alright because the rail corporation’s purview, after all, is to serve the entire country – profitable or not.
As President Joe Biden last week outlined the $80 billion in funding for Amtrak in his $2 trillion infrastructure package, the railway operator published a map showing all the changes it plans to make in the next 14 years.
There were high-profile new routes to Las Vegas and Phoenix in the west, and Nashville and Montgomery in the south. But experts said the most important part of the plan was the modernization of routes already in place – the ones that have been crumbling for years.
There are few who wouldn’t acknowledge that the country’s railways, both Amtrak and local ones, have fallen on hard times. The US is consistently ranked lower than other countries on its rail infrastructure. China, Japan, and other countries invested in high-speed trains in the last decades that are more efficient than anything in the US.
The most notable high-speed rail project in the US, for example, a train expected to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles, has repeatedly had its budget trimmed. That route was included in the map released by Amtrak this week, which detailed what it expected US routes to look like by 2035.
The US hasn’t historically put as much funding into its rail system as its European or Asian counterparts, said Allan Zarembski, a professor and director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware.
“This bill will certainly help – but may not be enough by itself, since it does not address the long-term issue of ongoing funding for public passenger systems,” Zarembski said on Thursday.
Biden’s plan is certain to face opposition from conservatives in congress. Senator Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy both said last week that the bill was full of wasteful spending.
The bill “[f]ast-tracks $80 billion in new subsidies for Amtrak and its unions, even though Congress provided billions in aid to Amtrak last year,” McCarthy said in a statement denouncing “Bidenomics.”
McConnell said Biden’s plan was full of “sweeping far-left priorities.”
Over the years, academics and researchers have published a range of reports on the US rail system, most of which came to the same conclusion: More funding would be needed to modernize them to the new global standard.
A team of researchers at George Mason University, for example, in 2019 published an analysis of trains in the Northeast US, compared with their counterparts around the world.
To make the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC, and New York City as reliable, energy-efficient, and safe as French Alstom trains, Amtrak would have to invest $164 million per mile, the researchers wrote.
That would total $37 billion for a single US route, which wouldn’t include its yearly operating cost of $570 million. That would be almost half the spending allocated as part of Biden’s bill.
Comparing country-to-country rail networks is a difficult task, in part because good systems are dependent on geographies. Even within the US, the rail corridors have varied uses. Commuters pile into the Acela in the northeast corridor, while site-seers relax in the glass-roofed cars that wind through Glacier National Park in the northwest.
But most of the US railway routes were “legacy” systems created by 19th-century railroads that went bankrupt, said Murray Rowden, global head of infrastructure at Turner & Townsend, a New York firm.
There’s a growing investment gap between what states are willing to pay and what the railways need. A plan like Biden’s can start to make up for those budget shortfalls.
“States always have their ups and downs with their budget cycles when trying to balance their priorities, with the main focus for most transit agencies being to their infrastructure in a ‘state of good repair,'” Rowden added.
President Joe Biden is set to announce the first part of his two-part infrastructure package this afternoon. It’s called the American Jobs Plan, and it will cost about $2 trillion.
The package is focused on job creation, traditional infrastructure spending, and investment in many other things that stand to redefine infrastructure as a political issue, such as funding for care workers, as well as incentives for childcare to be provided at American workplaces. Biden plans to couple it with a tax increase for corporations, meant to offset the bill’s spending over 15 years.
Here’s how the spending will break down.
$621 billion for transportation includes:
$115 billion for modernizing roads, highways, and bridges
$20 billion for road safety
$85 billion for public transit
$80 billion for Amtrak and freight rail service
$174 billion for electric vehicles
$25 billion for airports
$17 billion for ports
$20 billion for neighborhoods historically excluded from transportation investments
$25 billion to fund new projects
$50 billion for infrastructure resilience, with a special emphasis on more vulnerable areas
$111 billion for water infrastructure includes:
$45 billion towards fully eliminating lead pipes through various programs
$56 billion in loans and grants to help modernize water systems around the country
$10 billion for monitoring and fixing substances in drinking water
Broadband and power
$100 billion for broadband
This would build out infrastructure for 100% coverage and would specifically allocate funds for tribal lands
It would also seek to reduce broadband pricing
$100 billion for power infrastructure includes:
$16 billion towards plugging old wells and cleaning up abandoned mines
$5 billion towards revamping former industrial and energy sites
$10 billion for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps
Housing and education
$213 billion for creating and retrofitting over 2 million housing units, with a $40 billion investment in public housing infrastructure
$100 billion for upgrading and building public schools
$12 billion for community college infrastructure
$25 billion for upgrading childcare facilities and making it more widely accessible
This is accompanied by a tax credit to incentivize building childcare at Americans’ places of work
$18 billion to modernize Veterans Affairs hospitals, as well as $10 billion for federal buildings
$400 billion towards home/community care for the elderly and disabled
This would expand access, and seek to improve wages, benefits, and unionization for workers in the industry.
Research and development
$180 billion towards R&D includes:
$50 billion for the National Science Foundation
$30 billion for innovation and job creation R&D
$40 billion in upgrading research infrastructure, with half allocated to Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) as well as “Minority Serving Institutions” (MSIs)
$10 billion for those HBCUs and MSIs, as well as $15 billion to create over 200 centers at them to serve as research incubators
$35 billion in climate research and development
Manufacturing and labor
$300 billion for American manufacturing and small business
$50 billion for a new office for a new office focused on domestic industry
$50 billion for research and manufacturing for semiconductors
$30 billion to create new jobs and fend off losses during future pandemics
$46 billion for federal buying, with an emphasis on various clean technologies
$20 billion for regional innovation hubs
$14 billion towards increasing competitiveness through technological advances
$52 billion to domestic manufacturers
$31 billion for programs providing credit, R&D funding, and venture capital to small businesses
$5 billion to create a new “Rural Partnership Program,” aimed at supporting local rural efforts
$100 billion for workforce development includes:
$40 billion towards career services and training for workers who have lost jobs
$12 billion in targeted funding towards “workers facing some of the greatest challenges,” prioritizing underserved and hard hit communities, with $5 billion towards “evidence-based community violence prevention programs”
$48 billion towards worker protection and development infrastructure, including an expansion of apprenticeships, with a particular emphasis on women and people of color