Amtrak Joe: A brief look at President Biden’s long history of supporting America’s railroad

Vice President Joe Biden Amtrak Logo 2009.JPG
President Joe Biden at an event announcing funding for Amtrak as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

  • President Joe Biden’s long political history included years of advocating for Amtrak funding.
  • Biden earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” as he commuted between Delaware and Washington for decades.
  • The nickname hit mainstream media in 2008, starting with CNN.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.

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Biden wearing aviators on a train.

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 Acela Announcement.JPG
This artist’s 1999 rendering of the Acela.

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.

Bidens and Obamas on a Train in 2009.JPG
The Obamas and Bidens on their way to Washington for Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

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.

Biden Speaking in front of Amtrak Train Ohio 2020.JPG
Biden speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Ohio in 2020.

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 Connect US Map 2021 March
Amtrak Connects US, the railway’s vision for train travel in the US in 2035.

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.

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Amtrak’s $80 billion plan to connect the US is the latest step in a rail revolution but has a glaring omission: high-speed rail

Amtrak Acela
Amtrak’s Acela service runs between Washington D.C., New York City, and Boston.

  • Amtrak has unveiled a plan to further connect the US by rail but it doesn’t include high-speed rail.
  • New routes will be added and current routes will be upgraded as Amtrak aims to repair its network.
  • Private companies and states have taken up the costly task of building high-speed rail on their own.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Americans are all-aboard for high-speed rail but Amtrak’s new rail plan is putting the brakes on bullet train dreams.

Amtrak is getting ready to spend $80 billion of the federal government’s money as part of President Joe Biden’s planned $4 trillion infrastructure bills. The “Amtrak Connects US” plan calls for greater rail connectivity across the US with the addition of new routes and improvement of old ones in a major step forward for America’s rail system.

But one phrase is notably missing from Amtrak’s proposal: high-speed rail. Amtrak’s fact sheet doesn’t mention the phrase even once.

Rather, Amtrak is using the billions to give service to rail-strapped cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Nashville, Tennessee, and upgrade existing lines. Not one penny will be spent towards building a clean-slate high-speed rail line even though getting America’s high-speed rail network in line with those in Europe and Asia is a desire for many Americans.

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.

Read More: Here are 9 hurdles Biden’s infrastructure plan would have to overcome in Congress before it can become law

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.

Amtrak is introducing new trains to the Acela line but those will only travel slightly faster than the current train sets. And pre-pandemic non-stop service between New York and Washington still took two hours and 30 minutes, despite being a comparable distance to the planned route between Dallas and Houston.

“What about grandma?”

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.

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Amtrak is being offered $80 billion for upgrades, as part of Biden’s infrastructure plan, but experts say modernizing America’s railways may cost far more

President Joe Biden boarding an Amtrak train with a mask on
President Joe Biden boards his train at Amtrak’s station in Pittsburgh.

  • As Amtrak readies a spending spree, experts say it may cost more to modernize the US system.
  • Biden last week announced $80 billion in Amtrak funding as part of his $2 trillion plan.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.

Amtrak Connect US Map 2021 March
Amtrak Connects US, the railway’s vision for train travel in the US in 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.”

Amtrak New Jersey Tunnel Project
Amtrak workers perform tunnel repairs to a partially flooded train track bed, Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Weehawken, N.J. With a new rail tunnel into New York years away at best, Amtrak is embarking on an aggressive and expensive program to fix a 110-year-old tunnel in the interim.

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.

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Here’s exactly how Biden’s $2 trillion of infrastructure spending breaks down

AP President Joe Biden Amtrak Train Boarding
President Joe Biden and his wife, First Lady Jill Biden, board an Amtrak train during the 2020 presidential campaign.

  • President Joe Biden will officially announce his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan today.
  • The bill contains major investments in transportation, housing, and climate change policies.
  • Biden plans to offset the spending in the plan with a corporate tax increase.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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.

Transportation

  • $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

Water

  • $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
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Amtrak is adding nostalgia-inducing private rooms to overnight trains between Boston, New York, and Washington, DC

Amtrak Superliner bedroom
Amtrak’s Superliner bedroom.

  • Amtrak is adding private rooms to overnight Northeast Regional trains between Washington, DC and Boston this spring.
  • Three types of rooms are offered including a roomette, bedroom, and accessible bedroom.
  • The longest journey is nine hours and 58 minutes from Washington to Boston.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The overnight trains between Washington, DC, and Boston are getting slightly more bearable with upgrades coming this spring.

Amtrak will offer private rooms on late-night Northeast Regional trains running between Washington and Boston starting in April. The once-daily trains already depart in the evening and arrive in the early morning after a near-10-hour journey in each direction but have been limited to standard coach class and business class seats.

Three types of bedrooms will be offered for purchase including the Viewliner roomette, bedroom, and accessible bedroom. The smallest and narrowest room is the roomette with dimensions of three feet and six inches wide and up to six feet and eight inches long.

Starting at $288 for one traveler on the full route, the roomette offers two seats that convert into sleeping berths at night stacked vertically. Shower and restroom facilities, however, are not located in the room and are shared in the car.

The bedroom is double the size of the roomette with a width of up to six feet and eight inches and a length of up to seven feet and six inches. It offers a sofa and adjacent armchair for seating and two berths stacked vertically for sleeping, as well as a private shower, sink, and restroom.

An accessible option for the bedroom is also available with an in-room sink and restroom but no in-room shower. The accessible shower is located elsewhere in the train car.

All rooms come with a dedicated attendant and access to Amtrak’s lounges in Boston and Washington. The Metropolitan Lounge, formerly known as ClubAcela, is comparable to an airline lounge at an airport with complimentary food, drinks, and snacks available for Amtrak’s top customers, as Insider found during a visit to New York’s brand-new Moynihan Train Hall at Pennsylvania Station.

Travelers also receive a complimentary alcoholic beverage after boarding and a continental breakfast before arrival in Boston and Washington. Bedding, towels, linens, and pillows are all included in the room rate so customers don’t have to worry about bringing their own.

Washington to Boston service on train 66 departs Union Station at 10 p.m. and arrives in New York at 1:55 a.m. followed by Boston at 7:58 a.m. for a journey time of nine hours and 58 minutes.

Boston to Washington service on train 67 departs South Station at 9:30 p.m. and arrives in New York at 2:30 a.m. followed by Washington at 7 a.m. for a journey time of nine hours and 30 minutes. On Fridays and Saturdays, however, times differ and the service is offered as train 65.

The journey times are markedly slower than the daytime trains. A standard trip from Washington to Boston on the Regional, for example, is only around eight hours – a two-hour difference from the overnighter. Acela still provides the fastest service between the two cities, with average journey times of under seven hours.

Trains will also still make station stops at numerous intermediary points along the corridor like New Haven, Connecticut; Wilmington, Delaware; and Trenton, New Jersey, as well as a 45-minute layover in New York City. Travelers can book the rooms for any stretch of the journey.

The first private room-equipped trains run on April 5 and are now bookable on Amtrak’s website.

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Republicans take aim at billions set aside in stimulus bill for infrastructure and transport projects, including Amtrak, BART, and a bridge to Canada

AP President Joe Biden Amtrak Train Boarding
President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, board an Amtrak train during the 2020 presidential campaign.

  • The $1.9 trillion stimulus plan passed by the House included funding for Amtrak and BART.
  •  About $1.5 billion would go to the Amtrak train system, Biden’s favored mode of transport. 
  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy and other Republican lawmakers said some of the infrastructure spending was pork.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Billions from the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed by House lawmakers on Friday would go to transportation and infrastructure projects, including extending a subway in Silicon Valley, operating a bridge to Canada, and maintaining the nation’s railway system. 

In total, more than $40 billion would go to infrastructure and transportation projects, including about $30 billion to public transit, and about $8 billion to airports. Rep. Kevin McCarthy and other Republican lawmakers said some of that infrastructure spending was pork, calling attention to projects in the bill in areas represented by high-profile Democrats. 

“This bill is actually too costly, too corrupt, and too liberal,” McCarthy told Fox News

The 591-page bill passed by the House on Friday included $1.5 million for operations and maintenance for the Seaway International Bridge, which connects New York to Canada. In a statement, Rep. Daniel Webster, of Florida, said the bridge funding was a “pet project” of Senator Chuck Schumer, majority leader, who represents New York. 

Politifact, the fact-checking group at The Poynter Institute, said the Seaway funding had originally been requested by President Donald Trump’s administration in May 2020. 

Also in the House bill was more than $100 million for an extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system in San Jose. The money would go toward connecting the BART subway line to Mineta San Jose International Airport, a “long-planned” route extension, according to The San Francisco Chronicle

 

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, called the plan “Pelosi’s Subway,” although the construction would happen just south of Pelosi’s district, as The San Jose Mercury News reported.  

The bill also had more than $1.5 billion for Amtrak, President Joe Biden’s favorite mode of transportation. That funding included about $820 million for the Northeast Corridor, about $680 million for the national rail network, and about $166 million for long-distance service restoration and employee recalls, according to the text of the bill. 

Rep. Ben Cline added the Amtrak spending to his list of “the most egregious provisions unrelated to COVID” in the stimulus bill. 

In a statement, Cline said: “Not only is this legislation riddled with wasteful spending unrelated to COVID and bailouts for blue states like New York and California, but with more than $1 trillion in previously authorized coronavirus funds still unspent, it is premature.” 

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