New administration brings hope to America’s intercity passenger rail

Feb. 17, 2021
The Biden-Harris Administration’s focus should be on creating policy, securing funding and establishing an operational foundation upon which intercity trains can evolve.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing a rethinking about how Americans move via all modes of transportation, including intercity rail. Despite this, America’s need to reinvest in its public transport systems remains. Only time will tell if President “Amtrak Joe” Biden will make a positive impact on intercity trains. However, if the stars have finally aligned to have a reasoned and hyperbole-free conversation about intercity rail, here are some prioritized actions the new administration should consider.  

To be clear, modernization and expansion of the U.S. intercity rail system will require additional Amtrak investment, but that’s not enough. After 50 years of Amtrak, America’s intercity rail development remains bedeviled by the double standard in the minds of too many legislators, taxpayers and reporters that intercity rail requires public “subsidies,” while aviation and highways receive “investments.” One consequence of this ideological impasse is that in numerous places, Amtrak’s level of service has remained unchanged since its 1971 inception. Granted, there are a handful of regions enjoying better service now than at Amtrak’s inception, but when viewed from a five-decade horizon, even these achievements are muted.

Consequently, the new administration should not pursue fanciful notions, such as “high-speed rail coast to coast,” or magnetic levitation trains. Rather, the focus should be on creating a policy, funding and operational foundation upon which America’s intercity trains can evolve to the next tier of availability, convenience and service delivery, and prioritizing the following may help.

Stabilize Amtrak and state partners’ finances relative to COVID-19 losses

Amtrak and the states funding many shorter distance routes cannot undertake thoughtful discussions about intercity rail’s future amid the pandemic. Providing the financial support needed to restore currently suspended routes is vital. The longer this passenger train capacity remains unused on the freight railroads that accommodate intercity trains outside of the northeast, the more real the risk becomes of these frequencies being lost permanently. There may not be a need for every pre-pandemic frequency to return, but the administration cannot allow COVID-19-related revenue losses to justify curtailing services for good.

Publicly differentiate between the mobility tool (intercity rail) and the existing provider (Amtrak)

The average taxpayer, legislator and reporter seldom differentiate between intercity rail as a mobility tool—a method of moving people, and America’s predominant provider of that tool, Amtrak. However, these same people understand there are automobiles and commercial airplanes as mobility tools offered by multiple providers, such as Ford, Audi, United and Southwest. As a result of this awareness, these people and others can easily separate their perceptions of an individual provider from the usefulness of the mobility tool. For example, the Ford Pinto was a failure, yet that car’s shortcomings did not paint all automobiles as “beleaguered” or “anachronistic,” which are descriptions often used toward Amtrak. Without a widely understood appreciation of the difference between the mobility tool and the provider(s), America won’t be able to have the sophisticated conversation it deserves on intercity rail.

Encourage third party participation in providing intercity service or aspects of it

If one has been paying attention to SpaceX, they know it has achieved something NASA hasn’t—functional rocket reusability that has reduced the cost of accessing space. One reason for SpaceX’s success is that it hasn’t been encumbered by bureaucratic limitations and risk-aversion. Admittedly, there is not a direct comparison between passenger trains and rockets, except for illustrating the potential of disruptive organizations.

Given America’s reverence for capitalism, intercity rail advancement may find more political acceptance if there are more players involved in its delivery, particularly entities seen as disrupters. In America, Florida’s privately-owned Brightline seems to be an intercity rail disrupter and is in the midst of building a modern and sexy new intercity service between Miami, West Palm Beach and Orlando. Naturally, not every route will have Brightline’s attributes, but there are likely many components of providing intercity service lending themselves to third party involvement, such as providing on-board service and repairing equipment. The success of third parties isn’t guaranteed, but America benefits from an environment where more entities are interested in the mode’s success. 

Engage the freight railroads to develop an intercity track access rate structure comparable to commuter rail operators

Given that practically all current and future intercity rail routes beyond the northeast will be on freight railroad tracks, it’s worth engaging the freight railroads and the Surface Transportation Board to explore whether altering the intercity rail payment structure would aid the mode’s development. At Amtrak’s creation, the new federal corporation was granted several unique rights. One of these was the “right of access at incremental cost,” which means Amtrak trains are able to use freight railroad tracks at a much lower rate than is paid by commuter railroads. While this is an attractive right, problems arise when intercity interests want to expand service. Too often, the freight railroads require extraordinarily expensive capital investments for even the most modest service increases. Functionally, the desired level of capital investment kills most intercity expansion projects. 

Without question, intercity interests must respect the freight carriers’ objectives of efficiency, profitability and safety. Additionally, countries such as Russia, India, Sweden and China demonstrate that robust conventional and higher speed (not high speed) intercity services can coexist with freight trains in a “heavy haul” operating environment. Thus, America’s challenge becomes providing this sort of operating environment in more places. Therefore, after 50 years, it’s reasonable to debate whether intercity rail growth is aided or deterred by a Metra commuter train in Chicago paying BNSF a higher access rate than Amtrak operating at the same top speed on the same route segment.  

Unlike many other countries, America does not have much government-owned rail infrastructure, so perhaps how we pay for intercity trains to access freight trackage needs to reflect this difference in order to have more intercity service.

Alter Amtrak’s guiding legislation to remove the expectation of conventional profitability permanently, and evaluate fiscal performance relative to other transit providers

Finally, the Biden Administration and Congress should end this expectation once and for all. The reality is most scheduled, intercity services across the globe require public funding for operations, capital, or both, including Amtrak’s northeast corridor, and this isn’t inherently bad. Commercial aviation and highways continue requiring robust taxpayer investment to meet the public’s expectations. Comparably bold and long-term public investments are necessary for Americans to finally enjoy the whole package of travel time reduction, reliability, frequency and route coverage that intercity rail commonly offers abroad. Pre-pandemic, Amtrak’s FY08 cost recovery ratio was an enviable 96 percent, so it is time to stop framing intercity rail investment as wasteful.

My hope is these steps could be among those undertaken by the new administration that would finally enable America’s intercity trains to be properly nurtured. If this happened for a sustained period, the mode could propel economic development, reduce emissions and foster sorely needed connections among Americans. Our nation’s long-term success requires earnest leadership to advance projects that are national in scope, and transformative at their core. It’s time, once again, for intercity rail to play its part in helping America “Build Back Better.”


Jonathan Hutchison resides in Portland, Ore., and has a professional background in government affairs and strategic communications, including positions with Amtrak, TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation. 

About the Author

Jonathan Hutchison

Jonathan Hutchison resides in Portland, Ore., and has a professional background in government affairs and strategic communications, including positions with Amtrak, TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation. He can be reached at [email protected].