Amtrak’s Future Lies Between Boston and Washington

With America’s No. 1 railfan in the White House and an infrastructure bill at the center of the congressional agenda, it’s no surprise that Amtrak is ready to pitch big ideas such as passenger service on 30 new routes and increased frequency on 20 more.

There’s a political logic to this ambitious plan: Service to more states and more congressional districts will generate more political support. That said, the key to success for America’s National Railroad Passenger Corporation is to think more like a regional railroad — specifically, a northeastern railroad.

For starters, Amtrak’s expansive plan seems very unlikely to work. Building a low-speed link from Denver to Cheyenne isn’t going to make Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming support President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal any more than a spur from Minneapolis to Duluth will endear the legislation to residents of rural Minnesota.

Amtrak’s Future Lies Between Boston and Washington

The best thing Amtrak could do for its long-term future is to identify routes with high returns on investment — that is, ones that are likely to generate large increases in ridership and reduce its dependence on federal subsidy. That means focusing on high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, where for many trips it’s already faster to take the train than fly (once you factor in travel to and security at the airport).

One reason to invest in high-speed rail in the NEC, to use the preferred acronym, is that it suffers from a deficit of investment. Elsewhere, the problem is geography. The United States is one-third as densely populated as France, for example, and one-sixth as dense as Germany.

If there were one billion Americans, to pick a number at random, a French-style national high-speed rail network might make sense. But there aren’t. On the contrary, vast stretches of the U.S. are largely empty and therefore well-served by the airline industry’s ability to connect destinations across arbitrary distances. What’s more, many U.S. cities are so sprawling that a great advantage of passenger rail service — serving the urban core — is significantly reduced.

That’s not true of the Northeast, which is full of old cities with strong downtowns. Even better, from a strict investment standpoint, the region is crowded: There are 50 million people in the megalopolis reaching from southern New Hampshire to Northern Virginia, larger than the population of Spain.

And the geography here is very good for trains. The southern half of the NEC, from New York to Washington, is one of the most promising high-speed rail corridors in the world. Consider that France’s famous TGV network started with a link between Paris and the country’s second-largest metro area, Lyon, about 250 miles away.

That’s approximately the distance between New York and Washington. But New York is a larger metropolitan area than Paris, and Washington is larger than Lyon. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia metro area is much larger than Lyon, and Baltimore’s is only slightly smaller.

The power of passenger rail, where it exists, is precisely in these intermediate connections. By building the Washington-New York link, Amtrak would also benefit from improvements to links between those two cities and the ones in between, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore. The northern half of the NEC, up to Boston, doesn’t have quite the same potential, because the intermediary destinations of Providence and New Haven are not nearly as large. But the Boston metro area is still about twice the size of Lyon.

And the critical thing is that the southern half of the high-speed rail network already exists. Amtrak is already competitive in the Boston-New York market, where the speeds are slower. High-speed rail from Boston to Washington would also be able to serve the smaller intermediary markets, which do count for something. (Biden got his nickname in part because Wilmington’s convenient location blesses it with frequent connections to other northeastern cities that could never be justified as standalone plane routes.)

And if Amtrak can build a really good core high-speed network from Washington to Boston, further expansions become more economically viable. A Washington-Richmond route, for example, makes no sense on its own. But it pencils out if it then allows Amtrak to connect Richmond to Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The same logic applies to a high-speed line linking Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The onward connections to New York or Washington revolutionize the cost-benefit analysis.

There’s a question of how far you can push this analysis. Transit analyst Alon Levy, for instance, suggests that it might make sense to extend from Pittsburgh to Cleveland and on to Chicago, and south to Atlanta and even Miami.

It’s probably not necessary to extend service to places with weak downtowns and uncongested airspace. But the point is that it all hinges on delivering state-of-the-art service in the NEC. What happens next would in part be a function of how ridership looks once it’s built.

The good news is that while faster NEC service isn’t cheap, it can be achieved through a series of incremental steps — buying better rolling stock, investing to speed up the commuter rail trains that share tracks with Amtrak, modernizing switches, replacing a few bridges, and then finally some new construction to bypass certain curves. It’s a far better plan than the all-or-nothing California bullet train that looks like it may end up being nothing.

Would Congress ever go for such a parochial program? Maybe. After all, it’s only tens of billions of dollars in a multi-trillion-dollar package. And Pennsylvania, arguably the biggest winner from an upgraded NEC, is a critical swing state. If Congress won’t go for it, Amtrak should seek state or even private investment in a technically sound, economically viable NEC rail project.

Decades of drawing fantasy maps and trying to drum up political support for marginal routes haven’t made the U.S. a world leader in passenger rail. Rather than doubling down on something that hasn’t worked and probably never will, why not try something that actually has a chance of being successful?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder of Vox and a former columnist for Slate, he is also host of "The Weeds" podcast and is the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."

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