Op-Ed: Building the Rail System America Deserves

“Never has Amtrak been better equipped to produce transformative change. We will work to solve some of the most pressing issues that our country is facing, namely economic, environmental, equity, and mobility challenges”- Amtrak Boss

By Anthony Cosca

In November 2021, President Biden signed into law a bill that represents a once-in-a-generation investment in America’s infrastructure and competitiveness. At Amtrak, the national rail operator where I serve as chair of the board, we are thrilled and ready to deliver on the responsibility given to us in this historic, bipartisan legislation.

In the 21st century, trains are an ideal means of transportation for much of the nation. With the lowest carbon footprint of all major modes of travel, efficient downtown-to-downtown service, and an ability to expand without massive impacts to our communities, Amtrak can be the mode of the future for big cities and small communities alike across the country.

Today, Amtrak operates hundreds of trains each day — at speeds up to 150 miles per hour — to more than 500 destinations in 46 states and the District of Columbia. But the simple reality is that our country has not moved fast enough to invest in much-needed rail infrastructure.

Over the 50 years since Amtrak’s founding, the United States has added roughly 120 million people, yet our network is largely unchanged since 1971. The vast majority of today’s rail system is only used for freight trains, and U.S. passenger rail investment has dwindled compared to that of other economies of comparable size. Repairing, upgrading and modernizing its rail infrastructure has been imperative for decades now.

This is the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak. Amtrak now has sufficient resources to fulfill its mission at a critical moment for our country’s competitiveness. More specifically, the new law provides Amtrak with $22 billion to repair existing equipment and acquire new fleets. It also provides $44 billion to the Federal Railroad Administration for grants to Amtrak, states and others to improve and expand our intercity passenger rail network so more trains can serve more people with better, faster and more reliable service.

Amtrak will use these funds to advance projects like the Northeast Corridor Commission’s Connect NEC, a comprehensive strategy to replace aging bridges and tunnels, add rail capacity, improve performance and enhance customer experience on a corridor connecting eight states and the District of Columbia through commuter railroads and intercity services. We will work closely with federal, state and local authorities to undertake this generational program of modernization and reinvestment.

Programs like Connect 2035, a 15-year rail infrastructure development plan made possible by the new law, will directly benefit families across the country by creating good-paying jobs. Amtrak is already a large employer, with more than 17,000 direct employees in 46 different states. If we add in jobs supported by daily Amtrak operations, tourism and other related economic activities, Amtrak supports more than 100,000 jobs across America. Further investments will build on that base.

Amtrak purchases roughly $1.7 billion annually in goods and services from a variety of industries. Many of these dollars, for instance those spent on construction, support the communities where the work takes place and good union jobs. Every dollar Amtrak spends on construction work supports 23 jobs in local communities.

But this isn’t just about economic growth. The expansion of rail infrastructure will create business, employment and mobility opportunities across diverse communities, advancing equity. Amtrak provides passenger rail services that benefit small urban, large metropolitan and rural communities alike. Much of America was built around railroads. Bringing such communities together, and helping each maintain their distinct qualities and histories, is one of the special attributes of our service. Quality rail service helps people stay connected.

A new era of improved and expanded rail mobility in America is also critical to the environmental well-being of our country. Expanding rail accessibility is a key step towards reaching the U.S. goal of a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. Across Amtrak’s national system, traveling by rail is 46% more energy-efficient than driving and 34% more efficient than flying. Amtrak will improve transportation options for millions of Americans while reducing greenhouse emissions. Passenger rail is a critical part of a larger solution to tackle the climate crisis while creating economic opportunity and expanding mobility to millions of people.

Never has Amtrak been better equipped to produce transformative change. We will work to solve some of the most pressing issues that our country is facing, namely economic, environmental, equity, and mobility challenges. Working with our state, commuter and host railroad partners, and Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the Department of Transportation, we are ready to deliver on the responsibility provided to us by the bipartisan infrastructure law.

●Coscia is chair of the board of directors at Amtrak.

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