Among the proposed new lines: a train connecting Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland in Ohio; a new hub in Atlanta with service to Nashville; Savannah, Ga.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Charlotte; increased frequencies from Washington to Richmond and other parts of Virginia; and the return of passenger service along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., where Amtrak service was discontinued after Hurricane Katrina.
Amtrak President Stephen Gardner spoke to The Washington Post about the passenger rail’s plans and the challenges to reaching them. Gardner, who was named president in December, oversees day-to-day operations and leads the company’s effort to grow service and ridership. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
The Post: Amtrak marked 50 years of service in May. What does this milestone mean for Amtrak?
Gardner: The 50th anniversary of the company is a moment of reflection, a chance to look back and see what we’ve accomplished, but fundamentally, a time to look forward and think about what Amtrak can do to fulfill our role and mission and support the development and mobility of the nation. The very stark facts are the nation added more than 120 million people since we started 50 years ago and yet our network has not kept up with that increase in population. Now we have a vision for how Amtrak can progress and help develop a passenger rail system for the 21st century.
The Post: What does Amtrak want to accomplish with its 2035 vision plan?
Gardner: Most of our service has been focused on the Northeast, the Midwest — in or around Chicago — and in California and in the Pacific Northwest. We have been able to prove that where we have the right level of infrastructure and service, there is demand and the service can become an integral part of mobility. And what Amtrak’s proposing now is to essentially replicate that success in the parts of the United States that have really grown since we were formed. We’ve got a model that works: reliable, frequent and competitive service. You can see it in the Northeast. So why not deploy that model in Texas, Florida, North Carolina Georgia, Tennessee? These areas have the density. They have the population. Many of them have tremendous growth and limited ability to grow highway and aviation capacity.
The Post: How soon would new routes be ready to launch?
Gardner: Many of the corridors on the map can be done in the next five to 10 years. Many of them can start with a couple of trains a day. Our Gulf Coast service proposal is a perfect example. We have a lightly used existing main line. We believe we could start service next year. The infrastructure is there. It’s ready. Charlotte to Atlanta, where there’s already one round-trip a day because of long-distance [service]. If you add two corridor trains between Charlotte and Atlanta, you could get three trips a day, which really becomes a useful service for folks. Our hope is to be able to start quickly and then develop the corridors over time.
The Post: The Biden infrastructure plan promises $80 billion for rail. How important is that funding for Amtrak?
Gardner: The administration’s proposal is bold [and] transformative. It’s the kind of investment levels that are necessary for us to support the kind of vision we put forward: One that both invests in our current network and helps us address all those state-of-good-repair problems in the Northeast Corridor, but also allows us to really begin this expansion program. We’re very excited, obviously, by that proposal and its scope and its ambition.
The Post: How much can be accomplished with $80 billion?
Gardner: The $80 billion sounds like a huge number, and it is the biggest investment ever proposed by any administration in Amtrak and passenger rail. But there’s a lot of need across the whole network. Something like half of that is meant for the Northeast Corridor. There are many projects: Gateway, Baltimore Tunnel, Washington Union Station terminal. A significant portion is for the long-distance network where we need to replace all these old train cars. We have our [Americans With Disabilities Act] program, which is making all of our stations accessible. Depending on how the money is made available, we could launch [new routes].
The Post: Isn’t funding a big impediment for states that want more rail service?
Gardner: The big issue with states currently is how little federal support there is for expanding and improving corridors that exist and supporting new service. The dollars are still very, very low if the goal is to expand and improve the system. And those dollars are available only on an annual basis through the grant program. So maybe Congress has enough money available for you to start that program in year one, but are they going to be there in year two?
Issue number two is that Congress currently requires the states to cover generally all the operating expenses and ongoing capital expenses right out of the gate from start-up. It makes sense that states are financial contributors to these services. But we ask too much in the beginning.
The Post: What can be done to fix the funding issue?
Gardner: That lack of certainty is a huge problem for Amtrak and for our state partners. That’s why we’ve advocated for a trust fund, a structure that’s very similar to the way that highways and transit and air travel are funded.
Under the passenger rail program, there just isn’t enough money available in a given year to support 80 percent of a [rail project]. No chance. The states have to come up with 50 percent, which is fundamentally different from that 90-10 or 80-20 [split] used for highways. So discriminatory, I would say, putting public transit and passenger rail in a class, which basically is sort of worthy of lower amounts of federal support than the aviation and highway network. We think that should change.
The Post: What other factors are driving Amtrak’s decision to expand now?
Gardner: We are obviously in this point of just beginning our recovery out of covid. And we think that it’s an obvious time to make the kind of investment that can help jump-start recovery, to put people to work and help stimulate the domestic supply chain. And it’s a great chance for us to create a path for more service and more opportunity so that we can continue to grow the network long term.
We also take very seriously the climate crisis that we see across the globe and think about how we at Amtrak can help the nation address our greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector. Passenger rail service is one of the lowest carbon intensity forms of transport. If we can shift folks from [highways and] air to rail in the markets where it makes sense, where we can provide a competitive, reasonable and efficient service, that could make a big difference.