“It’s transformative,” Amtrak chief executive William J. Flynn said in an interview Monday. Money set aside for Amtrak, he said, “represents more funds than have been cumulatively invested in Amtrak over the first 50 years of our history.”
The funding will help to rebuild the aging infrastructure of the Northeast Corridor, which includes several bridges and tunnels more than 100 years old. But it could also help bring passenger service to new cities and towns across the nation. The changes would mark an overhaul for a service map that has remained nearly unchanged during a period when the nation gained 120 million people.
Amtrak this year laid out a $75 billion plan to bring its trains to 160 new communities, which it estimates could lure 20 million more passengers annually. The plans were contingent upon congressional passage of the infrastructure package — a down payment on an expansion plan that would still require future funding — which President Biden plans to sign soon during a ceremony.
Amtrak officials said they expect the infusion of funding to fast-track Amtrak’s recovery and growth amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ridership plummeted 95 percent at the onset of the health crisis, recovering to about 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels this fall. Bookings for the Thanksgiving holiday are also encouraging, Amtrak officials said.
The passenger rail is slated to initially receive $22 billion, railroad officials said. Under terms of the infrastructure package, Amtrak eventually would have access to another $44 billion in federal grants for rail projects — including the creation of new routes.
Amtrak and states will compete for funding for new routes, which could allow Amtrak to expand to cities not currently served by passenger rail, such as Las Vegas and Nashville. It also could create new connections, such as a Phoenix-to-Tucson route, and a new corridor in Ohio to connect Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.
Passengers could see new trains, newly refurbished train interiors, improved stations and platforms, and more frequent service, as well as better connections and new routes.
“These upgrades will touch every part of the existing system,” Jim Matthews, executive director of the Rail Passengers Association, said while describing a turnaround for a railroad that has struggled to draw financial support and faced cuts under the Trump administration. “And we hope [it will] lay the foundation for dozens of new corridors across the U.S.”
The Northeast Corridor’s crumbling infrastructure
Money in the bill would aid in rebuilding the nation’s busiest rail corridor, supporting a 15-year vision recently unveiled by the Northeast Corridor Commission, created by Congress about a decade ago to discuss strategies to improve the stretch. That plan would shorten travel times between Washington and New York, and New York and Boston, by about 30 minutes.
The funding would help address the biggest chokepoints along the route and pay for some of the repair backlog. The commission has identified more than 150 projects worth more than $117 billion — including upgrades or replacements of 15 major bridges and tunnels more than a century old — that are needed to bring the corridor into a state of good repair.
Among those is the $4 billion replacement of the 148-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel in Maryland and an $11.6 billion plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River, a structure more than a century old that sees about 200,000 daily passenger trips in the New York area.
Among other potential beneficiaries: Expansions of Penn Station in New York, the nation’s busiest rail stop, and the District’s Union Station, the second busiest. Officials say outside of major projects, the corridor also needs to address basic infrastructure needs, such as improvements to track, signal systems and electric catenary systems that are beyond their useful lives.
Mitch Warren, the corridor commission’s executive director, said the funding will allow the region “to rebuild and modernize the Northeast Corridor to provide better, faster, more frequent, and more reliable service to the hundreds of thousands of commuters and intercity travelers who depend on it every day.”
Replacing aging trains, boosting safety
The infrastructure funding will help Amtrak upgrade its rolling stock over the next decade. Amtrak plans to replace nearly 40 percent of its rail car fleet by 2031, and is looking to remove its oldest cars, some of which have been in service for 45 years.
Amtrak said in July it inked a contract with manufacturing company Siemens Mobility for 83 new train sets, part of a $7.3 billion plan to upgrade over the next decade. The carrier said at the time that Congress authorized $200 million for the rail cars, with the deal relying heavily on securing funding through the infrastructure bill.
The legislation also puts pressure on Amtrak to make its operations accessible to people with disabilities, setting aside funding to accelerate compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
Amtrak is well beyond a July 2010 deadline for ensuring that intercity rail stations meet ADA requirements. The agency recently embarked on a six-year push to ensure more than 300 stations meet the accessibility mandates. In December, Amtrak also agreed to pay $2.25 million to settle civil claims that it discriminated against disabled passengers by failing to accommodate people in wheelchairs or those with limited mobility.
The infrastructure package also targets rail safety, with about $5 billion for rail improvement and safety grants, and another $3 billion for grade crossing safety improvements.
Trespassing and rail-crossing incidents are responsible for 97 percent of rail-related fatalities, according to a report by the Eno Center for Transportation, which found that about 16 people are killed in such incidents each week. The infrastructure package sets aside money for education programs changes to highway crossings to help prevent vehicles from entering the path of trains.
New smoking law, a restructure of Amtrak’s board
The legislation also establishes new rules for Amtrak and passengers.
It officially bans smoking, including the use of electronic cigarettes, aboard trains. While the company already has a policy banning cigarettes, the bill makes the ban federal law.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who proposed the measure, said “the ban, whose health implications are clear, will ensure the policy cannot be reversed.”
The legislation also restructures Amtrak’s board of directors, requiring the panel to meet annually in an open setting with members of the disability community, the public and Amtrak’s workforce. It creates a working group to provide Amtrak with recommendations to improve food and beverage service.
Changes to food service in recent years have ignited outrage among passengers — and members of Congress. Amtrak two years ago announced plans to replace the traditional dining car experience with prepackaged meals. After criticism, Amtrak this summer restored the onboard kitchen on some routes and said it continues to assess its onboard food service.
In a win for rural communities, the bill aims to prevent those areas from being a target of service reductions in the future.
In recent years, Amtrak had threatened to reduce long-distance train operations, but the legislation prohibits Amtrak from discontinuing or reducing such service as long as it receives adequate federal funding for the route.
Amtrak would also be required to bring back ticket agents to some stations that have been unstaffed. A ticket agent must be available at each station that has at least 40 passengers a day, according to the bill, which targets Amtrak’s policy since 2018 to eliminate agents at smaller stations.