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He went on a solo train trip at age 8. Now he advocates for more trains.

Jim Mathews, of the Rail Passengers Association, says the bipartisan infrastructure law’s investments in rail are a path toward better and more passenger rail service

Jim Mathews, president and chief executive officer of the Rail Passengers Association, aboard the Capitol Limited on the way to Chicago. (Courtesy of Jim Mathews)

When Jim Mathews joined the Rail Passengers Association eight years ago, his top priority as the group’s leader was pushing for more federal support to expand train service to more places.

Last year, after years of advocacy, Congress approved a funding package that allocates $66 billion for rail over five years, offering critical support for Amtrak’s expansion plans. It was, Mathews said, a turning point for America’s passenger rail system.

“There’s lots of places and trips where the train just makes sense,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Mathews has spent decades riding trains, ever since his mother put him in a train from Arizona to New York, where he joined his mentor from Big Brothers Big Sisters at the age of 8. He said the experience became an inspiration decades later to advocate for more train service.

He joined the passengers association in 2014 after nearly three decades as a journalist, mostly covering aviation. His experience as a rider led him to serve six years on the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee, where he shared the views and needs of riders.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you get interested in rail issues?

A: I took my first across-the-country train ride from Arizona to New York when I was 8 years old. It was when Amtrak was brand new and the cars were very, very old. Airplanes and trains were, for me, like dinosaurs were for a lot of other kids. I was all about the different kinds of train cars and locomotives and airplanes. So I’ve been riding trains quite literally most of my life. To that extent, it’s not surprising that I wound up in transportation as a career.

Q: What’s so appealing about train travel?

A: When you talk to most train riders, they will tell you things like the relaxation, the time to think, the productive time. And it’s true. For a lot of trips that I take, it is just a smarter option. When I was still a journalist, I had half of my team in New York City and the other half in D.C. I could have taken the shuttle from National to LaGuardia. But then you have to get to the airport, take the flight and then get from LaGuardia to downtown in New York City. Or I could roll into Penn Station on the Acela at 8:45 and be upstairs in our offices in time for a 9 a.m. meeting. It was just more practical.

Q: You must get lots of messages from passengers. What are some of the biggest concerns they have?

A: People are still riding on coaches that are 47 years old. They’re still riding on coaches where the toilets back up, they’re still riding trains that are on time 13 percent of the time. They’re still getting stranded in the middle of nowhere because of a freight train in their way. There are still trains that operate three days a week instead of once a day, which to my mind, is probably the single stupidest decision you could ever make as a transportation provider. The quality of the onboard service has to get better, the quality of the food has to get better, the treatment of passengers has to get better. There’s also a lot of good stuff.

Q: Tell me about the good stuff.

A: When I got to the association, it was September of 2014 and at that time Amtrak would periodically in every congressional session have to fight for its life. And there was a lot of discussion about why do we have Amtrak and why should Amtrak exist. Why can’t it be better without us spending any money on it? Fast-forward to today, we’ve been working to get Congress to finally invest in passenger rail and they did it. We saw that last year with the bipartisan infrastructure law. There’s no arguing that $66 billion for rail [is] a historic level of investment.

Q: What can that kind of money do for the passenger rail system?

A: We, as an association, can see easily 160 to 175 communities that do not have rail today and could get rail because of these investments. We also see probably 30 or 40 communities who could go from one train a day to more than one train a day. Or it could go from three trains a week to one train every day. Amtrak serves about 500 destinations. Adding 160 to that number, that’s a pretty significant increase.

Q: So train passengers should expect better and more service in five years?

A: Five years from now, riding a train in the Northeast Corridor should be much better. Riding a train on a state-supported route, something like the Wolverine in Michigan or a train running between the major cities in California, that would be a nicer ride. New coaches, wider seats, more handicap accessibility. The long-distance trains will not necessarily have new equipment yet, but in five years the long-distance trains should all have better food and the cars will at least get a real facelift.

Q: Not long ago, there were discussions in Washington about getting rid of long-distance routes. Is it safe to say the long-distance trains are safe?

A: The way that Congress wrote the authorization that became the bipartisan infrastructure law, it preserved the role of the long-distance trains in the nation’s transportation network. That’s important because those long-distance trains contribute, depending on how you count it, between $5 billion and $7 billion a year to GDP in the communities they serve.

Q: Some people complain that Amtrak fares are high and unaffordable. During the pandemic, the railroad has attracted new customers with promotional fares. Should that continue?

A: The Northeast Corridor generally is way more expensive than it should be. Because this is a taxpayer-supported enterprise and it’s designed to create access for people, those trains should be accessible to people of ordinary means. I took the TGV from Paris to Bordeaux for the equivalent of $40. And it wasn’t the sort of almost high-speed like we have in this country. It was real, honest-to-goodness high speed. It was affordable. That’s the model that we should have.

Q: You recently wrote about passengers facing significant delays in their travels. What is happening?

A: We really are seeing the effects of a perfect storm. During the pandemic, Amtrak let a lot of people go. They furloughed a lot of folks. And we disagreed with that. So here we are in 2022 and Amtrak is having a hard time staffing the trains, which means they’re having a hard time getting back to a schedule that works for everyone. That’s one problem. And then you compound that with the railroad industry generally — the freight railroads also are short of crews. They’re having trouble keeping their operations running on time. You have delays compounding on other people’s delays.

Q: So the freight trains create delays for passenger trains?

A: The [freight companies] run really long trains. They go really slow. The law says that Amtrak has to go first, but the physical reality is that when you’re running three-mile-long freight trains, they can’t get out of the way. Amtrak trains wind up at the back of the line. There are various categories of delays that the Federal Railroad Administration tracks. And by far the most prominent cause of delays is called “freight train interference.”

Q: How do you fix that problem?

A: One answer that the railroads don’t like is: Run shorter trains. That’s a quick, short-term way to deal with it. The other thing to do is to build longer sidings. If I’ve got mile-long sidings and three-mile-long trains that can’t get out of the way, I need longer sidings so there’s more room to get out of the way. You can also do a lot [better] scheduling and dispatching.

Q: These delays are often a source of tension between Amtrak and freight companies. Are you concerned about the freight and passenger rail relationship?

A: I am concerned. The sad thing is it’s not new. This contentious relationship existed really since Amtrak was born in 1971. It has always caused a problem and the passengers have always been the ones who lose. Right now the thing that I’m most concerned about is that we have finally reached a place in American politics where we have developed some kind of consensus among Republicans and Democrats that rail is worth investing in. But the railroads are fighting among themselves, like toddlers. And we’re going to squander this opportunity if we can’t just get people to bury whatever hatchet they have to bury and just move on.

This story was updated to clarify that the person he met in New York at age 8 was a mentor from Big Brothers Big Sisters, rather than his “brother," as was previously reported.