Happening Now

15 New Trains: Closer To Our Long-Distance Goals

February 16, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Another two-week series of nationwide workshops led by the Federal Railroad Administration wrapped up yesterday in Cambridge, Mass., a project aimed at shaping a data-informed and ambitious vision for doubling America’s long-distance rail network with 15 new routes, a scale not seen since the 1956 launch of the Interstate Highway System.

Throughout our Association’s history, Amtrak service has been lost. Millions of people who used to be able to take trains no longer can. The “skeletal” network created in 1971 lost even more bones over the years to successive cuts. When I was asked to join as your President and CEO in the Fall of 2014, the Association’s elected leadership, rank-and-file dues-paying members, and our donors and supporters all made it clear to me that of the many priorities they wanted for our work, restoring trains that were cut in 1971, 1979, and 1996 was near the very top of the list.

The long-distance restoration study underway right now began with your professional staff asking key Senators to support a provision in what became the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that would have required Amtrak to restore daily frequency to the Cardinal and Sunset Limited. It was a simple start and would have been a real win all on its own, a victory in two separate campaigns – Daily Cardinal and Daily Sunset – that had been underway when I arrived.

But what’s on the table now is historic, a word we’re using a lot ever since the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was signed in 2021. I have to say it again: For the first time since Amtrak was created, there’s now a comprehensive arms-length Federally led study process underway to ADD service rather than to terminate it...and not only is it happening, but your Association shaping its outcome. One of our four core goals for many years has been to put at least 85 percent of Americans within 25 miles of a passenger rail station. Once built out, this map would EXCEED that goal.

All of us participating in this process got our first look at the FRA’s “preferred” route selections last week when this phase began in Sacramento. This was the third of a planned four rounds of workshops, and your Association has been an active participant in every one – 18 so far as of yesterday.

The common theme evident from each workshop in Sacramento, Charlotte, Seattle, Kansas City, and Cambridge this week was that the FRA-led study team worked very hard and very thoughtfully to turn various route “segments” identified in the second round into actual routes in the third round for further study.

Moreover, this has not been a behind-closed-doors process, despite accusations to the contrary from some naysayers. Following each workshop round there has been an open public comment process, and another comment period will open next week running through March 8th. As I’d told you all last week, that comment period is your chance to add your personal impressions to the study inputs as stakeholders in the outcome.

Keep an eye out for the public release of the study materials on the FRA long-distance study website (which you can reach by clicking here), but here’s a brief rundown of the 15 new routes FRA offered up for our consideration in the upcoming Round Four later this spring:

1 – Chicago to Miami, via Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa.
2 – Dallas/Fort Worth to Miami, via Marshall, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Pensacola, Tallahassee, and Jacksonville.
3 – Denver to Houston, via Trinidad, Amarillo, and Dallas/Fort Worth.
4 – Los Angeles to Denver, via Barstow, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Cheyenne.
5 – Phoenix to Minneapolis/St. Paul, via Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Newton, Kansas City, Omaha, and Sioux Falls.
6 – Dallas/Fort Worth to New York, via Oklahoma City, Tulsa, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Pittsburgh.
7 – Houston to New York, via New Orleans, Mobile, Montgomery, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Roanoke, Lynchburg, Lorton, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
8 – Seattle to Denver, via Portland, Boise, Pocatello, Salt Lake City, and Grand Junction.
9 – San Antonio to Minneapolis/St. Paul, via Dallas/Fort Worth, Tulsa, Kansas City, and Des Moines.
10 – San Francisco to Dallas/Fort Worth, via Merced, Bakersfield, Barstow, Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, and Midland.
11 – Detroit to New Orleans, via Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville, Montgomery, and Mobile.
12 – Denver to Minneapolis/St. Paul, via Cheyenne, Pierre, and Sioux Falls.
13 – Seattle to Chicago, via Yakima, Kennewick, Spokane, Sandpoint, Helena, Billings, Bismarck, and Fargo.
14 – Dallas/Fort Worth to Atlanta, via Marshall, Jackson, Meridian, and Birmingham.
15 – El Paso to Billings, via Albuquerque, Trinidad, Denver, Cheyenne, and Casper.

The study team reported that after considering various routings via the segments identified in Round Two, in nearly every instance they were able to adopt the stakeholder-preferred route. Dozens of factors were evaluated to make these selections, ranging from existing traffic and travel patterns to legislative priorities around rural accessibility and everything in-between, but so, too did comments and stakeholder input. The team reported that they’ve received 5,000 public comments since this process began a year ago, and while public comments can’t be the overriding factor in deciding how to choose segments for routes they were certainly considered seriously, and stakeholder desires shaped every one of these 15 choices.

As for the naysayers you may have read on social media, well, they’re entitled to their opinions. But nobody should draw conclusions about whether rail expansion is worthwhile just from looking at leaked sections of a vision map. And assuming that somehow a year and a half of concentrated full-time study would NOT include thinking about track conditions, capital investment, living patterns, equipment needs, or station placement and design? Well, that’s just plain silly. The FRA team didn’t just order out for pizza last month and sit in someone’s basement to draw up a map with Magic Markers. Everyone involved knows that the next step is a broad, high-level assessment of capital needs, ridership, social and economic benefits, and stages of readiness. And that’s coming in Round Four this Spring, setting the stage for additional route-specific detailed planning later on.

The team prepared everyone this week to think about the study as a vision reaching as far as the year 2060 and beyond, a vision that will require sustained commitment, funding, development, design, and independent oversight.

But before you start writing off this whole exercise because it might cost money, consider this: from 1956 when it began through 1996 when the last official project under the program came together, the U.S. Interstate Highway System cost $232.6 billion in today’s dollars to complete. Forty years of sustained national commitment to a long-term vision. Every year many billions more dollars are still funneled in for maintenance and reconstruction, and nobody bats an eye.

Big things are hard, but they’re not crazy. Let’s start with our Daily Cardinal and Daily Sunset, but let’s also look forward to this new network that will restore service to 13 million Americans who lost it and give Amtrak access to 45 million Americans who don’t have it today, including some nine million Americans living in rural areas who deserve travel choices just like any other American. Why should we not demand that level of service and access for everyone across the United States?