Happening Now

FRA Study Draft: More Trains, More Places

February 9, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

The third of four scheduled rounds of in-depth Federal Railroad Administration workshops to create an enhanced long-distance passenger rail network for the U.S. kicked off this week in Sacramento, with study team participants getting their first look at the FRA’s “preferred” route selections – a truly ambitious map with 15 new routes.

For now, it’s not publicly releasable but you’ll see them all at the end of next week. That’s when you’ll have your chance to supply your own input as well. I’m going to encourage all of you right now to keep an eye out for the release of the public materials on the FRA long-distance study website (which you can reach by clicking here), which should happen shortly after the last workshop wraps up next Thursday in Boston.

As all of us reconvened in Sacramento, Charlotte, and Seattle this week, it was clear that the FRA-led study team worked very hard and very thoughtfully to turn the various route “segments” identified in the second round into actual routes for further study.

The team is taking clear notice of congressional intent as it crafts this plan, iterating over and over with different segments to maximize the connectivity between major population centers and rural areas, to ensure access for poorer communities and tribal lands, and to make more of our universities, hospitals, and National Parks accessible by rail. They also worked very hard to string segments together in a way that offers speedier alternatives to routings possible on today’s network, often saving 16 or more hours on the same trip made today.

There’s Chicago to Miami via Nashville and Atlanta, and a Dallas/Fort Worth train to Miami, too. There’s Seattle to Denver via Portland and Boise. How about El Paso to Billings? One especially exciting route (for me anyway) didn’t even appear in the first set of segments we all saw in Round Two this summer – Minneapolis-St. Paul to Denver via Sioux Falls, Pierre, and Cheyenne. There is a lot of new north-south service, as well as some diagonals to get you across the country without having to go through Chicago. Atlanta, Denver, and Kansas City would emerge as additional hubs for long-distance routes.

I have to remind everyone what a huge win this is for the work your Association has been doing for many years. For the first time since Amtrak was created, there’s a comprehensive arms-length Federally led study process underway to ADD service rather than to terminate it...and not only is it happening, but we’re 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. Better yet, the study isn’t even proposing daily Sunset and daily Cardinal because it proceeds including daily service on those two routes AS A GIVEN, a baseline for the map upon which to build. It’s not even up for debate.

That’s an especially big win for your Association because the language creating the study began with our 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.

If this map is fully realized, 89 percent of the U.S. population would have access to Amtrak trains, including 19 million more Americans in the most-populated metropolitan areas. In this plan some 13 million Americans who lost service to the various Amtrak cuts over the years would get it back. This new map would add 102 stations in rural communities, nearly doubling service in rural areas.

Tribal areas would see 112 percent more access, and for people living in what the Dept. of Transportation defines as “health-disadvantaged areas” – that is, areas with poor access to medical facilities and hospitals – there would be 66 percent greater access. Five million people without good medical access could get it via this new map, which would ensure that 86 percent of all U.S. medical centers are served.

There are many questions still on the table. How would we ensure that local communities with long-distance trains get the same kind of say in their service that state-supported routes’ state customers now get today? How would we ensure that this bold and exciting map will continue to get built out over the decades that will be required to do it? Remember, it took 36 years to build out the 48,756 route miles of the Interstate Highway System, and we’ll need to make sure that there’s some kind of long-term governance and oversight system to keep this effort on track and funded in future years.

And before you ask, yes, FRA has been briefing the Class I railroads all along so they are well aware of the way this map is taking shape.

I took part in the Sacramento and Seattle sessions, alongside your Government Affairs and Policy VP Sean Jeans-Gail. Your Community Organizing Director, Joe Aiello, spoke for us in the Charlotte session, and our Chair – Meredith Richards – attended the Charlotte workshop wearing both her Rail Passengers hat and her Virginia Rail Policy Institute hat. Next week, we’ll turn our attention to routes in the Central U.S., the Midwest, and the Northeast, and Joe and I will split the Central, Midwest, and Northeast workshops.

You’ve often heard me talk about how your Association, thanks to a lot of hard behind-the-scenes work, is now in the room and at the table when it comes to nearly everything shaping passenger rail service today. Our fingerprints are all over the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s historic $66 billion rail title. We’re routinely consulted on policy matters now by members of Congress and regulators. We have been deeply engaged with decisionmakers on food and beverage improvements, on accommodating the disability community, in working to hold Amtrak’s feet to the fire for progress on repair and restoration of train cars, and fighting for on-time trains.

I hope you can see that the output of these workshops is just one more example of how we’ve moved beyond writing angry letters to the op-ed pages, and instead we’re actively working – and succeeding – to make things better.

The public comment period for this third-round map will open at the end of next week and will accept comments through March 8th. At this stage, the comments should not try to suggest entirely new routes but instead should respond specifically to the questions the study team is posing about this new map and the proposed new service. Next week I’ll write again with more details on how to do this. The second round drew 2,000 substantive public comments about regional services and ideal connections, and many of those comments drove decisions about trading off one set of segments for another. They’re taking us – and YOU – seriously! Please watch this space next week for more information on how you can add your voice to the Round Three analysis, and then take that opportunity to really study the materials and comment.