OP-ED: Passenger rail deserves our support

Jonathan Barnett
Tribune News Service
The Trump administration has proposed funding cuts for Amtrak trains aross the U.S. (Dreamstime/TNS)

The Trump administration wants to cut funding for Amtrak’s northeast corridor service by more than half, and similar cuts are proposed for their long-distance passenger trains across the U.S. Drastic reductions in Amtrak funding have been proposed before, and Congress has restored most of the funds, but the passenger rail system’s survival is never certain.

The proposed cuts come at a time when U.S. population and economic growth are concentrated in megaregions like those extending from Atlanta to Charlotte, Chicago to Detroit, Portland to Seattle or Los Angeles to San Diego, where cities and their suburbs are merging with those of neighboring cities.

These urban corridors could greatly benefit from expanded passenger rail service, because highways are the megaregions’ main streets, and predictions for 2040 show gridlock on these highways for much of the day. Demand for flights from city to city within the megaregions will also increase, worsening airport delays.

In the nation’s oldest and most populous megaregion — the Northeast corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston — Amtrak’s Acela express service offers a convenient alternative to flying or driving. Amtrak has attracted more than three-quarters of the passengers who might otherwise fly between New York and Washington, D.C., and more than half of those who travel from New York to Boston.

Even on Amtrak’s less expensive Northeast corridor service, travel times compete well against driving from city to city within the megaregion, drawing some passengers off the highways.

The Acela is not as fast as the high-speed rail systems considered essential in Europe, Japan, China and other advanced countries, which continue to invest in them, not cut their budgets. While financing a national network of true high-speed passenger trains does not seem likely right now, U.S. passenger rail services need more investment, not less.

There is growing unmet demand for passenger train service at Acela speeds in all the nation’s megaregions. Virgin Trains USA is already operating express passenger service from Miami to West Palm Beach, Fla., and is building extensions from Orlando, Fla., to Tampa, Fla., through the heart of the Florida megaregion. If this service becomes profitable, it may encourage more private investment in express passenger rail.

Bringing Acela-level passenger service to other megaregions is far less expensive than building a true high-speed rail, which requires its own separate track system. But it still means finding new sources of public funding from states as well as the federal government, along with possible private investment in partnership with Amtrak. It means electrifying existing railway lines, upgrading crossings and buying new trains.

Of course, this will cost money, but widening highways and adding new runways — wherever it’s possible — will also cost money, and won’t be enough to stop highway gridlock at peak hours or eliminate air-traffic delays.

Some people traveling from city to city within the megaregions will continue to drive or fly. But express passenger trains can offer a better alternative, as they do in the Northeast, and increasingly in Florida. Americans deserve to be able to choose.

— Jonathan Barnett is a fellow of the Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale." This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.