President Biden’s lavish infrastructure plan promises to give $80 billion to improving long-distance rail, almost all of it going to Amtrak — the mode of transport beloved by, well, “Amtrak Joe.” Amtrak released a plan for what it wants to do with the money: A fact sheet that the rail service posted on its Web site, for a project called Amtrak Connects US, shows several new or improved routes crisscrossing the nation.
Amtrak’s route expansion plans are at once strikingly unambitious and dogged by its famous inefficiencies.
Amtrak plans to add routes connecting nearby cities with trips that would take only a few hours: for instance, Dallas to Houston and Cleveland to Cincinnati. This may seem prudent, but one has to wonder how much ridership these lines will get: Amtrak generally runs low-quality equipment with average speeds slower than freeways, and Amtrak’s new routes parallel major highways, most of them with preexisting bus service.
Adding new routes on preexisting track, though, could only account for a small fraction of the Amtrak payout — and some other signs suggest that most of it will be wasted on overpriced maintenance work.
Half of the money, according to one report, will go to filling Amtrak’s claimed maintenance backlog of $40 billion for the 453-mile rail line from DC to Boston — an enormous sum of almost $90 million per mile, merely to keep the same service as exists today. For comparison, in countries such as France and Spain, less than half that cost per mile would cover a brand-new high-speed rail line good for speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.
Some transportation experts call maintenance backlogs a “black hole”: an excuse to spend vast amounts of money without visible results. And other projects that Amtrak has announced give few signs that cost control is a priority.
Most familiar to New Yorkers, of course, is the Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River — a project Amtrak estimates will cost $11 billion, making it one of the most expensive rail tunnels in the world, even though it involves no intermediate stations and even though the tricky part, the connection into Penn Station, is already done. In most of the world, this project would cost a tenth of this.
In Baltimore, similarly, Amtrak has planned a replacement of a one-mile tunnel — this time entirely under land — for $5 billion, an order of magnitude higher than any justifiable price. Some of the reason for the huge cost: Amtrak has decided that the replacement should accommodate railcars with double-stacked freight containers, even though the Northeast Corridor sees almost no freight traffic and accommodating double-stacked freight on the rest of the route would require even more substantial infrastructure upgrades.
The amount of money Amtrak is getting should allow it to be far more ambitious. Biden’s vision of trains almost as fast as planes is still a pipe dream — the fastest trains on conventional track travel at about 220 mph — but high-speed rail could easily outcompete cars and planes in many parts of the country.
Transit blogger Alon Levy has outlined some improvements to the Northeast Corridor that, for an expense of not much more than $10 billion at average world construction costs, could put Boston and DC under two hours by rail away from New York, enough to take over most air travel in the Northeast.
At normal world expenses, $40 billion, about half of Amtrak’s payout, could build a thousand miles of high-speed track in the Midwest, which could mean trips of fewer than two hours from Chicago to cities such as Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Louisville.
Unfortunately, Amtrak seems ready to blow its windfall on a bloated maintenance program and a scattering of new rail lines that won’t outcompete driving, rather than anything genuinely transformative. If Amtrak wants tens of billions in new funding, it should come up with a good explanation of why it needs that much — and supporters of better infrastructure in New York and everywhere in the United States need to recognize that the single-biggest obstacle is cost bloat, not funding.
Connor Harris is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute.
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