Happening Now

Enhanced Long-Distance Map Taking Shape

July 14, 2023

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

This week I carried your voice into two all-day workshops put on by the Federal Railroad Administration – one in Atlanta and the other in New Orleans – aimed at drawing a new, comprehensive long-distance service map.

It’s only step two in a four-step process, but so far what’s been put together could create new access to Amtrak for about half of the American population that does not already have a way to take the train. That’s 43 million people, including millions in areas of persistent poverty, poorer communities, remote rural communities, and tribal lands throughout the United States!

We’re in Round Two of the four planned rounds of regional workshops to carry out the congressionally ordered Long-Distance Restoration Study, and next week I’ll be in Boise and Phoenix for their Round Two workshops. Round Two will wrap up a week after that in Philadelphia and Cleveland.

A lot of good news came out of these two workshops this week. As it’s taking shape now, the new “Enhanced Network” would add significant north-south service in areas west of Chicago, and meaningful multiple connections to un-served or underserved southeastern cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Chattanooga, Birmingham, Mobile, Pensacola, and Tallahassee.

Even better, daily service on the Cardinal and the Sunset Limited are presumed to already exist in the “Baseline Network” on which this new “Enhanced Network” will be built. In other words, the study will proceed on the assumption that those two routes will get daily service restored regardless of whatever the study concludes. That’s a 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.

Overall, the emerging Enhanced Network map would see significant service additions for the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Mountain West. Multiple options would exist for getting from Chicago to Florida and other Southeast destinations without going through New York or along the East Coast. The study team so far estimates there would be double-digit percentage increases in services to currently unserved or underserved populations. Tribal populations would see their access more than double.

The scoping process for this Round seemed thorough and designed to incorporate demographic changes, directives in the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA)/Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the economic and social well-being requirements your Association has pushed hard for, as well as creating many more Network connections -- supercharging the "network effect."

It also turns out that the scoping process generated a map all on its own that's remarkably similar both to what a handful of named route restorations would look like, and to what our own Grid and Gateway map had conceived years ago. Moreover, the 1,800 or so explicitly named places in the 1,000-plus open comments received after the Round One workshops lined up quite well with the map the team had already generated.

The bad news is that the task has proven to be so big that FRA and its consultant team will have to shelve plans to file their report to Congress by this November, instead completing the third- and fourth-round workshops later this year and early in 2024. But the good news is that the team is committed to doing this job right, and to advancing this report as a blueprint for creating new service and not just producing a study for its own sake or just because Congress told them to.

Our members did an outstanding job delivering comments on the Round One study materials, quite literally contributing more than 2,000 observations about communities to be served, the nature of the service provided, and regions where service is needed. Those comments helped to shape the map I saw this week during our workshops. At the end of this month, the study team will put all of the Round Two materials up on the study website and will invite more comments and participation from all of you.

Once that comments area is live, I’ll ask each of you to review the materials CAREFULLY, and then try to answer the specific questions that are posed for comments. The team expects that they’ll open that up around the end of July, and commenters will have until August 18th to contribute their ideas to the assessment. So, stay tuned for information later this month on how you can take part.

Next week, we’ll repeat the workshops in Boise and Phoenix, where I’ll be joined by Board Members Mike Christensen and Dan Bilka, and by Council member and All Aboard Arizona President Todd Liebman. Even though it’s slower than anyone would like, we’re making progress and I remain encouraged by the content of these workshops.