Happening Now

What the New Amtrak Map Means

December 8, 2022

Somewhat predictably, a new map displayed at the public meeting of Amtrak’s Board of Directors has brewed a tempest in a teapot this week.

By Sean Jeans-Gail

People love passenger rail network maps.

Perhaps it’s a U.S. fixation? We’re forced to ride on a sclerotic train network for our entire lives, continually confronted by our country’s growing inability to build on a grand scale. There’s nowhere left for us to turn to in our desire for a better transportation network than drawing—and arguing about—lines on map.

So, somewhat predictably, a new map displayed at the public meeting of Amtrak’s Board of Directors has brewed a tempest in a teapot this week.

There are the predictable voices who pounced on the map, including internet gadfly Matt Yglesias. Specifically, Yglesias dislikes that there are new routes proposed for the western U.S. and rural communities. However, the fundamental argument Yglesias is making is dead wrong.

There is the practical point that these routes require low capital investment to launch and serve as an important foundation for shorter corridor services—the skeletal foundation to which the muscle is attached, if you will.

Beyond that, his argument is a wrong on the basis of the values it expresses. This is the United States of America; we don’t need to abandon rural and low-population communities to economic stagnation, disconnected from the rest of the country. We have enough wealth in this country to connect all lower 48 states to a functional passenger rail network.

Criticially, that is the only type of network that could possibly receive meaningful federal funding. You only need to look at yesterday’s Senate Commerce hearing for nominees to the Amtrak Board to get sense of what western and midwestern Senators think of an East Coast-only rail network. Congress, as it is currently configured, cannot and will not approve massive new budgetary resources for a rail network that only benefits coastal states.

Now, to be fair, there are some head-scratching parts segments feature in this new map. But it’s important to understand what this map is, and what it is not.

This map does not express Amtrak’s preferred network configuration (Amtrak’s official Amtrak Connects US map remains unchanged on their website). Rather, this is Amtrak mapping out the initial responses by State departments of transportation and regional rail authorities to a Federal Railroad Administration request for expressions of interest in the Corridor Identification and Development Program. To put it plainly: when Congress drafted the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, they explicitly said “we are leaving the planning of any future network expansion to the states, individually or collectively.”

There are plenty of reasons to find fault with this investment strategy. Rail Passengers has called for the FRA to take a more active role in planning the interstate rail network—both to obviate the need to create 48 separate rail planning departments at the state level, and because current ridership patterns demonstrate the need for strong interstate connections. Nevertheless, Congress decided to model intercity rail funding on present day transit rail funding programs; blaming Amtrak for working within this structure shows a basic misunderstanding of the facts on the ground.

(You know who else disagreed with this funding model? Amtrak! The railroad asked Congressional authorizers to create a funding stream that would allow them to make direct investments in corridors the railroad believed to be strong markets for intercity passenger rail. Congress declined; partly because of a status quo-bias, and partly (I think) because former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson had spent the previous few years provoking Congress by promising to eliminate long-distance services. So now the only real avenue for expansion of the Amtrak network requires Amtrak to work with whatever states are willing to throw their hat in the ring.)

So now we're caught up. Congress has provided states and regional rail authorities with unprecedented levels of capital funding for intercity passenger rail expansion. However, these same applicants have also been left to their own devices to come up with the necessary operational funding, project management capacity, and local capital funding match. What's more, they’re being asked to do all this across multiple jurisdictional boundaries, relying on the support of dozens of elected officials who can be replaced at any time. All within the context of U.S. infrastructure construction, which involves longer construction schedules and higher prices.

It's not the network development structure I would have chosen. But it’s the reality of U.S. passenger rail in 2022, and will be at least through the end of the expiration of the surface transportation law through Fiscal Year 2026.

It’s also why advocacy coalitions like the Rail Passengers Association—and our state-level counterparts—are necessary. We, the users of the network, are able to push for the regional planning that the FRA and Amtrak lack the tools to facilitate. This strategy is working for Big Sky, for the Heartland Flyer corridor, for the I-20 Corridor, and a dozen other routes across the nation.

So join us in our work! Now would be a good time to see if your state has submitted an expression of interest. And if you want to join our advocacy efforts for the train in your community, let me know!