By Christopher Harper
Joe Biden and I have at least one thing in common. We both love riding the rails.
Unfortunately, Biden’s proposed $80 billion for Amtrak over the next 10 years is a train wreck.
Biden rode the line between his home in Delaware and Washington, D.C., during which he says he has traveled more than two million miles.
My mileage is somewhat above 100,000 miles. But I’ve traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and China, the world’s best rail system. I’ve slogged through subways in Chicago, Washington, London, New York, and Guangzhou, China.
Much of Biden’s plan is to repair Amtrak lines, particularly in the Northeast Corridor that runs between Boston and Washington. That’s like repairing your aging car rather than buying a new one. At this point, it’s time to quick paying for a fix-me-up.
To make rail travel a serious alternative for Americans, people must see trains as a fast and easy way to get from place to place.
That’s a tough sell without high-speed trains. In 2019, for example, Americans traveled an average of 15,000 miles by automobile, 2,100 miles by plane, and 1,100 miles by bus. Amtrak’s contribution was less than 20 miles per person. Even in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak carried only six percent of intercity travelers.
According to the best available estimates, Americans bicycle 8.5 billion passenger miles a year compared to Amtrak’s 6.5 billion passenger miles. With less traffic than bicycles, Amtrak certainly doesn’t deserve the current $2 billion in annual subsidies unless it reinvents itself.
What’s more is that Biden has a terrible history in trying to make the rails better.
When Biden was tasked with implementing the Recovery Act in 2009, the $8 billion dedicated in the bill to high-speed trains was his favorite initiative. He equated it to the beginning of the interstate highway system, but it was a bust.
“The high-speed rail program that Vice President Biden and our team proposed ended up being a pretty big disappointment,” said Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation at the time.
For example, the high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles won’t be ready until 2033, if at all.
His current play includes the expansion in the South and West, with new rail lines connecting cities like Nashville and Atlanta, Houston and Dallas, and bringing back service between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Amtrak has also proposed “enhanced services” on nearly all of its routes in the northeastern United States, with CEO Bill Flynn saying a priority would be rebuilding the “many major tunnels and bridges” in the Northeast Corridor.
Meanwhile, Americans will continue to fly in aircraft and drive their cars because nothing really will have changed after spending $80 billion.