April 1, 2042
Washington – the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK) expects ridership in fiscal 2042 to top 10 billion and net profit to top $8 billion, after an aggressive program of expansion. Ridership in fiscal 2041 was 9.8 billion, predominantly on a network of regional lines in the Northeast and California, and net profit was $7.3 billion, split about evenly between the core regional networks and the national high-speed intercity train network.
The members of the board who resigned during the shakeup of 2014 sent Amtrak President Natalie Biden a letter of congratulations for Amtrak’s achievement of its long-term goals of fiscal sustainability, network expansion, and mode shift; Amtrak is credited with spearheading the growth of mass transit use in the United States, which as of the 2040 census stands at 30% of commuters.
Although the members who resigned in 2014 and 2015 left the railroad indefinitely and pursued other interests or joined the private sector, an insider within the company who spoke on condition of anonymity explained, “The entire structure of Amtrak was put together in the reforms from 2013 on. The people who implemented them were simply unfortunate enough to get caught in the scandals about the cost overruns, but the people who took charge later just implemented the original plan.”
Amtrak had initially proposed to spend $117 billion on implementing high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, but backlash due to the plan’s high cost led to a scaling back behind the scenes. After the regulatory reforms of 2013, a new team of planners, many hired away from agencies in Japan, France, and Switzerland, proposed a version leveraging existing track, achieving almost the same speed for only $5 billion in upfront investment. They explained that the full cost of the system would be higher, but service could open before construction concluded, and profits could be plugged into the system.
To get the plans past Congress, President Barack Obama had to agree to limit the funds to a one-time extension of Amtrak’s funding in the transportation bill S 12, which would give it $13 billion for expansion as well as ordinary operating subsidies over six years. To defeat a Senate filibuster, the extension had a clause automatically dismantling Amtrak and selling its assets in case it ran out of money, leading to the first wave of resignations by longtime officials.
Despite assurances that both the cost and the ridership estimates were conservative, the program was plagued with delays and mounting costs, and to conserve money Amtrak needed to cancel some of its money-losing long-distance routes and engage in a controversial lease-back program selling its rolling stock to banks. The modifications required to let the Shinkansen bullet trains decided for the system run in the Northeast pushed back the completion of the first run from the middle of 2015 to the beginning of 2017. The president and most of the board as well as the engineers resigned in 2014, and many of their replacements resigned in the subsequent two years. When the reformed system opened in 2017, it was still incomplete because some of the high-speed segments had no funding yet, travel time from Boston to Washington was four hours and a quarter, rather than the promised three and a half.
2017 was also the last year in which Amtrak lost money. Ridership on the Northeast Corridor intercity trains topped 20 million, and in 2018 it operationally broke even, allowing it to use $1.5 billion in unspent S 12 money on completing the full system by 2020. To simplify its temporary deals with track owners in Connecticut and Massachusetts, it made a complex deal with the Northeastern commuter railroads in which it took over operations, with existing amounts of state money lasting until 2022. The primary purpose was to allow rapidly moving workers between divisions, away from commuter trains, which were being streamlined to reduce staffing, and toward the growing high-speed rail market. A similar deal was made in California, where Amtrak leveraged its operation of commuter trains in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Areas and its fledgling profits to take control of the California High-Speed Rail system, whose initial operating segment opened in 2019.
Although industry insiders believed that the takeover was intended entirely to streamline labor issues, in 2020 Amtrak announced a reorganization, in which commuter trains within each metropolitan area would be run without respect for state boundaries or previous agency boundaries. Starting with the preexisting fare union with the MBTA, from which it bought Boston’s commuter rail operations, it entered into fare union and schedule coordination agreements with the major cities in the Northeast and California, allowing the local commuter rail lines to act as complements to the urban subway networks. Although this had been hinted in the original plans drawn up in 2013, the separation of agencies and Amtrak’s focus on building the core high-speed network delayed this.
Together with aggressive construction of extensions and long-desired urban commuter rail projections, usually at much lower cost than advertised in the 2000s and 10s, the changes led to a rapid increase in ridership. Together with the commuter lines, Amtrak’s ridership was 700 million in 2020. By 2030, it had risen to 4 billion. By then, high-speed lines opened along more corridors, connecting from the Northeast to Albany, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta; from California to Phoenix and Las Vegas; and in the Midwest from Chicago to Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis. Most, though not all, are operated by Amtrak, with seamless inter-railroad operation through trackage rights, and in many of these cities, beginning with Chicago, the local transit agencies engaged in the same commuter rail modernization afforded to the Northeast and invested in additional rapid transit or light rail lines. The effect on the share of commuters using public transportation to get to work was large. In the Philadelphia region it rose from 12% in 2020 to 36% in 2040, in the Chicago region it rose from 15% to 39%, and in the Los Angeles region it rose from 9% to 40%.
Not all commentators and transportation professionals agree with Amtrak’s role in the trend of rising public transportation use. The libertarian Reason Foundation and its associated Siemens Institute for Urban Development both note that the largest cities in the United States also upzoned to allow for taller buildings near train stations. SIUD’s statement cites 2020s development near Secaucus Junction in New Jersey, two stops away from Penn Station, as one example. The head of the Reason Foundation’s transportation program said, “Amtrak is fully unionized, and this may spell problems in the future,” adding that so far it had only been able to maintain productivity because of its fast growth, but in the future layoffs and pay cuts may be necessary.
On the left, the Mayor of Atlanta attacked Amtrak’s focus on profits and its unwillingness to help set up regional rail in the South. He said, “We have a lot of people here who think that trains are just something for rich people. I know that it’s not true – I mean, this focus on public transit began back when it was opposite – but nowadays rich cities like New York and Los Angeles have this infrastructure and Atlanta doesn’t. None of the people who set up this system intended to have this racial effect, but it’s there, and we need to address it.” Both members of Congress representing part of the city released statements agreeing with the mayor’s remarks, and one of their staffers, speaking on background, added that she finds it suspect that the revival of public transportation in the US began just as African-American motorization accelerated in the early years of this century.
In fact, Senator Katrina Schweitzer (D-MT) announced her intention to introduce an amendment to the existing Climate Change Reduction Acts, to lower the carbon and pollution taxes collected from rural states. Beltway insiders consider the friction point to be remarks made by several members of the Amtrak board in the early 2030s, taking credit for near-unanimous Northeastern and Californian support for the first such act in 2030. Sen. Schweitzer’s office released numbers showing a divergence between living standards in the Northeast, the West Coast, and the Chicago region, and the rest of the country, coming from reduced urban costs of living and increased rural costs. As an alternative, Sen. Schweitzer’s office added, Amtrak should be required to spend its profits on expanding to the South and Interior West. Amtrak ruled out such a move in the short run.