The blog of the Urban Institute
August 10, 2021

Congress’s Infrastructure Plan Could Be a Major Step toward Improved Intercity Rail—But Long-Term Commitment and Targeted Investments Are Necessary to Build Ridership

August 10, 2021

US intercity passenger rail—mostly operated by the national rail carrier, Amtrak—is a shadow of its former self, attracting just one-tenth of its per capita ridership in 2021 compared with the early 1920s (PDF). Americans fly 20 times as many miles and drive almost 90 times as much as they ride intercity rail. Given that trains have far smaller carbon footprints than cars or planes, this helps explain why the transport sector is the largest contributor to the US’s greenhouse gas emissions.

New action by the US Congress, however, could encourage train travel, as the bipartisan infrastructure bill would significantly increase railway investment. But to build ridership and ensure the long-term success of the program, policymakers and the administration would need to make additional investments and policy changes that prioritize intercity rail.   

The bipartisan infrastructure bill would be the largest multiyear rail investment in the US since the early 1980s

Spurred by President Biden, the Senate worked for several months on a bipartisan agreement to fund an infrastructure bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a reauthorization of general federal transportation support. This bill was passed by the Senate and now is being considered by the House (it may not ultimately be passed, or its details may change).

Compared with the president’s spring proposal, the bipartisan plan diminishes funds for public transit and electric vehicles—cutbacks that challenge the US’s goal to reduce carbon emissions. Yet the agreement commits to the administration’s effort to enhance intercity rail. Washington is frequently the only level of government that funds rail. In recent years, local and state governments have spent virtually none of their own money on intercity lines.

The bill would represent a large increase in rail spending; though the previous transportation bill dedicated only $10 billion to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), this plan would allocate at least $66 billion over five years to the FRA. This would be the first large rail expenditure since the 2009 stimulus.

Even so, adjusted for inflation and population, the rail expenditure would not be the largest in US history. Between 1978 and 1982, the US spent $47 (2021 dollars) per resident on rail annually, compared with $36 proposed per resident annually between now and 2026. 

Line chart showing Federal Railroad Administration spending per fiscal year

Rail funds in the bill would be allocated as such:

  • $22 billion for Amtrak, including for track improvements and train purchases (27 percent for the Northeast Corridor)
  • $36 billion for new and renovated corridors (up to two-thirds for the Northeast Corridor)
  • $8 billion for rail safety, such as grade separations that would also benefit freight rail

Under the proposal, $36 billion more could be allocated for rail by 2026, though this would require additional congressional action. The bill also provides $12.5 billion for National Infrastructure Investments, which could fund rail projects such as the Gateway Tunnel.

Two-thirds of rail funds would be distributed competitively by the secretary of transportation. Much of that could support Amtrak’s Connects US plan (PDF), which proposes to improve intercity rail nationwide with more frequent, faster service.

The bill could be a step toward the much higher levels of rail investment and ridership in other countries

US intercity rail is underused. Though Canadians ride trains at a similar rate, compared with France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom, the US stands out. Japanese residents, for example, travel an average of almost 1,300 miles on intercity rail annually, compared with just 24 miles for Americans.

Bar chart showing rail ridership in the US and Canada is far less common than in other G7 nations

One explanation for the difference is that the US has invested little in its rail system, routinely far less than in other nations. The United Kingdom spends about six times as much per capita on its railways. All investment combined, since 1995, the US has spent just 611 euros per resident—compared with more than 2,000 euros per resident for France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The proposed bill, if passed, would fill part of the gap, but not all of it.

Line chart showing the US and Canada have historically invested less in rail than peer countries

In previous years, the US has funded rail improvements, such as the $2 billion spent increasing maximum travel speeds to 90 mph from Chicago to St. Louis over 10 years. But such projects have failed to deliver significantly reduced travel times because signal systems have not been adequately upgraded and passenger trains usually operate on tracks owned by freight companies, which frequently delay Amtrak trains.

Unlike France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK, the US has barely invested in high-speed rail, or tracks that allow trains to operate at 150 mph or more. These services are attractive because they are much faster than driving and often faster than flying. They also head right downtown.

Current services link Chicago and St. Louis in 5 hours and 30 minutes five times a day. It’s hardly a surprise more people drive when it’s faster and doesn’t require waiting. World-class rail service would connect the cities in less than two hours, leaving every hour.

Compared with China, which has constructed almost 25,000 miles of high-speed rail since 2000, the US has built only 34 miles of high-speed track in the entire country. This track, a section of the Northeast Corridor, is used by the Acela, which began operating in 2000 after decades of public investment. Overall, though, Acela averages only 70 mph between Boston and Washington, DC. By comparison, the fastest trains in China average 167 mph on the 820-mile trip between Beijing and Shanghai. 

The US does move more goods by rail than its peers. But high-speed rail lines built elsewhere have been on new corridors, freeing up space on existing tracks for freight. Improved passenger and freight services are not in opposition.

Policy strategies can ensure improvements to US intercity rail are effective and long-lasting

This bipartisan infrastructure bill is a unique opportunity to improve US intercity railways. Yet change will take decades because rail investments require years of planning and construction. This large infusion of money would be wasted with ineffective implementation. As the plan advances, the secretary of transportation and policymakers could ensure it reaches its goals of improving intercity rail and boosting ridership through a long-term commitment to railways.

  • Allocate additional, long-term funding to rail, and focus strategically on projects that increase average speeds between large regions. The Senate-passed bill only devotes $12 billion specifically for intercity rail outside the Northeast. Yet demand for investment nationwide is enormous; California’s high-speed linelinking Los Angeles and San Francisco needs at least $50 billion for completion. Other proposals, like improvements on the Chicago to St. Louis run, a route from Atlanta to Charlotte (PDF), or one between Richmond and Raleigh, would together consume most of the allocated funding. Spreading dollars like peanut butter and covering as much of the nation as possible in small amounts wouldn’t help much because ridership depends on time-competitive trains—which requires big investment. And though five years of funding is a big deal, it must be supported by a longer-term commitment to rail infrastructure.
  • Launch an effort to reduce construction costs. US infrastructure construction costs are high compared with those abroad. Nowhere is this truer than in the Northeast Corridor. A recent estimate projects the line requires $117 billion to be upgraded to world-class standards—far more than is available under this legislation.
  • Learn best practices from other countries. Rail authorities like Amtrak and the FRA lack the experience to manage an effective rail system. These agencies should focus on improving investment performance by adapting foreign best practices. One concern with the proposed US law is that it would encourage investments in service on lines owned by freight companies, continuing to allow such companies to stall Amtrak services, which would reduce train reliability and speed. In Europe and Asia, the most popular and effective passenger rail services operate on their own tracks and run very frequently, options that are made possible because of well-staffed public rail infrastructure agencies with experience completing projects. 

The US could successfully move millions of trips onto trains, which would help the environment and increase access to mobility nationwide. But getting the policy and implementation correct is core to achieving those outcomes.


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