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Make no little plans: Trains are on Biden’s radar

Occasional Observer
According to Amtrak, in 2019 32 million people rode its trains but by 2035 the Biden plan would add another 20 million passengers.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work. . .”

Daniel Burnham, architect, 1910


Certainly President Biden has repeated this quote from over a century ago in order to inspire the country to get behind his mammoth American Jobs Plan (formerly the Infrastructure Bill), currently being thrashed out in Washington. And one portion of the Bill concerned with funding railroads has a special place in the President’s heart. When political commentators and members of Congress, especially Republicans, speak about infrastructure, they tend to focus on “roads and bridges”. But President Biden has another dream in his head which has not gotten nearly as much public attention: Trains!

During his 49 years in Washington, D.C., as a senator, vice-president, and now president, Biden has been a regular train commuter to his home near Wilmington, Delaware, 95 miles away from Washington. By his own estimate, he has made the trip between the two cities more than 7,000 times. More than any other prominent politician, he knows and loves railroads.

The budget for Biden’s American Jobs Plan has been reduced from $2.25 trillion dollars to $1.7 trillion to now much less still. However, the actual infrastructure portion of the bill, while also reduced in order to get some Republican support, is still significant. As of now the portion of the Infrastructure Bill allotted for trains has gone from $85 billion down to $55 billion, still a large amount.

The major passenger rail carrier in the U.S. is Amtrak, a battered and underfunded federal railroad system patched together from the remains of several existing lines. According to Amtrak, in 2019 32 million people rode its trains but by 2035 the Biden plan would add another 20 million passengers. The Plan would add another 30 new routes, including to major cities such as Los Vegas, Nashville, and Phoenix which now have no service at all, and many new trains on previously existing routes. 

For the last several years,  Amtrak, the main recipient of railroad funding, has gotten less than $3 billion per year from the federal government. The portion of the Democrats’ bill earmarked to fund railways has been set at $80 billion (the Republican plan calls for only $20 billion.) While $80 billion is a huge amount, it does not seem anywhere near enough to fund all that is proposed. 

Currently, unlike China, Japan, and much of Europe, the U.S. has no high speed “bullet” trains. While there is no universal speed standard for high speed trains, a generally accepted figure for operational (as opposed to theoretical) speed is 160 mph. The fastest American train so far is the Acela, which runs between Washington and New York. It can get up to 160 MPH but the track and route are not up to sustaining such a high speed, and its average speed between cities is now less than 70 mph. 

A new high speed line from San Francisco to Los Angeles that has been in the works for a decade but has not gotten very far to date may become the nation’s first “bullet train” if Biden’s current plan is approved by Congress. Another proposal envisions a vastly improved route and new trains from New York to Boston, cutting that trip from more than four hours to an hour and a half.  

One of the largest, most important rail proposals is the Gateway Project which plans new tunnels under the Hudson River but includes much more at either end. Two new single track tunnels to supplement two existing ones are proposed. The existing tunnels, built in 1910, were inundated and severely  damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 but closing them down now for repairs would cripple service on the line for the 200,000 daily passengers. Meanwhile, the tunnels are in danger of collapsing. Current cost estimates for the new tunnels are at least $12 billion. But the rest of the Gateway project, which includes a number of projects including a couple of bridges between the tunnels and Newark, N.J., and connecting the tunnels to the new Pennsylvania Station and various facilities connecting to Amtrak’s route to Boston is likely to cost overall at least $30 billion.

The Biden rail plan envisions needed repairs on all lines, including commuter  and freight rail lines, the intercity routes, and several high speed lines. 

With highways and air travel overloaded, greatly improved, modernized train service will help to take some of the pressure off these modes of travel. More energy efficient, less polluting, and less expensive per passenger mile to operate than cars and planes, trains make great sense. If a robust, extensive system can be created within the next decade or two, we will all stand to benefit.

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville. 

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