Happening Now

Europe Eyes U.S. 'Rail Renaissance'

October 27, 2023

by Madison Ned Butler / Communications Manager

No doubt spurred by 2021’s passage of the largest single Federal investment in passenger rail in U.S. history, Europe’s passenger rail leadership continues to try to spark a continuing conversation in the U.S. about the pitfalls and opportunities we face – and how they might help.

Since last year, your Association staff has agreed to several meetings with trade representatives from various European countries. And your CEO, Jim Mathews, was invited to share his insights at a railway interiors event in Vienna next month. Two weeks ago Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador to the U.S., invited me and several other industry and rail-adjacent folks to an event at the embassy in Washington, DC, intended to bring Europe’s experienced rail leaders into the mix.

Ambassador Pitteloud welcomed us to listen to FRA, DOT, and Amtrak panelists, as well as a separate panel of contributors from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. To share this space with Deutsche Bahn, major manufacturers, and those working on High-Speed initiatives internationally was an eye-opening experience for many attendees. The passenger rail benefits ingrained in modern European culture are unfathomable to many Americans. In the same way, some Europeans are confused by the paradoxical nature of transportation in the United States.

For those from regions which have dedicated rights-of-way or dedicated track exclusively for passenger rail, the idea of passenger rail experiencing a freight delay was worthy of their reaction — candid shock. For others, the opportunity to be an active contributor to the American passenger rail renaissance drew them to attend. As service expands across the States, which manufacturers will submit bids for Amtrak and freight RFPs? Overall, a sense of moral obligation captivated attendees from all countries. “Track is Back,” the event proclaimed, and we are ushering in a new era of transit.

Michael Lestingi, FRA’s Executive Director, pointed to the amazing opportunities in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Ideas we collectively advocated – through a pandemic and while Amtrak budget cuts were on the table – were now official policy, voiced by the FRA’s top executive. The air of hope was around us as John Robert Smith introduced the first panel.

Franz Wilhelmstoetter, US Managing Director of Dr. Sauer & Partners, was joined by Jossen Andreas, SBB CFF (Swiss Railroad) and Jorge Rios, DB E.C.O. North America, Vice President. Whether digging tunnels through the Alps, incentivizing growth for rural ridership, or pushing for more high-speed options, it seems we’re not alone in some of our needs and wants. However, places that have dedicated funding, dedicated rights-of-way, and stable, consistent funding do not have the logistical headaches faced by many U.S. passengers.

The second panel featured Anna Lynn Smith, VP of Strategy and Planning at Amtrak, Christopher Coes, Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at U.S. DOT, and Dean S. Del Peschio, Chief Strategy Officer, Maryland Commuter Rail. They agreed that the BIL has created opportunity within their work and discussed not only their current projects but future efforts they’re most excited about.

I took the opportunity to talk with Chris Coes, and to ask what advice he would share for passenger rail advocates in the U.S. Given that so many projects are on a 5-10+ year timeline, I asked, how do Americans – notorious for their short attention spans and love of instant gratification – hold hope and patience while the projects we all work so hard to create and support come to fruition?

“One of the ways that a group of ‘bandits’ convinced a number of Senators along the Gulf Coast that bringing passenger rail back was so important, was that they didn’t deal with Amtrak or the freight railroads. Let’s just bring the train back for one ride,” Coes said. “Through that, advocates and traditional passengers lined up all the way from Florida to New Orleans…That is something you should continue to do.

“And second,” he continued, “while the concrete may not be forming, the dirt may not be flying, the work is happening…Advocates should say ‘hey Mayor, hey Representative, you should include our letters of support in your application.’ Officials will be asking ‘how many people want this project?’ For us, that lets us know when it comes to a local match, there is actually some energy – that the community actually wants this project. Lastly, these investments are job-creating opportunities…So we’re trying to create job opportunities to activate young people across the country.”

My experience at the embassy events was one of those post-pandemic moments to be savored. Gathering with folks from all over to dine, discuss, and debate what’s next brings hope that if we stay on track, the future of U.S. passenger rail will be brighter. By including outside voices, especially of those who have vastly more robust service, we can be better informed advocates committed to a longer term vision that will benefit generations to come.