Happening Now

Rail Passengers Lays Out Long-Distance Principles

February 3, 2023

By Jim Mathews/President & CEO

The Federal Railroad Administration this week kicked off what promises to be a whirlwind series of exciting full-day workshops around the country aimed at giving stakeholders a chance to shape the map of new and restored long-distance routes made possible by the historic investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Alongside Sean Jeans-Gail, our Government Affairs VP, I participated in the first two workshops held at Dept of Transportation headquarters in Washington, DC. We got a lot of good data and a solid running start examining services in the Southeast and Northeast regions, and got to see a lot of great ideas from state transportation officials, planners, and even Class I railroads as the workshops began to come together.

But we’re also taking the opportunity during these meetings to lay out some principles to guide everyone on these study teams, to keep some larger ideas in mind as we dive down into brainstorming details.

We think that even though structural forces in existing passenger rail statutes have incentivized growth of shorter corridors (less than 750 miles) serving only one or two states, long-distance routes represent a strategic interregional platform for adding new services and ensuring network fluidity.

Our overarching position in these sessions is that long-distance train routes form the foundation of the national passenger train network, with unique characteristics allowing them to connect congested urban areas and bring economically viable mobility to rural areas and small towns. A lot of these places are becoming more isolated from major cities as regional airline and intercity bus service disappears, and Congress underscored this when it laid out the terms for this study work.

When looking at restoring service on long-distance routes and introducing daily service on existing routes, the Rail Passengers Association believes we should focus on: 1, Filling gaps in the current network to create a grid and gateway system; 2, Increasing frequencies to allow daytime service to all stations; 3, Procuring high-performance trainsets suitable for overnight and longer distance trips, and; 4, Making track improvements that increase reliability and decrease trip times.

At a more basic level, we think that we should be looking – at a minimum – at offering more than one train per day in each direction on long-distance routes, and the idea of three-times per week routes should just be discarded outright. We’re also making sure that everyone in the study workshops stays focused on serving underserved and unserved populations, and areas of persistent poverty – which is what the legislation creating this process demands. And of course, we’re pressing hard on the need for new equipment, more personnel, and reasonable, accessible fares in keeping with the mission of serving the public that Congress has set out for Amtrak.

The next workshop is next week in Jackson, Miss., followed by Chicago, Ill., and then Denver, Colo. The settings will be different, and the route maps will be a little different, but the message will be the same.

If you want to follow along and share your own thoughts as part of this study process, you should go to https://fralongdistancerailstudy.org/ for frequent updates on study progress, and sign up for email updates, too. So far, 1,000 people have signed up for that list, and if you want the opportunity to supply your own feedback that will be a great mechanism to do it.