Amtrak expansion faces hurdles

WASHINGTON — Over the past few years, Amtrak’s plans for expansion have stirred the politics of some communities across the South and complicated the rail agency’s attempt to bolster passenger service in the region.

The former chief port executive of Mobile, Ala., Jimmy Lyons, said he was “scared to death” that Amtrak might take jobs away from the port, as the national rail system seeks to expand a stretch of track from the city to New Orleans for passenger travel. A city councilman, Joel Daves, said any city money spent toward expanding rail service in the Gulf Coast corridor was simply funding a “joy ride for the affluent.”

Despite the opposition, the city’s plans to green-light the expansion are underway, and congressional lawmakers, including Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., have backed the development. But Amtrak officials and rail experts said there were lessons to be learned from the tensions in Mobile, which may replay across the country as Amtrak tries to significantly expand passenger train service nationwide by 2035.

“I think it’s always a challenge,” Stephen Gardner, the president of Amtrak, said in an interview. “We do have to have a robust engagement. We’ve got to be able to tell the story of how services like these work and point to places where we’ve had big success.”

Expanding nationwide service has been an elusive goal for Amtrak. Since 1971 — when the publicly funded, privately operated rail agency was created — the routes it offers to customers have largely remained unchanged.

NATIONAL CORRIDORS

In the fall, Amtrak officials released details on its nationwide expansion efforts, which would cost $25 billion and take 15 years to complete. The vision was centered on creating corridors — similar to the highly trafficked segment between Boston and Washington — all across the country.

The goal, officials said, is to create rail offerings in areas where there are dense clusters of population and passengers looking for an alternative to airplanes for trips under 400 miles. Achieving this, they added, would help Amtrak achieve profitability and adapt its network to where the U.S. population is growing.

“The network has not changed with the nation,” Gardner said. “We’ve got to put service where the people are.”

Rail experts said the expansion plan had support from members of Congress and numerous state leaders. But they noted that the situation in Mobile showed the difficulties in realizing Amtrak’s growth plans, advanced by anti-rail advocates and corporate interests.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, a rail advocacy group, said it was not uncommon for communities to see the debate fracture into an argument over whether local funds should go toward subsidizing rail travel for the wealthy, and something Amtrak might see crop up in future expansion efforts.

“They will deploy the old arguments because they do resonate,” Mathews said, adding that Amtrak must shift the conversation toward the economic benefits of expanding rail service, because “as long as the conversation continues to be ‘why are we subsidizing land cruises for old people?’ you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Economic studies have been commissioned to show the benefits that passenger rail service bring to a community. In Alabama, a study by the University of Southern Mississippi showed that connecting Mobile to New Orleans could provide $11 million to $220 million a year in benefit to the state’s economy, with much of the variation depending on tourism growth. Nationwide, the Rail Passengers Association predicts that Amtrak’s services create $7 billion to $8 billion in annual economic benefit.

TRACK-SHARING

John Robert Smith, a former board chairman of Amtrak, said negotiating with freight rail companies could also delay Amtrak’s expansion plans. Freight companies own a majority of the United States’ railroad tracks, but federal law requires them to give Amtrak access and preference for use.

Historically, this arrangement has caused tension, Smith said. Amtrak has often argued with freight rail companies over terms the companies have proposed to mitigate any financial or operational impact that comes with sharing the tracks, he said. In Mobile, local officials made city funding for Amtrak expansion contingent on, among others, a study showing that the port of Mobile would not be harmed by Amtrak expansion. Freight rail corporations like CSX disagreed with previous iterations of the study and pressed for new analysis.

“If we don’t resolve the issue between passenger rail and the freights, all of the rest of what we’ve talked about is happy talk,” said Smith, who is now chairman of the advocacy group Transportation for America, referring to the bipartisan support surrounding railway expansion efforts.

Ross Capon, a former president of the Rail Passengers Association, said that in the past, airlines have opposed to passenger rail expansion. He said that over two decades ago, Southwest Airlines killed a high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston.

He added that the dynamic might be different now since airline executives were finding it more profitable to increase long-distance flights rather than short-haul trips.

“I would think most of the forward-looking airline executives would be more in the camp of ‘Amtrak is not going to compete seriously on the long-distance trips, and that’s all we care about,'” Capon said.

On Capitol Hill, the time for Amtrak to lobby for expansion funding is opportune, Amtrak officials and rail experts said. President Joe Biden is an avid supporter of the rail network. In Congress, politicians of both parties have shown their desire to expand nationwide service. The transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, has also indicated his desire to expand train service in America.

“We’ve been asked to settle for less in this country,” Buttigieg said last month in an MSNBC interview. “I just don’t know why people in other countries ought to have better train service and more investment in high-speed train service than Americans.”

Despite bipartisan support for Amtrak, the agency will still have to climb back from the damage it has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ridership in 2020 plummeted 95% at times. Projected revenue for this year fell by 50%. Amtrak officials have said the agency may not be back to normal until 2024.