When President Biden signs a $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law on November 15, the country’s transportation systems will get a huge and much-needed influx of federal funding, including one of our favorite, more environmentally friendly ways to travel—rail.
The sweeping and bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was passed by the House last week, aims to provide the country’s main rail operator, Amtrak, with $66 billion, the largest federal investment in passenger rail service since Amtrak was founded 50 years ago.
So, what is Amtrak going to do with all that money? The main goal is “to bring passenger rail to more people across the nation,” Amtrak said in a statement sent to AFAR.
For starters, the rail operator is going to invest more in the Northeast Corridor, a network that includes lines in New England, Connecticut–Westchester, New York City, the Mid-Atlantic North, and Mid-Atlantic South.
Amtrak plans to fund an ambitious 15-year Northeast Corridor project that would deliver more frequent service, reduce travel times, and add connections to some newer markets. Also on the agenda are major infrastructure and station projects for lines connecting Washington, D.C., and Boston, as well as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Springfield, Massachusetts, Amtrak stated.
In addition, the rail operator said it intends to replace the Northeast’s 45-year-old intercity Amfleet with new trains.
What about the rest of the country?
In an interview on Axios on HBO following the House passage of the infrastructure bill, Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn gave some clues as to which U.S. cities and regions could see new and improved rail service thanks to the influx in cash. They include:
- Arizona: Phoenix–Tucson
- Ohio: Cleveland–Columbus–Dayton–Cincinnati
- California and Nevada: Los Angeles–Las Vegas
- Tennessee: Nashville
“Those are essentially new routes where service practically does not exist today,” Flynn said in the interview. “I think Nashville would be a great place to stop,” he added, noting that the city doesn’t have any Amtrak service yet. “I mean, how many country-western songs involve trains?”
Amtrak told AFAR that nationwide funds would go to supporting new intrastate and long-distance passenger trains and infrastructure improvements for national routes, as well as making Amtrak stations fully ADA compliant—in other words, better trains, better tracks, and more accessible stations.
An investment in rail is also an investment in the environment
The rail funding news comes the same week that the United States pledged to step up its efforts to rein in carbon emissions at the United Nations climate talks currently taking place in Glasgow, Scotland.
In the United States, the transportation sector is the biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available), transportation accounted for 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, followed by electricity at 25 percent, and industry at 23 percent.
But rail travel is consistently one of the lowest carbon emitters—meaning that investing in rail is an investment in potentially lowering emissions. Within the transportation sector, road vehicles are the biggest culprit, accounting for a whopping 82 percent of those emissions, with aircraft accounting for 9 percent, and rail for just 2 percent (ships, boats, and other forms of transportation account for 7 percent combined), according to the EPA.
Amtrak reports that its electric trains are responsible for 70 percent fewer emissions per passenger mile when compared to a short-haul flight and about half the emissions when compared to a long-haul flight.
In short, if you opt to take a train versus a plane, your carbon output for that journey will likely be quite a bit lower. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been as easy to do in the United States, where the rail system has been notoriously behind in sophistication and scope compared to its international counterparts, including the high-speed rail networks of Europe.
Hopefully, that will soon change.
Associated Press contributed reporting.