During the 36 years he served as a senator in Washington, DC, United States President Joe Biden famously commuted 90 minutes each way every day on an Amtrak train from his home in a suburb of Wilmington, Delaware.
He knows the zigs and zags of the US rail system perhaps better than anyone else who has sat in the Oval Office.
Not surprisingly, Amtrak is thrilled with the $80bn train ambitions the White House recently unveiled. But some transportation experts say Biden’s American Jobs Plan – a blueprint for reviving the nation’s infrastructure, including its railroads – is underwhelming and misguided.
The 12,000-word document mentions “high-speed” internet and broadband eight times, but not once does it cite “high-speed rail”.
Rather than a rail revolution, Biden’s proposed $2.25 trillion infrastructure package focuses on incremental service improvements, fixes to broken parts of the rail network and improving what Amtrak already does decently.
Yet Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s transportation secretary, has said high-speed rail is a “no-brainer” and that Americans should have the same quick trains as Japan, China, Italy and the United Kingdom.
But the term “high-speed rail” could prove toxic for many Republicans and even moderate Democrats who see it as synonymous with huge waste, construction project delays and altogether wishful thinking.
But Biden loves trains and seems committed to moderate steps. So transportation planners are looking ahead at a major opportunity to strengthen Amtrak’s existing network, modernise the busy Northeast Corridor, bulk up intercity passenger rail and increase freight rail safety.
Amtrak back on track?
Kimberly Woods, an Amtrak spokesperson, said that Biden’s proposal “rises to the urgent challenges of our time, and will provide new and improved train service to millions of additional passengers”.
She told Al Jazeera that Amtrak is eager to work with the administration as specifics of the rail programme are released in the coming months by White House and Congressional leaders ironing out details of Biden’s infrastructure proposal that dedicates some $621bn to a wide variety of transportation projects.
But for Amtrak, spending federal dollars on running more trains — on time — also does not entail “high-speed rail”.
Woods emphasised that the repairs and enhancements will “create jobs, improve the quality of life, reduce carbon emissions, and generate economic growth”.
She also referred to the Northeast Corridor (NEC) as “a critical transportation link” for major metropolitan economies with dozens of bridges, stations and tunnels “that are beyond their design life and in need of immediate replacement or rehabilitation”. NEC maintenance alone could cost close to $50bn.
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said that “President Biden’s infrastructure plan is what this nation has been waiting for”, adding that the US needs a rail network offering “frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable train service”.
To coincide with Biden’s infrastructure announcement, Amtrak released its Connects US map last month showing upgraded lines and proposed new services by 2035, including rail connections to cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Columbus and Nashville. None of those urban hubs are currently a part of Amtrak’s national grid.
Though transportation advocates are generally excited about Amtrak’s inclusion of more population centres, sceptics have expressed serious doubts about the utility of new spurs to little-known places such as Rockland, Maine, and Duluth, Minnesota.
While residents of Scranton, Pennsylvania and Cheyenne, Wyoming will undoubtedly appreciate connections to the nearest big city, such rail projects may not be economically profitable in a country where people are spread from coast to coast.
In addition, car, plane and bus may be preferable modes of getting around due to convenience, speed or cost. Critics say the plans should focus on places where new ridership would be most likely to hop on the rails with robust new options.
‘Do it well in one region’
For Jonathan Marty, a rail enthusiast and urban planning graduate student at Columbia University, Biden is not aiming high enough.
Marty is one of the administrators in the Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, which is known informally as NUMTOTS and has more than 218,000 mostly millennial members.
Marty told Al Jazeera that many in his group — generationally very committed to public transit and to the climate — feel that the Biden vision is somewhat mediocre and does not advance the sort of inter-urban connectivity seen in much of Europe and East Asia.
“We’d like to break the global oil supply chain, decrease carbon emissions, revitalise certain regional economies and move away from auto and air travel,” he said, arguing that high-speed rail at the centre of the Biden plan could “kill several birds with one stone”.
“[Biden] is always talking about how he’s a rail fan,” Marty said, explaining that the proposed funds appeal to “transit nerds and score Americana points with voters”.
“I have fond memories, too, of riding [Amtrak] and eating overpriced pizza and beer in the food car. But, as it stands, we should not be so proud of Amtrak, given how far behind comparable countries we are,” Marty added. “I want a president who’s upset at the pitiful state of Amtrak.”
Like many of his age and progressive political persuasion, Marty speaks glowingly of the proposed high-speed rail map that has made the rounds on Twitter — originally created in 2013 by Alfred Twu, a graphic designer.
While Marty acknowledges the topographic issues with Twu’s high-speed rail scheme, as well as some lines that pass through Indigenous lands, he embraces its ambitious and far-reaching spirit.
However, he says that Biden should “do it well in one region and prove for elsewhere that it’s a viable option”.
The Northeast Corridor — a megalopolis centering on New York City that connects rail destinations from Washington to Boston — is the consensus candidate for high-speed rail. Although Amtrak’s Acela Express trains currently reach 240 km/h (150 mph), the route averages 113 km/h (70 mph) — far less than the 257km/h (160 mph) standard for full high-speed rail.
On the West Coast, California High-Speed Rail is a publicly funded effort under construction and facing many hurdles to inaugurate the route from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Cascadia Rail has been gathering steam as a fast train to connect Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Private company Texas Central Railway aims to build a line from Dallas to Houston. And another private venture, Brightline, has begun operating a higher-speed train from Miami to West Palm Beach.
Buttigieg said last week that of the $20bn in the Biden proposal set aside for intercity passenger rail, some could “potentially” be used for California’s embattled bullet train. The secretary’s enthusiastic comments have also emboldened rail advocates in the Lone Star State.
Baruch Feigenbaum, senior managing director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank, describes the White House train plan as a “pretty massive expansion compared to the size of the network right now”.
But he told Al Jazeera that the text was “deliberately vague as to what’s going to happen” and left open-ended the question of how states will spend the rail money.
He also suggested that Amtrak’s geographically diverse plan contains “big money losers”.
“I don’t think we should have train envy, and there are a lot of reasons why,” Feigenbaum said, explaining why higher population and employment density are necessary for high-speed rail investment.
“We don’t have any lines outside the Northeast Corridor that are popular enough to justify building additional services,” he said, referring to the route that includes Biden’s old commute.
As vice president, Biden largely failed to jump-start high-speed rail under then-President Obama, whose American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $8bn for initiating 10 potential high-speed projects.
Eric Peterson, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, agrees that “the type of service that may be best for a particular corridor depends on myriad considerations”.
“The objective is to expand and improve the rail infrastructure and provide the share of federal funding that will make that happen,” he told Al Jazeera. “The amount of money in [Biden’s] proposed rail projects will address virtually every project that is currently in the pipeline, and many others.”
Experts such as Peterson suggest that any maps currently in circulation — official or unofficial — represent a mix of futuristic ideas with current infrastructure realities. All such possible rail changes must be adjusted through a long process combining public input with regulatory decisions from state and federal environmental reviews.
“My preferred alternative is to get the first high-speed rail project in the United States completed and successfully in service,” said Peterson. “Once Americans see and experience high-speed rail in America, they will clamour for and support more.”