TRUE TO their promise made during the waning days of the last Congress, Amtrak supporters introduced a revised bill on January 31 that would provide about $12bn over the next 10 years for development of inter-city passenger services. The bill submitted in the Senate with strong bi-partisan support would allow Amtrak to issue bonds to finance upgrading of 11 corridors for 177 km/h operation. Federal government would fund 80% of the capital costs. Bondholders would earn federal tax credits instead of interest, lifting a substantial financial burden from Amtrak. Even the Northeast Corridor, which has already seen much public investment, would get $3bn to extend the length of route where Acela Express can run at 240 km/h.
These moves in Washington may have emboldened Amtrak, which published an ambitious capital investment programme on February 2. There are two versions. The first would cost taxpayers $1·5bn a year for the next two decades. An ’economy’ package at $16bn over the same period would permit Amtrak to maintain existing services, refurbish its trains and stations, and carry out safety improvements to the Hudson River tunnels connecting the Northeast Corridor to Penn Station in Manhattan.
The extra $14bn in Amtrak’s preferred option would pay for new trains and route upgrades, some of them in the 11 designated corridors, allowing speeds above 145 km/h. It hopes that investment by the private sector and the states would nearly equal the government’s share.
Amtrak President George Warrington said the lack of substantial investment in passenger trains in the USA is appalling compared with other developed countries and, if reversed, would help unclog overburdened highways and airways. Pointing out that government spending on Amtrak is dwarfed by money allocated to roads and air travel, he argues that the proposed use of federal funds would not violate Amtrak’s promise to meet its goal, mandated by Congress in 1998, of becoming self-sufficient by 2003, because Amtrak did not expect the elimination of capital subsidies that occurred soon after. Militating against Warrington’s plans are some powerful political opponents and an admission that Amtrak may be in deficit this fiscal year, which ends on September 30.