Friday, November 14, 2008

What's in store for Amtrak?

During most of his time in the U.S. Senate, Vice President-elect Joe Biden commuted daily by train between his Delaware home and the national capital. He's been talking for much of that time about the need for expanded investment in the national passenger rail system.

While we're still waiting to see what priorities will manifest in the upcoming Obama administration, many people see one of the winners in any scenario to be Amtrak. Former Amtrak board member Michael Dukakis is quoted in a Bloomberg article as saying that the Obama administration may be the most "train-friendly administration in history."

What might this mean for Amtrak? Here are two things that you can expect:
  • Better maintenance. The Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 includes Amtrak's first five-year reauthorization in nearly a decade, allowing the company to better plan for and schedule both preventative and restorative maintenance. Everything from the tracks to the stations as well as the train cars themselves are in need of maintenance too-long "deferred." That will probably come to an end next year.
  • New services. In addition to maintenance, the Railroad Safety Improvement Act also calls for studying the development of true high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor--trains that could reach speeds comparable to the 300+mph of France's AGV and tracks that can handle those speeds. (Amtrak's Acela, by comparison, barely manages 85mph for most of its D.C.-Boston route because the tracks are unsuited to even its top speed of 150mph.)

In the last election, California voters also gave their approval to state funding for high-speed rail on the West Coast. Details haven't been worked out yet, and to what extend the California High-Speed Rail Project would operate as part of Amtrak California (the state's partnership with Amtrak) remains unclear. The intent, however, is to "procure extensively-proven high-speed train technology from Europe or Asia" to link Los Angeles to San Francisco at an initial cost of $45 billion. That's a bold initiative, and one that is long overdue.

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