AMTK: A Vision, Not a Plan. (Actually, Just a Map)

Amtrak’s “plan” for expanded service is making the rounds and much attention is being given to the map, which is conveniently the only detail released.

A closer look at the map reveals it is more like a compendium of existing advocacy efforts and preliminary conversations with states.

Amtrak’s new Northeast vision map reflects many projects that the passenger line has wanted for years, including:
Downeaster extension to Rockland ME has been under discussion for a few years. May start this summer.
Concord – Boston service study happening sometime. Don’t hold your breath on this.
Albany – Boston is MassDOT’s “East-West” commuter line. Maybe Amtrak’s echo in the Oval Office can make this happen.
Rutland to Burlington will start in 2022
St. Albans VT – Montreal is underway. Date uncertain
New York – Ronkonkoma. Amtrak is working with MTA for access
Service to Allentown and Scranton seems more remote
Reading – Philadelphia is under review in Pennsylvania, probably to be operated by SEPTA

To be sure, it is very welcome to see Amtrak considering a framework for expansion.

In fact, that in itself is big news. So is the $80 billion the Biden Administration has proposed as funding.

Also news is the plan for Amtrak to initiate service, then back out after a few years once the service is established, expecting the states to continue funding. Politically that is smart – nobody likes losing something.  It’s also smart from a practicality perspective: Amtrak takes the initial risk. If the service doesn’t work out, they deploy their equipment elsewhere and the state isn’t on the hook.

Can you call this map a plan if it hasn’t had a planning process? It’s a good vision, no doubt. In fact, vision is what Amtrak is calling it, correctly. “Plan” is the media’s inevitable term. Our job is to make you a little wiser about the difference.

For starters, it appears the freight railroads are not ready to get on board. Amtrak has brought that problem to the Surface Transportation Board and with President Biden’s proposal will come to the table with real money, which helps.

“ConnectUS” is the ironic name Amtrak has given this vision. Ironic because there are strikingly a lot of disconnected segments: Chicago to Louisville and then Nashville to Atlanta for example or New Orleans to Mobile and Montgomery to Atlanta. Perhaps we can forgive this, given this is both a first step and also a reflection of existing local desires. Still, making the connections will increase the ridership on the individual segments by giving more places to travel to.

Amtrak’s map is labeled as a 15-year vision. We expect things to play out in a much less orderly fashion, and probably favor projects with strong local advocacy backed with planning muscle to help snag grants.

It’s not clear from reporting so far if the large pot of intercity transportation money will be dispersed by Amtrak or the Federal Railroad Administration, or some other way. Amtrak has proven it can spend more cheaply than FRA funded grant programs and is more likely to allocate funds based on ridership success of the route and ease of getting it started and working with freight railroads.

The map has some new routes that make a lot of sense and seem likely to attract ridership matching the existing popularity of travel those ways: most obviously Cincinnati – Cleveland, Cincinnati – Chicago, Nashville – Atlanta and Las Angles – Las Vegas. Other routes are probably much less likely to happen: Scranton and Allentown to New York, for example.

At this stage, it doesn’t matter. A map is not a plan. A map is a great prop and advocacy tool to support the most significant proposal for federal support in Amtrak’s lifetime. We’ll see what happens next and offer Amtrak congratulations for how they are playing this opportunity.

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Associate Editor; Consultant for Rail Planning & Development
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Christopher has 15 years of railroad experience, starting as a Conductor on Cape Cod and 15 years of public policy advocacy and outreach work.  He is an expert on passenger rail economics, freight shippers, operations planning and development.   Christopher is the Executive Director of Vermont Rail Action Network, communicating the vision of better trains.  Previous clients have included All-Earth Rail, Champ P3, MBTA, Metro-North, Amtrak, Portland Tri-Met.