Given President Biden’s storied affair with Amtrak, it stood to reason his administration’s first major infrastructure proposal would include big money for the nation’s passenger rail system. And, indeed, the president wants to inject $80 billion into the network, a potential boon for rail transit across the country — including in Boston, the crown city at the northern end of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.
So what’s on the docket? Could we finally see world-class high-speed rail? Maybe trips to New York at much lower fares? Or how about building that North-South Rail Link, to let trains continue past South Station to points beyond?
Not so fast, experts caution. While the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. — by far Amtrak’s most popular and successful service — would undoubtedly benefit from the infrastructure plan, it probably wouldn’t be elevated to the stuff of science fiction. The existing rail line has just too many twists and turns as it winds along the New England coastline to accommodate bullet-train style service.
“They’re going to make sure that there are upgrades that will allow the existing system to go as fast as you can possibly get, given all the curves and angles,” said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based Eno Center for Transportation. “But the money is not in there for the quantum jump from Acela speeds. It’s not going to be nearly enough to put true, Japanese-style high-speed rail on the corridor. But there’s still a lot of good work that can be done with any portion of this $80 billion.”
And the Northeast Corridor would only get a portion of that money, presuming Congress adopts Biden’s proposal. Even $80 billion only goes so far in a national transit system subject to the political demands and infrastructure needs of a place as big as the United States.
After Biden’s proposal was released on Wednesday, Amtrak emphasized the money would be especially helpful for its existing plan to expand service across the country, whether by beefing up current routes or adding new ones. This work alone could cost $25 billion or more.
New England, meanwhile, could benefit from these expansions in several ways. Amtrak’s plans include additional service between Boston and Albany, including stops in Springfield; an extension of the Downeaster service between Boston and Maine further north; and new service to Concord, N.H. — a proposal that delights New Hampshire rail advocates who have long pushed for a passenger service in the state.
“It’s a huge opportunity for New Hampshire,” said Peter Griffin, the longtime president of the New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association. “It’s accessibility and economic development. We rely solely on highways.”
Nationally, the expansion plans include new service on shorter corridors involving cities such as Las Vegas, Nashville, and Duluth by 2035. Most rail analysts say the best way to expand a national system is to link cities located in similar regions, where relatively short train rides might be more attractive for travelers than the hassle of flying.
But improving the current system, including the Northeast Corridor, would also be a major consideration of any infrastructure bill. In a statement issued Wednesday, Amtrak said the money would help to reduce some of the Northeast Corridor’s massive repair backlog, which tops $30 billion, cutting delays and speeding up travel. The White House’s proposal also noted the need to “modernize” the corridor.
About half of that work is already funded, said Davis. But the most crucial and big-ticket item — the so-called Gateway Project, a $10 billion-plus plan to replace deteriorating bridges and tunnels between New York and New Jersey — is not. That project has already been subject to years of political and financial wrangling.
Davis said that must-happen project would almost certainly be funded if Biden’s infrastructure proposal passes — either through the big pot of money allocated to Amtrak or through another pool Biden has proposed for important mega-projects. He noted that Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer represents New York, further bolstering the project’s odds.
Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams also pointed to the Gateway project as well as another key tunnel under Baltimore as initiatives along the Northeast Corridor that could benefit under Biden’s proposal.
The corridor requires plenty of other infrastructure work, such as bridge and track repairs and measures to protect the rail system from intensifying weather and sea level rise associated with climate change, said T.J. Girsch, a Quincy resident and the vice chair of the Rail Passengers Association.
This work might not be as headline-grabbing, but those repairs could allow for faster and more frequent service while protecting the rail network from further deterioration, he said.
“A lot of places where there is existing track is capable of 150 miles per hour, but . . . they can only do that where the track is in good enough shape and sufficiently straight,” Girsch said. “A lot of it is blocking and tackling — the stuff you should have been doing all along.”
The Northeast Corridor Commission, an organization that helps oversee the service, is in the process of developing a detailed 15-year plan for infrastructure improvements in the Northeast, which could be finalized by summer.
But upgrading the Northeast Corridor to a world-class high-speed system capable of traveling over 200 miles an hour would likely be too expensive even with the added funding, because it would require huge amounts of real estate purchases and infrastructure work to straighten the many curves through southern New England, said Davis. And even more ambitious ideas that sometimes get tossed around by rail advocates — like a nationwide, coast-to-coast high-speed rail system — would require money well beyond what the White House has put forward.
“You’d need to add another zero” to the price tag, Davis said.