Back in the dark ages of 2008, the 7:15 a.m. Acela train from Boston chugged into New York at 10:45 a.m., a leisurely 3.5-hour trip.
Then President Barack Obama took office, and his administration showered $8 billion into high-speed rail projects, aiming to drag American transportation into the 21st century.
Now, train 2155 still leaves at 7:15 but is scheduled to arrive in New York at . . . 10:47 a.m.
Yes, two minutes slower.
As President Biden pushes to spend $80 billion on Amtrak in his infrastructure package, both the president and members of Congress will, hopefully, reflect on the successes and failures of the last time the federal government poured money into passenger rail. The truth is that money spent in Obama’s stimulus was spread so thin, and on so many low-impact projects, that it did not have the transformative effect its proponents had hoped for. And that disappointing outcome can’t be blamed solely on the GOP governors who notoriously snubbed federal funds: California happily cashed its check, but its once-ambitious high-speed rail project has shrunk into an unfinished train between those major metropolises of Fresno and Bakersfield. Massachusetts took the “high-speed rail” money, too, and the result is a train between Springfield and Greenfield that averages 40 miles per hour.
This time, the main purpose of the money ought to be to help Amtrak improve the 457-mile Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, the tracks that carry those Acela trains and many others. The Northeast, the densest part of the country, is where train travel’s popularity has been proven; where the tracks belong to Amtrak or public entities that won’t clog them with freight traffic; where rail travel is critical to the economy; and where a failure of the system would create major paralysis. And while the long-term impact of COVID-19 on travel patterns remains to be seen, there’s no reason to imagine ridership in the Northeast will suffer more than elsewhere. Indeed, business travelers may end up with more need to hopscotch between cities in the Northeast if satellite offices and hybrid work schedules become the new normal.
Of course, it’s easy for Bostonians to say the service that we use belongs at the front of the line. But regional differences in infrastructure spending are okay; maybe New Orleans doesn’t need intercity reliable rail any more than we need levees. In the middle of the country, the mere existence of a train route between cities might not be enough to overcome longstanding car and plane travel habits.
And the Northeast Corridor faces a dire maintenance backlog, as one report after another has documented. According to the Northeast Corridor Commission, the state-of-good-repair needs are estimated at $45.2 billion. The route’s tunnels under Baltimore date to the Grant administration. Portal Bridge in New Jersey is such a bottleneck that frustrated commuters there started a GoFundMe to raise the $920 million it needs. Amtrak has been warning for years about the tracks under the Hudson River, but efforts to bore a new tunnel have repeatedly stalled. “Without warning, [Northeast Corridor] service could be severed for days, weeks, or longer,” the commission notes. “A loss of all NEC services for just one day would cost the economy an estimated $100 million.”
Still, when word got out about the $80 billion, Amtrak released a map of how it could use the money in a way that’s big on expansion proposals that will warm the hearts of rail nuts, bringing service to such major economic hubs as Rockland, Maine, Eau Claire, Wis., and Macon, Ga. No surprise there: Since Amtrak relies on federal funding, it’s always had to play politics in its scheduling. Why would senators in Wisconsin or Georgia vote for billions for Amtrak unless they get a ribbon to cut?
But the Northeast isn’t just where rail is most important now — it’s where it has the most potential. If Amtrak and commuter agencies can run more trains in the Northeast Corridor, and run them more quickly, they can get cars off the road and short-haul flights out of the sky, which could both improve the convenience of travel and reduce unhealthy and planet-warming pollution. Imagine frequent high-speed MBTA service between Boston and Providence, or replacing Amtrak’s 1907-vintage drawbridge over the Connecticut River, which currently limits the number of trains between Boston and New York.
In theory, of course, upgrades in the Northeast and new services elsewhere aren’t mutually exclusive. When the Obama administration largely bypassed the Northeast Corridor in its high-speed program, it insisted that didn’t signal any less commitment to the route. If the final number really ends up being $80 billion, then there should be enough to fix the corridor and also expand other services.
But as Congress debates Biden’s infrastructure plan, members of the region’s congressional delegation shouldn’t leave anything to chance. According to an Amtrak spokesman, it’s ultimately up to Congress to divide up the money. The Northeast Corridor’s needs have been known for years, and if there’s big money coming for Amtrak, replacing the route’s Civil War-era tunnels and century-old bridges has to be the first priority.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.