Amtrak might add more than 50 new routes. But they still won't be faster than a car | CNN Business (2023)

Washington, DC CNN

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill appears set to give passenger and freight rail $66 billion, an infusion that will likely expand where service is offered but does little to increase the speed of train travel in the US.

Amtrak has proposed spending its share of the infrastructure funding on more than 50 new routes, but those routes are significantly slower than typical car travel between the cities — sometimes as much or more than 40% at certain times of day.

A trip between Boston’s train stations and Albany’s train station would take 4 hours 20 minutes, more than an hour longer than a typical car trip between the destinations. A trip between Milwaukee and St. Paul’s train stations will take 6 hours 45 minutes, sometimes two hours longer than a car trip.

Amtrak told CNN Business that to calculate trip times for most of its proposed new routes it researched passenger train times in the mid-1950s to early 1960s and chose the best trip time. Amtrak said it picked that era because it gave a frame of reference, but it declined to say why it didn’t pick a more recent comparison.

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Routes between major cities (like Charlotte to Atlanta, San Antonio to Dallas, and Chicago to Cincinnati) will average speeds of less than 50 mph. That’s slower than new trains in Europe and Asia, which have approached 200 mph since the 1960s, and Africa, where a 200 mph train was introduced three years ago. The new Amtrak speeds even lag historic American trains, like the Hiawatha, which reached 100 mph and ran between Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis more than 50 years ago.

Amtrak might add more than 50 new routes. But they still won't be faster than a car | CNN Business (1)

A high-speed train was introduced in Morocco three years ago.

Fast trains are more expensive to operate, including the advanced safety equipment that’s needed for the highest speed to be possible. Amtrak is also slowed because it generally shares tracks with freight railroads that prioritize their own trains, forcing Amtrak trains to wait.

Transportation experts say Amtrak speeds that lag car or air travel may make it more difficult to attract new riders and build lasting political will for building world-class rail in the United States. Rail travel has long been disadvantaged in the US as the federal government invests far more in infrastructure that supports car and air travel. One of train travel’s selling points is that it’s greener and safer than other modes, like car travel, according to research.

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Amtrak declined to say why it is not proposing faster trips on its new routes.

“Congress created Amtrak for the purpose to connect America by rail on behalf of the federal government,” Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods told CNN Business in an email. “Amtrak is the only entity that offers a comprehensive national rail network. We have the national capabilities and expertise in place to operate these new routes.”

Woods said that Amtrak’s expansion would expand or improve rail service for 20 million more riders, and could efficiently serve 160 additional diverse communities. Amtrak declined to make executives available for interviews.

“This expansion provides reliable transportation for people who couldn’t afford air fare, who don’t have cars,” Billy Terry, director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University, told CNN Business. “A low to moderate income family can go to a family reunion, or get to more medical facilities.”

Amtrak’s catch-22?

Rail experts like Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, say that trip times are critical for attracting riders. The faster a trip is, the more people are generally likely to ride, they say.

Today on Amtrak’s most popular routes, the Northeast Corridor, train riders can travel between cities like DC and New York and New York and Boston, faster than a typical car route.

But when Amtrak recently released details of its expansion plans in the wake of the infrastructure bill, it didn’t offer fast trips. Instead, it offered lots of new routes across the nation. (The proposed routes are typical of slow speeds outside the Northeast Corridor, such as New Orleans to Houston, which takes 9 hours 18 minutes, a trip length that’s often 40% slower than a car trip between the train stations.) The new plans don’t appear to live up to President Biden’s publicly stated goals.

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Biden has spoken of sparking a “second great railroad revolution,” with faster trains that go more places.

Biden talked of a potential two-hour train ride between Atlanta and Charlotte, while speaking at Amtrak’s 50th anniversary this April.

Passengers walk along an Amtrak train on a track at Union station in Washington, DC on July 18, 2021. Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images The infrastructure bill is more about maintaining train service than upgrading it

Amtrak’s Atlanta to Charlotte route would take five hours, far longer than the two hours Biden spoke of, or the roughly four hours the trip can take by car.

CNN Business compared the trip times of Amtrak’s proposed routes with how long an equivalent car trip, using Google Maps data. Trip times varied depending on congestion and time of day, especially in the densest areas like New York City, but were generally far slower than car trips.

“We need to think much bigger than that as a country,” Harnish told CNN Business. “The trains should be at least as fast as [car trips appear on] Google Maps.”

Some Amtrak alternatives have shown more focus on comparing favorably with car travel.

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Brightline, a private company, says it offers train rides between Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida in 60 minutes, which is faster than a typical car trip between the two points. (Brightline halted service during the pandemic, but has said it’ll reopen later this year.) Brightline has said its goal is to connect pairs of cities and be faster, safer and greener than car travel. It’s also planning a high-speed route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Brightline, as a private company, can pick where it wants to operate, rather than aim to be nationwide like Amtrak. Amtrak spends about $4.25 billion a year to attempt to serve the entire country.

Trip times are crucial for people riding between city pairs, such as New York and DC, or Seattle and Portland, according to Neil Peterson, a transportation consultant who has studied the feasibility of high-speed rail in the US. Amtrak’s slow trip times are less significant on extremely long journeys, such as Seattle to Chicago, Peterson said, where passengers are likely to not be in as much of a rush.

Peterson said that Amtrak is trying to leverage the scarce public dollars it receives, so should look to the private sector to get involved. Brightline, for example, is planning a high-speed route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Texas Central, another private company, is developing a high-speed route between Houston and Dallas.

Amtrak’s new proposed routes include serving both corridors, but at much slower speeds. Amtrak has said it will consider the potential development of high-speed rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas as it determines how to prioritize new projects.

“We need to invest hundreds of billions in high-speed rail,” Peterson said. “It’s hard to believe that in a trillion dollar infrastructure package it’s wanting, but it definitely is on high-speed rail.”

The bill still needs to be passed in the House and signed by Biden, so exactly how much money rail receives, and how it’s split between passenger and freight trips may change.

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FAQs

Will Amtrak ever get faster? ›

Ongoing track enhancements between D.C. and New York will allow the new trains to travel 10 mph faster in segments with a 125 mph speed limit. Signal upgrades at various locations could eventually boost speeds from 45 mph to 80 mph.

How much faster is Amtrak than a car? ›

Trains are the Smart, Fast Way to Travel

A high-speed train would be three times faster than driving—2.5 hours vs.

Is Amtrak adding more routes? ›

Amtrak is initiating the work to deliver by 2035 more frequent, reliable and sustainable intercity passenger rail service to over 160 more communities and 20 million more passengers annually, as outlined in the Amtrak Corridor Vision.

Does Amtrak have a future? ›

WASHINGTON – Built for the future, visuals of Amtrak's newest trains reveal a modern customer experience. The new trains, Amtrak AiroTM, will start debuting in 2026 and operate on routes throughout the country.

Why are Amtrak trains limited to 79 mph? ›

Except for the high-speed Acela in the Northeast (and a lone stretch in Michigan), Amtrak is limited to a top speed of 79 mph because to go above that would require all kinds of upgrades to signals, gates, crossings, and ties, among other things.

Why do people take Amtrak instead of flying? ›

Train travel is often cheaper than flying, in part because you can generally take more with you before paying extra baggage fees. It can also be more convenient and relaxing than driving, especially if you'd be driving in an unfamiliar place or driving for many hours nonstop to get to your destination.

Are Amtrak trains faster than cars? ›

Trains are slower than cars in America because Americans are not serious about high speed rail. For instance, the recent derailment and crash of an Amtrak train near Seattle occurred because the so called “high speed” train needed to slow from 80 mph to 30 mph for a curve, and didn't.

What is the speed limit on Amtrak? ›

Federal regulators limit the speed of trains with respect to the signaling method used. Passenger trains are limited to 59 mph and freight trains to 49 mph on track without block signal systems. (See dark territory.)

What 4 States does Amtrak not go to? ›

Amtrak trains stop in almost all U.S. states. The exception is South Dakota, Wyoming, Hawaii and Alaska.

Does Amtrak serve all 50 states? ›

Amtrak Routes & Destinations

With more than 30 train routes throughout the United States, and some in Canada, Amtrak travels to over 500 destinations in 46 states, giving you the best views North America has to offer.

Why don't more people use Amtrak? ›

There are many reasons for this. There is limited service between cities (Amtrak says it runs 300 trains with about 87,000 passengers per day), freight is often prioritized over passenger service in the U.S., and trains and facilities are often outdated.

Why doesn t the US have better trains? ›

Property rights. One of the most expensive parts of building new rail lines these days is securing land along a relatively straight path (you can't run trains at high speeds along too sharp a curve). The U.S. has strong property rights which makes securing land exceedingly expensive.

Why is Amtrak so slow and expensive? ›

Taking trains in America is often much more expensive than flying because railways are owned by freight companies and charge Amtrak for their use. In addition, the government hardly subsidizes any part of passenger rail, which drives up prices.

Why do Amtrak trains slow down? ›

Waiting for freight trains is the largest cause of delay to passengers. Freight train interference — a dispatching decision made by a freight railroad to delay an Amtrak passenger train so that their freight trains can operate first — caused 900,000 minutes of delay in 2021.

Is Amtrak going electric? ›

The Airos will have bidirectional capabilities and operate at speeds up to 125 mph. They'll feature dual-power electric and diesel engines, which will reduce the time it takes for them to transition from electrified to non-electrified. Tracks aren't electrified on the West Coast, so those trains will be diesel-only.

Is Amtrak turning a profit? ›

What a difference two years makes. In fiscal 2019, Amtrak only lost $29 million on operations, and the budget estimates submitted to Congress in March 2020 predicted a break-even that year, followed by small but steady operating profits through 2025.

Why doesn t Amtrak own any tracks? ›

In short: railroad tracks. More specifically: the rail service doesn't own many of them, a situation arising from the its origins, as a product of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, when it was created largely because railroad companies could not make passenger rail profitable anymore.

Why do Amtrak trains honk so much? ›

The train whistle, or horn, is an important part of our safety practices. The horn alerts people that a train is approaching a railroad crossing. It can also be used to warn animals or trespassers in our right-of-way along a section of track.

How far does a train stop at 50 mph? ›

How Long Does It Take a Train to Stop? Trains can't stop quickly or swerve. The average freight train is about 1 to 1¼ miles in length (90 to 120 rail cars). When it's moving at 55 miles an hour, it can take a mile or more to stop after the locomotive engineer fully applies the emergency brake.

What is the longest route on Amtrak? ›

At 2,438 miles (3,924 km), it is Amtrak's longest daily route, and second-longest overall after the Texas Eagle's triweekly continuation from San Antonio to Los Angeles, with travel time between the termini taking approximately 51 1⁄2 hours.
...
California Zephyr.
Overview
Service typeInter-city rail
LocaleWestern United States
25 more rows

Why is Amtrak always delayed? ›

Because Amtrak operates mostly on tracks owned by other railroads, its on-time performance is dependent on freight railroads, which are required to give passenger trains preference over other rail traffic. Freight trains caused nearly 900,000 minutes of passenger delays last year, according to Amtrak.

How fast will trains go in the future? ›

Now, the established high-speed heavyweights in Japan and China are looking beyond “steel-on-steel” technology to develop trains capable of up to 373mph (600kph).

Why does Amtrak stop randomly? ›

The reason trains stop, according to Bellamy, is because of a switch adjustment. “They have to pass the switch and then a carman or a switch man has to hop off and physically throw the switch (Bellamy described this as a lever on the ground) so that it changes the direction of the track.

What is the top speed of an Amtrak train? ›

Trains regularly reach speeds of 125-150 mph (201-241 kph).

Who has the best train system in the US? ›

List of United States rapid transit systems by ridership
SystemSystem length
1.New York City Subway248 miles (399 km)
2.Washington Metro129 miles (208 km)
3.Chicago "L"102.8 miles (165.4 km)
4.MBTA subway ("The T") (Blue, Orange, and Red Lines)38 miles (61 km)
11 more rows

Does the US have a bullet train? ›

Despite efforts dating back to 1965, the United States has yet to complete a high-speed rail line. Three projects are underway, however. A group of 10 senators and 65 House members this spring asked for $3.5 billion in fiscal year 2023 appropriations to develop high-speed rail corridors.

Why does the US not have trains like Europe? ›

Population Density. The US simply does not have the density to have the need for high speed rail. There are a few regions where this is actually a viable thing, and one region in the US already has a high speed rail line, called the Acela Express. It runs from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, DC.

Can trains go 400 mph? ›

China Has Debuted 400-MPH 'Super Bullet' Maglev Train, Mass Transit Design. Japan's Chuo Shinkansen broke records with 374 mph, but both maglev trains face serious challenges.

Why America has no high-speed rail? ›

Current US projects face challenges

The proposed Boston-NYC route highlights the logistical challenges and high cost of building high speed rail in densely populated areas. The route would require the construction of numerous tunnels, including one stretching 16 miles beneath the Long Island Sound.

What is the fastest train in United States? ›

The Acela is the Fastest Train in the USA

The fastest train in North America is the Acela which hits 150 mph in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Amtrak is upgrading track in New Jersey for 160 mph.

Is roundtrip cheaper Amtrak? ›

Also: Round-trip fares are cheaper, too, on Amtrak, but the margin is much smaller.

Which is safer plane or train? ›

Here's how that breaks down by mode of transportation: Air: 349 deaths. Railroad: 746 deaths. Highway: 38,824 deaths.

Why does Amtrak get more expensive? ›

Many of the lines don't make any money or are operated at a loss. To accommodate the money-losing routes, Amtrak uses profits from its popular lines, such as the Northeast Corridor. Since this is one of the most popular routes, Amtrak can charge higher prices and send those profits to other, less profitable lines.

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