Amtrak’s 2035 expansion plan includes Scranton and other burgs

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Hey, it’s Friday,

As “Amtrak Joe” Biden rolled out a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill, the government-owned railroad has an ambitious plan of its own coming down the tracks.

Plans in legislation and Amtrak call for desperately needed upgrades for the busy Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor, which runs 100 mile-an-hour trains over rickety bridges and ancient tunnels.

But that’s only part of Amtrak’s plans, according to a recent post from Politico.

Amtrak rolled out an ambitious 2035 expansion that includes trains running to 160 smaller destinations. The long-discussed Wilmington-Dover route did not make the cut.

The proposed expansion marks a change under the new Amtrak CEO and former air cargo executive William Flynn.

His predecessor, former Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson made no secret of his unhappiness with the sprawling rail system’s money-losing routes.

Anderson had Amtrak close to breaking even, thanks to growing ridership and a cost-cutting focus borne out of his work in the airline industry.

…do we really need Saturday mail or a train to Scranton?

Flynn ended up with the most serious challenge in the railroad’s half-century history, coronavirus.

The railroad did reaffirm its commitment in Delaware by snapping up a downtown Wilmington office building at a bargain price. Amtrak has multiple operations in Delaware that employ 1,000.

Flynn knows the political reality is that Amtrak funding is based on support from Senators and House members in sparsely populated states who know rail service is popular.

Still, Amtrak’s ambitious plan is likely to raise a few eyebrows, especially along the Northeast Corridor. Politico took note of a route that would run from New York City to Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, PA.

While the Northeast line that stops at the Wilmington station named after the president breaks even on an operating basis (passenger rail never makes money when capital improvements are added), the new slow-speed destinations would bleed dollars.

The Northeast Corridor also takes vehicles off the road. The impact of routes to smaller burgs would be negligible.

As Politico pointed out, the 2035 plan was not vetted by a Biden-Harris administration that may be more inclined to get the current network up to snuff rather than add more slow-speed trains.

Unfortunately, Congress and the administration are not especially open to public-private partnerships.

While start-up AmeriStar’s plan to lease Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is not going anywhere, the proposal does contain a number of ideas that would save money and deal with congestion in the New York metro area.

Other private operators are circling, with private equity ready to jump in for routes that would link cities like Las Vegas-Los Angeles and Dallas-Houston. Florida’s privately run Brightline is currently shut down due to Covid restrictions and commuters working remotely but could be a model for others.

As Politico noted, Amtrak’s treatment by Congress mirrors that of the Postal Service. Both are saddled with insufficient funding for capital improvements and unrealistic demands for service. In other words, do we really need Saturday mail or a train to Scranton?

Enjoy your weekend, even if we have a little rain in the forecast. – Doug Rainey, chief content officer.

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