Amtrak, the U.S.’ leading passenger rail company, provides train service to more than 500 locations nationwide, but its resources are far from equally distributed.
Consider two of Amtrak’s popular routes: Boston-Washington, D.C., and New York City-Chicago. Boston is a 440 mile-drive from Washington and takes 7 hours to travel there via Amtrak’s premium Acela line. New York is about 790 miles from Chicago, less than twice the distance between Boston and Washington — but it takes 19 hours on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited line, nearly triple the commute time between Boston and D.C.
There are interstate disparities, as well. Vermont, population of 645,570, has 11 Amtrak stations within the state. Ohio, population of 11,780,017, has only seven.
Amtrak’s most popular and modern services serve the Northeast megalopolis, but that’s not necessarily just preferential treatment. Rather, the patchwork nature of railroads and technologies in the U.S. leads to considerable variance in its ability to provide reliable and consistent passenger rail across the country. As a result, Amtrak has long struggled to ensure its entire network is up to speed in terms of both infrastructure and adequate route coverage. These circumstances lead to major cities like Columbus, Ohio — home to a population greater than that of five U.S. states — lacking Amtrak service while New Haven, Connecticut, hosts two different stations.
The demand for better service in the Midwest, however, also exists as regional advocacy groups consistently pressure local and national leaders to enhance their area’s rail options. Now, new federal legislation is providing a foundation for Amtrak’s revitalization.
When President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in November 2021, much of the attention focused on its bipartisan passage. Pundits and politicians alike cast the bill’s considerable Republican support as one of its key features. Slipping between the cracks, meanwhile, were the actual contents of the legislation. Its highlights included funding for priorities like highways, broadband internet and drinking water — and, flying somewhat under the radar, public transit.
The bill allocated $66 billion to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), including $22 billion directly to Amtrak. The company plans to use much of the funding to renovate its outdated infrastructure, a defect that came into sharp focus in late June when a train derailed after colliding with a dump truck that was in its path near Mendon, Missouri. The crossing where the crash occurred was “passive,” meaning it did not contain modern technology such as arms or warning lights that would have provided more of an alert of the incoming train.
In between repairing tunnels and replacing signaling infrastructure, though, Amtrak also aims to drastically expand its reach and influence. The company’s “Connects US” plan, released in June 2021, features enhanced and newly created services throughout the lower 48 states — and the Midwest plays a major role in these aspirations.
One of Amtrak’s most prominent proposed expansions in the region is a route connecting Ohio’s “3C+D”: the cities of Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton. Currently, there is no north-south train service across Ohio. And of those cities, only Cincinnati and Cleveland are serviced by Amtrak, via lines primarily connecting Chicago to the Northeast.
According to Stu Nicholson, executive director of transportation advocacy group All Aboard Ohio, even current service through the state is lacking because of exclusively late-night train arrival times as well as frequent delays.
“I can describe it in a couple of words: Zero Dark Thirty. Because if you want to ride a train in Ohio, that’s when you’d have to be up,” Nicholson said. “I don’t want to necessarily say that Amtrak service is abysmal, but it could be a whole lot better than it is. Part of that is the fact that we don’t have enough trains running. We don’t have service that enables people to actually get on trains in the daylight in Ohio and same-day travel, at least, within Ohio.”
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said the company aims to become a more relevant transportation resource to cities like Cincinnati that presently only receive late-night service by upgrading and expanding its operations there.
To Magliari, infrastructural investment from the IIJA corresponds to potential service expansions. He cited a recent addition of 50 locomotives to the train lines that traverse Ohio, which he said will replace cars from the 1990s.
Most intercity passenger rail projects involve Amtrak because of its association with the federal government. The IIJA does not allocate any funding directly to the states, although it commits $36 billion to the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail, which will reward grants to entities such as states as well as Amtrak for rail projects.
“We’re getting funding to do several things. Firstly, to replace and upgrade the fleet, and also to do these kinds of infrastructure investments around the country to make the service possible,” Magliari said. “We can’t go at any reasonable speed tomorrow between Cleveland and Columbus and Dayton and Cincinnati, but a construction season or two will make a difference on that and make it better so it’s driving-time competitive.”
“Connects US” envisions new Amtrak stations in cities like Madison, Wisconsin; Duluth, Minnesota; Rockford, Illinois and Iowa City, Iowa. The plan also outlines faster and more frequent service for routes such as Chicago-Milwaukee and Chicago-St. Louis, and it proposes new routes such as Cleveland-Detroit and Toronto-Chicago.
While Amtrak calls for the plan to be implemented over a 15-year period, it does not specify timetables for specific initiatives. Magliari said it would be “very disappointing,” however, if Amtrak doesn’t begin service on new routes by 2026.
Despite the ambitious scope of “Connects US,” Nicholson said All Aboard Ohio is advocating for state authorities to look even beyond Amtrak’s proposal for potential rail projects. The FRA also established the Corridor Identification and Development Program in May, which will allocate additional funding toward new passenger rail corridors, and All Aboard Ohio is pushing the state to apply for it.
“The most heavily traveled business corridor outside of the ‘3C+D’ is between Chicago and Columbus,” Nicholson said. “So we’re trying to also impress upon legislators and other civic leaders that, ‘Hey, don’t just get locked into what Amtrak is proposing, keep thinking beyond the box here.’ … Whether it’s Chicago, Columbus, Pittsburgh or Detroit, Toledo, Columbus or even Detroit, Toledo and Cincinnati. I mean, why shouldn’t that be a connection?”
While many major cities in the Midwest — including Cleveland, Chicago and Minneapolis — offer some form of rail service, few of them venture outside of their respective metropolitan areas and connect to others. The U.S., Nicholson said, should embrace high-speed rail as its transportation of the future, following countries in Europe and Asia. While the Acela Corridor in the Northeast can reach up to 150 mph, Nicholson said Midwest-centric Amtrak routes like the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited average speeds in the mid-60s due to freight traffic and old signaling infrastructure.
Individual state investment in rail also affects quality of service, as Amtrak often relies on railroad tracks and infrastructure owned by private freight companies. Nicholson noted that Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois have some of the strongest state-supported rail programs in the Midwest, while Ohio has committed relatively few resources to its program.
Nicholson said he hopes Ohio politicians from both sides of the aisle can work together to promote passenger rail. The service, he said, provides economic benefits to towns and cities that have train stations. He singled out Toledo’s Union Station as having the capacity for increased rail service that could uplift its surrounding area.
“If you look at the area around Toledo Union Station, you’ve got that beat-up, run-down, old, empty, broken-window hotel that sits across the plaza from the station. You’ve got vacant land around there. You’ve got underutilized, existing industrial and retail space and buildings that could be adaptively reused for mixed-use development,” Nicholson said. “There’s a tremendous amount of potential around that, and if you had better service to Toledo instead of having two trains that run through in the middle of the night.”
Nicholson said he encourages fans of passenger rail to not only voice their opinions through letters, emails and phone calls to local officials, but also to specifically “tell their own story” about why it is important to them.
His story, he said, would involve baseball. As a “die-hard” New York Yankees fan, he said he would attend the team’s games in cities like Cleveland and Detroit if he could easily take the train there.
“Don’t send a form letter. I know enough congressional and legislative staff members that say, ‘Yeah, yeah, they’re piling up on the desk and they all say the same thing,’” Nicholson said. “But if you’re telling your story, that’s your reason. That’s why you want to see this happen.”
Magliari said the infrastructure bill’s passage presents a unique opportunity for Americans to push for expanded Amtrak operations.
“This is the best chance for more passenger rail service we’ve had in more than 50 years,” Magliari said. “And it’s time for people who want it to raise their hands.”