» U.S. national rail company hopes to prevent the invasion of foreign operators and will focus on improvements for the Northeast Corridor.
Suddenly forced to reckon with the prospect of serious competition from foreign companies, Amtrak has announced an internal reorganization that prioritizes the development and implementation of high-speed rail service in the United States. In addition, the publicly-owned train operator has announced for the first time that it will perform serious feasibility studies about implementing 220 mph service between Washington and Boston.
The creation of Amtrak’s new High-Speed Rail Department is designed to publicize the company’s experience in existing U.S. rail corridors and extend its reach to new high-speed routes being funded through the federal government’s grant program whose first recipients were rewarded earlier this year. Amtrak announced in January its interest in pursuing operations along the Florida line between Tampa and Orlando, expected to be the first true high-speed route built in North America when it opens in 2014.
Amtrak’s enthusiasm in running services at high speeds reflects the fact that fast train operations make a lot of money — as long as capital costs aren’t included in the equation. With most new American rail lines expected to be funded through grants rather than bonds, and with limited involvement thus far with the private sector, it appears that operations will not be expected to cover back-payments on construction loans, leaving profit potential for companies like Amtrak. There has been limited success in using operating revenues to subsidize capital cost repayments despite several efforts in both Europe and Asia. There is a structural and perhaps immutable conflict between the short-term profit-making interests of rail operators and the long-term benefits offered by infrastructure investments.
The long-distance lines that Amtrak is compelled to operate through acts of Congress all lose money on an annual basis.
The national company’s new High-Speed Rail department is also charged with re-envisioning the Northeast Corridor, with a focus on substantially reducing trip times between Boston and Washington and increasing train frequencies dramatically. It will also begin analyzing how to increase train speeds to 220 mph along the route, with the goal of bringing rail service in America’s densest metropolitan conglomeration up to world standards.
This new effort represents a serious upgrade in Amtrak’s thinking about the potential for the 457-mile Northeast Corridor. As recently as October 2009, the company laid out a $10 billion plan that would do little more than decrease travel times between Washington and Boston to 5h30, down from about 6h30 today. Chinese trains travel the 601 miles between Wuhan and Guangzhou in just three hours.
Amtrak has a significant credibility gap to make up before states will be willing to let it operate their new high-speed rail services. Decades of slow, poorly performing operations across the country have given the public company somewhat of a bad name, especially when compared to those of many of its foreign competitors, which have been running fast trains for decades.
Image above: Amtrak Acela Trainset, from Flickr user Gilliamhome’s Olympus E3 and Evolt 500 Page (cc)