Why American passenger trains could disappear

COVID-19 financial hardships threaten existing and future rail lines

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight stops in Salinas, Calif. © Daniel Zukowski.

As anyone who has traveled by train in Europe or parts of Asia can attest, passenger trains in the U.S. are a sad chimera of their overseas counterparts. Now, amid the economic wasteland of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the trains we do have could soon be run off the rails.

Amtrak President William Flynn testified before the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this week, using the word “insolvency.” The railroad has asked for $4.9 billion to get it through fiscal 2021, and has begun cutting long-distance and other train service to avoid the inevitable. You can read more about his testimony in the Oct. 21 story I wrote for Trains News Wire, “Amtrak CEO tells hearing company projects 72% decline in ridership.

It’s not just intercity trains that are in trouble. Transit systems across the country are struggling to make ends meet, faced with drastic declines in ridership as many commuters began working from home while others lost their jobs and people in general traveled less.

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The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it needs $12 billion, without which it will slash subway and bus service 40%. Denver’s Regional Transit District plans cuts to most of its light rail lines. Transit systems in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere all foresee major service reductions.

TransitCenter, a foundation advocating for urban transit, in conjunction with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, used computer modeling to parse the effects of service cuts in 10 metropolitan regions, concluding that more than 3 million people could lose reliable access to transit.

“Black and Hispanic residents would be hardest-hit. Second- and third-shift workers would lose an affordable way to commute, and households without vehicles would have an even harder time meeting everyday needs.” — TransitCenter/Center for Neighborhood Technology study.

According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), three in five U.S. transit agencies are looking at service cuts, with 38% possibly eliminating some routes altogether.

Artist’s rendering of proposed Dallas-Houston bullet train. Credit: Texas Central Railroad.

But, it’s not just existing trains and subways that could stop running. Plans for new high speed rail projects in California and Texas are at risk.

Fortress Investment Group, the financiers behind Brightline’s $8 billion Victorville, Calif. to Las Vegas rail line, first postponed a $3.2 billion bond offering, then reduced it to $2.4 billion, according to Bloomberg, which describes it as a “speculative project.” [CORRECTED 10/16/2020]

Texas Central, a proposed privately-financed bullet train from Dallas to Houston, may also face an uncertain future after laying off 28 employees in March. The railroad’s CEO, Carlos Aguilar, told the Dallas Morning News, “Unfortunately, like many other companies and organizations around the world, we have been forced to make hard decisions in an effort to make the best use of our current funding.”

California’s high speed rail project continues construction in the Central Valley, apparently oblivious to federal demands to recoup $3.5 billion in previously-approved grants, or Gov. Gavin Newsom’s admission in February 2019 that “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long.”

For more on this debacle, see my March 4, 2019 investigative report for Trains News Wire, “Missteps lead California high speed rail to crisis.”

Regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 3 election, it may be difficult for the 117th Congress and the White House to come up with enough cash to keep Amtrak, airlines, airports and transit agencies whole, not to mention the private-sector intercity bus lines that have so far been ignored.

Even if emergency intervention monies are injected into these transportation bodies, eventually the federal government will have to decide how long to keep them on life support if the economy doesn’t rapidly return to a reasonable semblance of 2019 normal — a scenario few predict.

Why subscribe to Sustainable Transportation? This year’s global pandemic has upended aviation, trains, city transit systems and bus lines, changing how, where and when we can travel. Transportation journalist Dan Zukowski publishes this weekly newsletter to provide you with news, trends and analysis of these changes. If you travel for work or pleasure, you’ll want to know what’s happening now and in the future.