There are signs the strategy is working. Over the past two years, Amtrak's ridership has increased almost 17 percent systemwide. And the recent spike in gas prices has pushed train ridership to capacity on some routes. A hefty funding package for improvements is currently up for debate in Washington, and Amtrak is already exploring ways to enhance service along popular routes. But getting the system up to speed is a tall order.For train enthusiasts, it will be interesting to see how Amtrak evolves. Those who believe that the government should not give further economic assistance to Amtrak think that private companies could operate a more efficient system. It is interesting that our nation never nationalized air travel, yet we did nationalize our train system.
Since the 1950s, America's vast inter-state highway system and love of the automobile has contributed to a gradual deterioration of its railroads—just as most of Europe and parts of Asia have been investing in swift and comfortable long-range trains. But duplicating those foreign systems here is not simple. Private freight railroads own most of the tracks Amtrak uses, so a broad expansion of the railways would require hundreds of billions of dollars in new infrastructure and decades of eminent domain lawsuits to acquire private lands. "We never invested in quality passenger rail travel like other countries," says Joseph Sussman, a professor of engineering and systems at MIT. "It's almost impossible that the American network could ever be able to mirror those ultra-efficient models around the world."
An expansive new system may not be in the cards, but the recent increased interest does signal hope for Amtrak to grow, especially along routes between cities that are too close to fly and, with high gas costs, too long and pricey to drive. A few hundred million dollars in improvements could bring certain routes to acceptable levels, according to Amtrak. Routes connecting Chicago to St. Paul, Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., and San Diego to Los Angeles could replicate the speedy transit of the prized Northeast Corridor, where sleek trains running on newer tracks allow speeds up to 150 miles per hour in some zones, according to Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant. New rail cars and tracks would surely help, but trains could also run faster with newer signals installed at crossroads to stop traffic earlier. Improving station conditions in rural areas would also make the service feel more comfortable and contemporary.
Amtrak has been in the news a lot lately. The train system just announced that they have renamed the regional service on the Northeast Corridor as the Northeast Regional. And as the Newsweek article noted, ridership is up.