Amtrak System is Failing Its Customers

by The Cowl Editor on December 7, 2017


Amtrak 321 at Providence.
                                      Amtrak 321 at Providence/Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

by Nicholas Moran ’19

Opinion Staff

Sprinting down the concrete steps of Providence’s Amtrak station, I glanced nervously at my wristwatch. 12:02, two minutes after my train to Newark, NJ was scheduled to leave. Quickly, I burst through the steel doors, only to be greeted by empty tracks. As always, the train was late, leaving hundreds of holiday travelers shivering in the cavernous wind tunnel that is Providence Station.

Once the train arrived forty minutes later, the frustration only intensified. Our train crawled through Southern Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut, frequently stopping in the wilderness due to delays. To make matters worth, the train’s Wifi took ages to load webpages like ESPN, let alone stream Netlix, intensifying the mind-numbing boredom.

Frustrated, I looked out the window at I-95’s holiday traffic jam, watching cars, barely cracking 35 mph, seemingly fly past our stalled train. Surprisingly, I envied them; at least they were moving!

As Providence College students pack for the long trip home for Christmas break, America’s failing Amtrak train service only makes the dreaded holiday commute worse. Aging trains and battered tracks are left in abject disrepair, as the New York Times notes that Amtrak is facing a whopping “$28 billion backlog of repairs needed to modernize” technology that has been rotting away since the Nixon Administration.

These aging tracks were responsible for 41% of Amtrak’s 178 derailments from 2010-2016, leaving dozens of Americans killed in avoidable accidents. As Americas train system lays in ruin, the federal government refused to meet Amtrak’s request for $1.8 billion in 2016 funding, only providing $1.4 billion. None of this is acceptable, as the Federal Government must dramatically increase funding to launch Amtrak into the 21st century. Once the nation that invented the continental railroad, Americans should not have to meekly accept one of the worst train systems in the developed world.

Especially frustrating, America’s “high speed” Acela Express service would not even be considered a high-speed rail by most European governments. According to the Boston Globe, the American Acela can reach only 100 mph and averages 68.89 mph, and in some curved parts of the track can only reach a measly 25 mph.

Across the Atlantic, France’s ultra-high speed TGV to Geneva, Switzerland averages 164.21 mph. In fact, the Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch high-speed trains all travel significantly faster than their American counterpart, proving that American citizens do not have to timidly accept this status quo.

Even ridden Spain, embroiled in sectionalist infighting, provides a better train service than the world’s largest economic power. As Politico describes, European Union nations collectively spent 36 billion Euros on trains in 2014, dwarfing American funding.

Unfortunately, the sheer magnitude of Amtrak’s problems makes real improvement exceedingly difficult. Even an ambitious $2.45 billion project to modernize the Acela service by 2021 barely scratches the surface, and Amtrak’s Executive Vice President for Business Development, Stephen Gardner, admitted this to Business Insider. 

When asked if the roughly $2 billion would put an end to the constant delays, Gardner replied “No,” as it will only be enough for aesthetic changes, minor enhancem[ents] to the ride quality,” improved WiFi, and it will “permit a little more capacity.”

Worst of all, Amtrak will not be able to speed up America’s relatively sluggish trains, as our rusting tracks are simply too outdated to support true high speed trains. Amtrak would need to “straighten out” unnecessary curves that force trains to slow down, and “create enough track capacity to be able to go considerably faster than what we do today.” Unfortunately, Gardner lamented that this would be a “multi-billion dollar, decades long” commitment, something the Federal Government’s meager funding cannot come close to satisfying.

Lagging behind European and Asian powers, America’s Amtrak system is failing its 31 million annual customers. Far from the ornate glass ceilings and marbled walls of the original New York Penn Station, America’s train stations have devolved into subterranean, concrete jungles. Now travelers sit on graffitied benches, listening to the monotone PA speaker announce delay after delay.

2 thoughts on “Amtrak System is Failing Its Customers

  1. Amtrak has been asking for funds to improve for decades!! Comparing Amtrak to European and Asian countries isn’t the answer. Those countries value their rail systems and put their money where their mouths were. America hasn’t done that. If Amtrak had been given a portion of the funds that were alotted to highway funding Amtrak wouldn’t have as many of the concerns that are addressed in the article.
    The freight railroads are allowed to run freight in front of Amtrak with passengers. No penalties placed on them.
    America wake up!! Fix it!!!

  2. It’s not all Amtrak’s fault. Most of the track over which Amtrak trains operate are owned by freight carriers.

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