Amtrak’s 50th anniversary celebration has proven that with the support of taxpayers, Congress and President Biden, America’s railway is scheduled to be back on track.
“Today, we have a once in a generation opportunity to position Amtrak, and rail, and intercity rail, as well in general to play a central role in our transformation of transportation and economic future,” said President Biden.
He spoke at Philadelphia’s 30ths Street station at the nation observes the 50th anniversary of the creation of a national railway system. Biden was in Philadelphia, 83 miles north of where he boarded the train each day to go to D.C., such a loyal commuter that he was called “Amtrak Joe” by some rail workers.
The anniversary marked the resumption of full daily service for 12 long-distance routes which had been cut by the pandemic.
Due to the global pandemic, almost all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains went from running daily to three times a week.
“America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable, and equitable train service,” said AMTRAK CEO Bill Flynn.
These drastic cuts heavily impacted urban communities across the country where 34 percent of blacks and 27 percent of Hispanics report taking public transit daily or weekly, compared with 14 percent of whites, Pew Research Center data shows.
“The long-distance routes that shoot out from Washington, D.C. in all directions, especially Silver Star and Crescent services which heads down to Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana serve a lot of passengers, especially African Americans because historically it’s been a migratory route for blacks coming up from the South looking for work,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, Vice President, Policy & Government Affairs of the Rail Passengers Association.
In addition, the anniversary marked the return of “more than 1,200 furloughed union employees … back to work through the remainder of 2021 and into 2022,” according to a statement released by Kimberly Woods, public relations manager for Amtrak.
The pandemic has been tough on Amtrak, according to Flynn, who said current ridership hovers around 20-25 percent of pre-COVID levels, according to Flynn.
The railroad is vital to American recovery after the pandemic, transportation experts say. The Northeast Corridor, or NEC, which stretches from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts is the most heavily traveled portion of the rail system, according to the Center for American Progress.
“Amtrak carries four times as many riders between Washington, D.C. and New York City as every single airline does within fifty miles of the shore from Florida all the way up the East Coast,” said President Joe Biden.
Since 1971, when Amtrak was created to consolidate independent rail lines through the nation, passenger rail has become vital to intercity rail service, Amtrak provides many other uses that are vital for economic recovery. Amtrak, for example, operates commuter rails services on behalf of regional rail authorities which include the Maryland Area Regional Commuter. Its existence also allows other transit agencies like the Long Island Railroad and the Virginia Railway Express to use its infrastructure to transport passengers and freight.
But there’s a bright side to the challenges Amtrak faces during the pandemic. With ridership down, Amtrak has been able to upgrade their technology, infrastructure, fleet, stations and processes to make travel more welcoming and accessible.
According to Amtrak.com, trains are now equipped with onboard filtration systems with a fresh air exchange rate every 4-5 minutes, private rooms are offered on many routes, and there’s real-time seat availability starting May 23.
This provides customers the opportunity to book trains that are less crowded. Also, if capacity exceeds comfort levels, riders can exchange their tickets without incurring extra fees. Amtrak is also waiving all change fees for reservations made by Sept. 6, 2021.
Amtrak officials also stated that they will expand service by including 83 intercity trains sets which will operate on the Northeast Corridor and various state-supported and long-distance routes, 30 new routes and adding trains on 20 existing routes across the U.S. by 2035.
“The stars are aligning where we have a President that is interested in Amtrak, we have a Congress that really wants to spend a lot of money addressing the crumbling infrastructure more generally across the U.S. and we have a public that’s tired of air travel and congested highways. The people are demanding better transportation alternatives.” said Sean Jeans-Gail, Vice President, Policy & Government Affairs of the Rail Passengers Association.