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Travel President-Elect Joe Biden’s Dedication to Trains Could Transform Domestic Travel

18:05  25 november  2020
18:05  25 november  2020 Source:   cntraveler.com

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a large body of water with a mountain in the background © Courtesy Amtrak

As a Senator, now president-elect Joe Biden famously commuted 110 miles daily on Amtrak, from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., for the entirety of his 36 years in office. Biden estimates he’s traveled back and forth on that route more than 7,000 times, amounting to some 770,000 miles total—enough rail traveled to theoretically circumnavigate the earth almost 31 times.

But his support for travel by train goes beyond the personal, too: As vice president to Barack Obama, Biden was largely responsible for directing funds toward California’s high-speed rail project, 150 miles of which are currently completed. He even published a 2010 op-ed in Arrive Magazine titled “Why America Needs Trains.” In it, Biden wrote that “support for Amtrak must be strong—not because it is a cherished American institution, which it is—but because it is a powerful and indispensable way to carry us all into a leaner, cleaner, greener 21st Century.”

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As he prepares to enter office, Biden has promised his own administration will usher in “the second great railroad revolution” in the U.S. While the president-elect himself has yet to release any concrete plans, rail advocates around the country are hopeful for a potential Biden boom. A rail-forward president, they say, has the potential to transform domestic travel by train.

water next to a tree: President-elect Joe Biden has estimated that he's taken the Amtrak journey from Wilmington, Delaware, to the capital some 7,000 times. © Chuck Gomez/Courtesy Amtrak President-elect Joe Biden has estimated that he's taken the Amtrak journey from Wilmington, Delaware, to the capital some 7,000 times.

“If you look back at the original rail revolution, it became such a big, important national project—hundreds of companies got involved, millions of jobs were created, businesses popped up to help it,” says Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR). “It was this massive stimulus that layers and layers of our society participated in and benefited from. [A second rail revolution] would stimulate travel and tourism.”

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Kunz points toward five top-priority projects his organization has identified that, with proper funding and attention, could provide the infrastructure for a more robust high-speed rail network across the country. These top-tier initiatives include finishing the California rail project, which has been hampered by Trump administration lawsuits, as well as projects in Texas, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest, and upgrades to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. USHSR also suggests that Biden could create a new agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation for initiating high-speed rail projects, conducting route studies, and streamlining project approvals, among other duties.

Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of policy and government affairs for the Rail Passengers Association (NARP), the largest rail advocacy organization in the U.S., is also excited by the prospect of a president with a clear vision of what a modern U.S. passenger rail system could look like; even just publicly declaring that priority would be a meaningful start. “Having a president that comes out and says, ‘This is what we’re working for and this could touch your life,’ would be huge," says Jeans-Gail. "I’m hoping Biden continues to do whistle-stop tours. It’s a great message, it’s a great visual, and it’s a reminder to people that these [trains] are assets within the community that could be invested in.”

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Jeans-Gail expects one of the Biden administration’s first railway initiatives will be to upgrade Amtrak cars, and says that building modern, efficient trains would have an added advantage of putting Americans to work right away (he also believes the updates could be accomplished in a three- to four-year timespan). Replacing current trains would also improve the experience for passengers, who’d go from sitting on aging, creaky railcars that date back to the Reagan administration, to something updated and comfortable.

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While optimism abounds, especially in comparison to a Trump administration that actively attempted to slash rail service and funding, Biden will face obvious obstacles when it comes to prioritizing on mass transit projects. The pandemic has emptied Amtrak trains of riders, leading to a massive revenue deficit, service cuts, and the furloughing of more than 2,000 employees. Amtrak officials have said that roughly $2.8 billion in emergency funding is necessary by December to prevent further furloughs, while attempts to provide relief have stalled in Congress.

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It’s clear the coronavirus will need to be curtailed for riders to return en masse—but when a vaccine is finally in circulation, a largely leveled travel landscape could mean new opportunities for domestic rail: A third of the world’s air routes have been lost to the pandemic, and there’s speculation that some of these routes, especially those to smaller cities, may never come back. In that regard, Jeans-Gail sees even more potential for a Biden administration to frame rail expansion as a viable alternative, since trains naturally connect rural towns to mid-size and major cities across the country.

Amtrak itself has said as much. "We've got lots of reasons for optimism for why this next administration will be a great partner for Amtrak and really for the traveling public," Amtrak's chairman of the board Tony Coscia said on a recent call with press. “Obviously, the president-elect is someone who is very familiar with Amtrak and very familiar with the impact that Amtrak could have from both a quality of life and and economic empowerment standpoint.”

To that end, “Amtrak Joe,” as he has been affectionally called, offers hope for the future of domestic rail in both the short and the long term. Indeed, the thesis of Biden’s 2010 Arrival op-ed is perhaps more relevant than ever: "With delays at our airports and congestion on our roads becoming increasingly ubiquitous, volatile fuel prices, increased environmental awareness, and a need for transportation links between growing communities, rail travel is more important to America than ever before.”

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