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Why Amtrak Needs Infrastructure Spending

June 11, 2015

Amtrak and the railroad industry have had a long history of financial instability; however, it has always remained a relatively reliable source of safe transportation. It wasn’t until May 12, 2015 that questions began to arise about the reliability of Amtrak when a northbound train overturned on its way to New York from 30th street station in Philadelphia. The source of the accident was the high speed of the train as it went around a corner that they call “Franklin Junction.” At that point of the tracks, trains are not authorized to increase past 50 mph1. However, this particular train rounded the corner at 106 mph – leading to the derailing of the train car1. As a result, there were 7 deaths and hundreds of other injuries. This incident, although stated to be caused by the engineer, has unearthed a serious debate on whether or not the government is spending enough on infrastructure, and if not, how much of this lack of funding were factors that could have possibly led to this event. 

By Taylor Brown, W’17

Amtrak came to fruition during the decline of other privately owned railroad companies in the late 60s. It was this failure in the private sector that led to the creation of the The Rail Passenger Service Act by Congress in 1970. This act established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, now known as Amtrak. The act made moves to save the railroad business, thus making Amtrak a public corporation that operated as a for-profit.

The Debate:

There has been a serious decline in the amount of money designated towards bettering American infrastructure.  This debate about infrastructure spending has gone on for the past ten years, as the United States saw their advancement in infrastructure decline while other countries surpassed them. According to the Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum6, the United States is now the twelfth most progressive country in the world in total infrastructure, when it was formerly in the top five for the past ten years. This decline in ranking in addition to the Amtrak derailment has forced the subject into the White House, where there is much debate between the two parties on what direction it should go in dealing with infrastructure, and whether or not infrastructure really deserves the extra funding in comparison to many other problems that the United States is facing.

The Obama administration has made moves to try and make the crumbling infrastructure a priority in the government through acts like the 2009 Recovery Act and the GROW AMERICA Act to try and provide an understandable funding mechanism to enable modernization for American highways, railways, and other forms of mass transit. However, the Recovery Act is solely a temporary act and the second has had difficulties passing through Congress. Thus far, Congress has only passed very short-term reauthorizations to keep the Highway Trust Fund alive and running, and recently made decisions to cut the Amtrak funding.    

In opposition to the recent cuts in the transportation funds, Amtrak believes that if they had the monetary support to invest in new equipment (i.e. new tracks, new machinery, etc.), then the company as a whole would be a lot more successful and – most importantly – safer. Amtrak estimates that trips in the Northeast corridor (New York and Washington), could be reduced to no more than an hour and a half with the necessary funding9. Instead of working to improve Amtrak’s vision, Congress has been considering a bill that would cut the Amtrak’s funding from $1.4 billion to $1.13 billion10.

While there is time for further compromise between Congress and the Obama administration, it seems very improbable that the United States will be able to completely catch up technologically in infrastructure with many of the other countries, such as South Korea, or even China (Taiwan has some of the most progressive infrastructure). Both of these countries already have plans to have almost twenty thousand miles of high-speed rail track by 2020. So far, they have already accomplished 10,000 miles worth of High-Speed Rail Track11.

So far, the Obama administration has emphasized HSR projects, however, there have been no real results. Many of the projects that have been suggested both on the federal and the state level have been cancelled by the state governments in lieu of other prioritized projects. This is occurring as other developed countries such as China, South Korea, and others across Europe make steps to build new HSR lines that exceed over two hundred miles per hour.

Current infrastructure is in need for way more investment than what is being provided. For example, one in nine bridges in the United States is structurally deficient7. In addition, problems such as road congestion cost American drivers more than $101 billion each year in wasted time and fuel8. While many infrastructure experts have been speaking out about the updates needed for the declining infrastructure for the past ten years, the government has not taken any real steps to repair the lack of spending.



  1. Mann, Tedd, Andrew Tangel, and Kris Maher. “Amtrak Crash: Train Hit Curve Going Over 100 MPH.” WSJ. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/deadly-train-wreck-in-philadelphia-leaves-disastrous-mess-1431499608>.
  2. Leonhardt, David. “Amtrak Crash and America’s Declining Construction Spending.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 May 2015. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/14/upshot/amtrak-crash-and-americas-declining-construction-spending.html?_r=0&abt=0002&abg=0>.
  3. Danner, Chas. “Could Better Infrastructure Have Prevented the Amtrak Crash?” Daily Intelligencer. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/05/amtrak-crash-infrastructure-debate.html>.
  4. Cassidy, John. “After the Amtrak Crash, It’s Time to Get Serious About Transportation Infrastructure - The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. N.p., 13 May 2015. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/after-the-amtrak-crash-its-time-to-get-serious-about-transportation-infrastructure>.
  5. “House Panel Vote to Cut Amtrak Budget Nearly 20% despite Deadly Crash.” - RT USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://rt.com/usa/258409-house-panel-cuts-amtrak-funding/>.
  6. “Competitiveness Rankings.” Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://reports.weforum.org/global-competitiveness-report-2014-2015/rankings/>.
  7. “ASCE | 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.” ASCE | 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/a/#p/bridges/overview>.
  8. “ASCE | 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.” ASCE | 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/a/#p/roads/overview>.
  9. “High-Speed Rail Transport for the Northeast Corridor.” Science News 100.13 (1971): 204. Web. <http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/214/393/A-Vision-for-High-Speed-Rail-in-the-Northeast-Corridor.pdf>.
  10. “High-Speed Rail Transport for the Northeast Corridor.” Science News 100.13 (1971): 204. Web. <http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/214/393/A-Vision-for-High-Speed-Rail-in-the-Northeast-Corridor.pdf>.
  11. Lei, Zhao. “China’s High-speed Rail Network Is on the Global Fast Track.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/china-watch/technology/11540416/chinas-high-speed-rail-network.html>.
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