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Ed Perkins on Travel: Amtrak's infrastructure bill wish list

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An Amtrak train is readied to start a journey from San Diego to Los Angeles.

Amtrak already has a list of projects to fund if it gets the billions it expects from a big infrastructure bill. And some of its proposals can be put into effect rapidly, which is a big change from many other infrastructure proposals. Typically, even "shovel ready" projects need years to show results, but some of Amtrak's ideas are "service ready." Basically, infrastructure required for many Amtrak needs is already in place: Amtrak just adds trains to existing operational rail systems. So Amtrak can quickly add as many routes as it is able to equip and staff within a short time.

New Routes. Amtrak's publicity says it will add 30 new routes. Mostly, they're either short branches from major hubs or detours/additions to existing long-haul routes. Among the more interesting:

• Los Angeles to Las Vegas; presumably on the Union Pacific line, not the proposed Brightline high-speed line.

• Adding Phoenix to the main southern transcon line, probably as a new day train operating Tucson to Phoenix to Los Angeles, but maybe including a rerouting of the Southwest Chief.

• Cheyenne to Denver to Pueblo, linking the main "Front Range" centers.

• Dallas to Houston via College Station.

• North from Oklahoma City to link with the Southwest Chief route at Newton, Kansas.

• Minneapolis to Duluth, and Minneapolis to Chicago via Eau Claire and Madison.

• Milwaukee-Green Bay to the Packers Special.

• Branches from Chicago to Iowa City and to Rockford.

• Indianapolis to Louisville, restoring a previously canceled route.

• Branches from Atlanta to Nashville, to Montgomery, and to Savannah.

• Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati.

• Toledo and Detroit to Toronto through southern Ontario.

• Extension of the Vermonter from St. Albans to Montreal.

• Short branches from other main Eastern cities.

Amtrak also plans new trains on shorter segments of its current long-haul routes to provide true local transportation at convenient times, which its current long-haul trains often do not do. Although Amtrak operates four daily trains through Cleveland, for example, they all arrive and depart at inconvenient hours and aren't really attractive to travelers looking to connect to/from, say, Buffalo or Rochester. New daily daytime Cleveland to Buffalo trains would fill that gap. Similar possibilities exist on many other parts of the system. But the plan proposes no completely new long-haul routes.

Presumably, Amtrak's plans also include some longer-term projects. Most notably, it has longstanding plans to increase top speeds on the several 400-mile runs radiating from Chicago to 110 miles per hour — not true "high speed," but enough higher to make trains look a lot better. Unfortunately, building and maintaining track to 110-mph standards is an expensive and slow process, and you won't see results any time soon.

In my view, the new plans don't go far enough to provide conveniently timed service on long-haul segments. I have relatives in Redding, California, for example, and they might well want to take a train to Sacramento or Portland. But today, the Coast Starlight stops southbound at 2:21 am and northbound at 3:06 am; in effect, neither really viable for local transport. You can find lots of similar situations throughout the current system. Moreover, even though Amtrak has statutory authority requiring private railroads to accept its trains, it can run into problems scoring specific operational schedules, a fight it's currently having for a proposed Mobile to New Orleans train.

Another disappointment: I didn't see anything in the current release about returning sleeper service to historical levels, which needs to be done. In a previous column, I concluded that most people traveling on Amtrak's sleepers do so for the total experience, not just to get from point A to point B. And a complete overnight train experience requires full dining car meals cooked to order, not microwaved box lunches.

All in all, the current new-money plan looks reasonably attractive, especially those new services that can be started within months, rather than years. Still, the old Ray McKinley vocal comes to mind: "You came a long way…but you've still got a long way to go."

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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