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Economic Costs of a Failing Train System

Sitting at the Amtrak Utica Station, I found myself waiting three hours past my chosen departure time due to an infrastructure failure a couple of stations ahead. There, as I stared at the intricate ceiling above me and observed the crowd waiting, I began to wonder how the United States railroad system had changed throughout the years—and what our government was doing to improve it. I discovered that the train system has been staggering over the past decades as transportation technology has evolved, and it’s costing the nation billions. 

At one point, the transnational railroad systems made the U.S. into an economic superpower. Just a century ago, the United States had by far the largest and best passenger rail network in the world, connecting the West and East coasts and boosting business along its route. As this network grew with the Industrial Revolution and the demands of production from the World Wars, the U.S. created many government organizations, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), that began to treat the railroad system as a monopoly, despite the equal competition that airlines, trucks and other new technologies posed. This is a key factor that contributed to the current failure of the government to support the nation with modern connectivity.

By the 1950s, railroads were closing as more people used airlines and local transportation for travel. Then, after Penn Central Railroad filed for bankruptcy in 1970, the government established Amtrak to maintain the national network, but it only invested the bare minimum into the system. This meant that Amtrak couldn’t properly upgrade its systems and increase its appeal, resulting in significant money loss over time. This failure to improve significantly disappoints local governments near these railroads and fails to see the benefits of connectivity. Civic leaders seek connections to passenger rail networks, but Congress has yet to act on those interests

In June 2023, Amtrak trains were delayed by 1.42 million minutes, up 9% from the previous quarter and 10% from 2022. The drastic issue illustrated by this staggering statistic is worsened by the superior transportation systems in other nations. Recently, China has created a network of high-speed rail bullet trains that connect passengers from city to city in record time. This illustrates the potential for efficient, reliant train systems. Without one of these systems, the lack of connectivity between areas causes polarized ideologies that can worsen local tensions. Public advocates of national transportation have pushed Amtrak to prioritize service over profit. In December 2023, the Biden-Harris Administration announced $8.2 billion in new funding for 10 major passenger rail projects across the country, which includes the first world-class high-speed rail projects in the United States. 

However, investing in these systems does not mean they will succeed. Congress must agree to make way for a more passenger-focused use of the railroads. Even though by law, Amtrak has legal priority in railroads, freight trains represent the largest cause of passenger delays. For once an Amtrak train is delayed, freight trains have priority on that railway. Congress has proposed a bill that would allow Amtrak to enforce passenger priority, but the law has been stalled by Congress. 

Despite the push for upgraded railways, opponents believe that the cost of building the infrastructure and maintaining it to precise conditions is far too costly for its intended benefits. Some opponents argue that a high-speed rail would not be better for the environment, it wouldn’t help the economy and the effort it would take to build the network would be a national hassle. However, other experts argue that the economic benefits of high-speed rails are immeasurable because of their history of connecting the nation economically and boosting business. High-speed rails have also been a source of energy efficiency from climate change experts and have proven to be better for the environment in terms of carbon emissions.

After all this research, I perceived the three-hour delay at Utica Station to be a failure of the U.S. government. Upon learning of the national rail system’s potential, I am immediately disappointed by the government’s inability to efficiently act against its contemporary challenges. As a country, we underemphasize just how much passenger railroad systems can revitalize local and national economies and contribute to the greater equity of the nation. The country must move in a more progressive direction to meet the future demands of sustainability and international competition and close the widening gaps of inequality. 

Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author.

3 comentarios

Ellie Bai
Ellie Bai
17 jun

Hi Anny,

Great job! I particularly resonate with the point about the potentially enormous economic cost of a transportation system failure. Such failures could drastically affect production efficiency and labor mobility, especially in remote areas and for individuals with limited ability to afford private transportation, and also the issue of energy efficiency as you highlighted.

To promote public transportation as a strategy to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment, such as with railways, maintaining public trust in these systems is critical. Therefore, addressing challenges to the public perception and reputation of major players like Amtrak should be a collaborative effort with the government to ensure broader impact.

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Ella Song
Ella Song
15 jun

Super interesting—I didn't know the history of Amtrak! And you're right, the economic AND environmental benefits of investing in our railways are important to talk about recognize

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I agree with you, the government has failed us with accessible transportation. Ever since Henry Ford, the U.S. has been building infrastructure around cars and investing less and less money into other transportation forms.

Now, we're feeling the effects.

The potential of our railways is immense. If we were to use renewable energy to power them, we could decrease our emissions while simultaneously boosting our economy.

As you said, our railway potential is highly undervalued by many.

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