Revised Amtrak Mandate Could Allow for 'Paradigm-Shifting' Changes

Language in the new infrastructure bill calls for the agency to prioritize ridership and service levels over profitability.

August 22, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


"2021 will be a defining moment for the future of passenger rail in America," writes Jake Blumgart. "Amtrak faces huge challenges, but the systemic changes to travel and work life wrought by the pandemic also present an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how the agency operates." Meanwhile, the new infrastructure bill "could allow Amtrak’s executives to make paradigm-shifting operational changes — placing ridership over revenues and faster speeds over minimizing costs."

"In a country where transportation is the largest source of greenhouse emissions, there is no cleaner way to travel than by train." But the business travel that was the lifeblood of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor services "remains severely constrained," and prohibitively expensive fares lead travelers to choose driving instead. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, it isn't the cost but rather "the infrequency and unreliability of the trains that makes Amtrak uncompetitive."

Part of the problem, says Blumgart, is Amtrak's history: "the legislation creating Amtrak specifies that it should be operated and managed as a for-profit service, something that no other country’s rail network requires or accomplishes." According to Amtrak public relations manager Kimberly Woods, "[b]ecause Amtrak is operated as a for-profit company and is required by law to maximize revenues, its fares vary based upon demand, like airlines and intercity buses." The revised mandate proposed in the infrastructure bill "would get rid of the Nixon-era language about minimizing subsidies and instead refocus the agency’s mission on expanding passenger rail capacity and adding ridership," giving it more flexibility to experiment with fare structures. "Just as owners of office buildings and commuter rail lines are being forced to grapple with a new reality, perhaps changes to ridership wrought by the pandemic will force policymakers to change."

Friday, August 13, 2021 in Governing

A conceptual rendering of three high-speed rail trains. The middle train is orange; the other two are black.

The California High-Speed Rail Project Illustrates America’s Transit Issues

Slow progress and a bloated budget have plagued the High-Speed Rail project linking San Francisco to Los Angeles, exposing deeper issues with American transit projects.

May 22, 2022 - Eric Carlson

Single-Family Housing Construction

New White House Housing Initiative Includes Zoning Reform Incentives

The Biden administration this morning released a new program of actions intended to spur housing construction around the United States.

May 16, 2022 - The White House

Parent and child walking, holding hands on mixed-use trail with trees

What Role Does Health Care Play in Community Development?

Cities are economically diverse and require accessible health care systems, but this can be challenging to implement. Urban developers are working alongside health professionals to create affordable care for city residents.

May 18, 2022 - Devin Partida

Klamath River

Dams on the Way Out on Two California Rivers

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history is about to commence on the Klamath River. Due to a recent development, a dam on the Eel River is also on expected for decommission.

May 25 - San Francisco Chronicle

Site of future Beyer Park

Federal Funds Helping to Create New Parks in San Diego County

The Beyer Park project in San Ysidro and Sweetwater Park development in Chula Vista each received $5 million grants from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

May 25 - Fox 5

Community Transit buses at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Bus System Redesign Paired With New Light Rail Service Near Seattle

Community Transit, the public transit authority for Snohomish County, Washington, is redesigning its bus system to plan ahead for the Lynwood Link Extension, currently more than halfway done with construction.

May 25 - The Urbanist

HUD’s 2022 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Expanding HUD’s Eviction Protection Grant Program

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on The Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.