Amtrak: Winner by default in high speed rail contest


Last month the Obama Administration announced which high speed rail projects across the country will receive portions of the $8 billion in Recovery act funds dedicated to advancing high speed technology in the country. However, the largest single beneficiary of the spending did not directly receive a dime. Amtrak, the federally funded rail company, will benefit from $4.5 billion worth of improvements to the infrastructure that its trains run on. That’s in addition to the $1.3 billion in stimulus money the company received last year for capital improvements. The nearly $6 billion will supplement the annual appropriation it receives from Congress which is scheduled to exceed $1 billion through 2013.

While the largest intercity rail passenger rail service in the nation, might seem a logical beneficiary of the high speed initiative currently underway, Amtrak has no plans of advancing this mission on its own, and didn’t apply for any of the funds. But the high-speed rail initiative is going to advance Amtrak.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, the biggest winner of all the applicants with a $2.25 billion grant, is going to lay groundwork for a new rail system that they hope will be the countrys first true high-speed line. Other California recipients will also receive close to $100 million in funds that are not going to be put entirely towards advancing high-speed, but upgrading routes Amtrak operates on in the state. 

Funds for projects like the ones in California, which will improve Amtrak routes, are spread across the country. According to a press release put out by Amtrak, the money will impact at least 13 of its routes.

Meanwhile, one third of the money is not going to directly advance high speed rail, if at all.  According to project descriptions of the winning applications, only about $6 billion of that money will go to directly advancing the high speed initiative, with only $3.5 billion going to new, dedicated high speed rail systems in California and Florida. 

Rail advocates, like Ross Capon, CEO of the National Association of Rail Passengers, says this is fine.

“You have to crawl before you can walk, Capon says about putting the additional $2 billion of high speed money toward general  infrastructure improvements meant to improve on time performance , reduce trip times and renovate existing stations of passenger rail systems that are currently in operation.