2020 election gives big push to growing momentum for U.S. high-speed rail

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to “spark the second great railroad revolution” and is one of the nation’s strongest advocates for major investments in passenger rail and transit systems.

On high-speed rail specifically, Biden endorses a nationwide network approach in his plan for fighting climate change. “Across the Midwest and the Great West,” according to the plan, we “will begin the construction of an end-to-end high speed rail system that will connect the coasts, unlocking new, affordable access for every American.” This is the strategy the Alliance favors in in our Integrated Network Approach.

Biden’s plan also promised to link Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains with the South and complete a project in the Chicago region (called CREATE) that upgrades rail connections, “which could cut in half the time it takes vital goods to move through the country.”

Biden—who said in a debate last winter that he would “invest in rail, rail, rail” if elected—also laid out his vision for transportation in his infrastructure plan. His goal for the U.S. economy is to reach net zero emissions by 2050, with new and upgraded rail and transit systems as a major driver of lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Specifically, the Biden plan promised:

  • To create the “cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world—for both passengers and freight”—with U.S. Dept. of Transportation grant and loan programs and a streamlined loan process.
  • To “transform the energy sources that power the transportation sector, making it easier for mobility to be powered by electricity and clean fuels, including commuter trains, school and transit buses, ferries, and passenger vehicles.” The plan also sets the goal that all buses built in the U.S. will be zero emissions by 2030, and promises that “Biden will work with Amtrak and private freight rail companies to further electrify the rail system, reducing diesel fuel emissions.”
  • To “make sure that new, fast-growing areas are designed and built with clean and resilient public transit in mind. Specifically, [Biden] will create a new program that gives rapidly expanding communities the resources to build in public transit options from the start.”

It is uncertain how receptive the new Congress will be to these priorities, but significant legislative energy has been devoted to passenger rail, especially in the House, over the past few months. And there are some big recent wins for major passenger rail projects across the U.S.

The Alliance is tracking all of these developments. A few highlights:

  • Last spring, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) released a vision for a national high-speed rail network, calling for $205 billion in investments in high-speed rail over five years. “We’ve never had this kind of investment in high-speed rail,” Moulton told Alliance members in a recent video chat. “But we’ve certainly had it in our airline system and in our highway system. So, let’s level the playing field and let free competition have a say and give people the freedom to choose.” Find details here.
  • In July, the Surface Transportation Board ruled that Texas Central’s planned 240-mile, 200 mph high-speed line between Dallas and Houston is subject to its jurisdiction, reversing a 2016 decision by the same body. The ruling is a win because the federal agency has the power to exempt projects from local and state regulations. In September, the project received its final environmental clearance, and the Federal Railroad Administration released a set of comprehensive safety standards to govern its operation. It’s the first time the FRA has published comprehensive rules for trains that exceed 160 mph. Texas Central plans to begin construction next year. Find details here, and watch the Alliance’s recent video chat with Travis Kelly, Vice President of Texas Central, here.
  • This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill calling for major investments in rail and transit systems. For example, it would create a $19 billion grant program to fund capital projects that expand intercity or enhance passenger rail systems, including high-speed trains. Find details here.
  • This fall, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded substantial grants to projects in California, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. The grant in North Carolina helps to advance the goal of a 110 mph line between Raleigh and Richmond, Virginia. The California grant will lead to upgraded service and frequency of passenger trains in California by funding fixes to a major bottleneck in Stockton. And the Wisconsin grant will fund infrastructure upgrades that reduce delays and make possible a second daily Amtrak train between Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St.Paul. Find details here, and join the Alliance’s video chat about rail projects in Virginia on Dec. 4.

In short, the momentum for better trains in the U.S. is near a tipping point.

Trains have strong, proven, bipartisan support—reflected in the protest of cuts to Amtrak service by nine Republican and seven Democratic senators over the summer. It’s critical to keep the pressure on and keep pushing the movement forward right now.

The Alliance will continue our work of organizing, informing and connecting people who want fast, frequent trains in the U.S. By making our voices heard in Congress, we’ll translate the energy and momentum of the past few months into concrete results over the coming years.

Please take a moment to make a donation, sign our petition to Congress and sign up to be a volunteer.

With your help, we’ll hold the new administration to its promise to spark a second railroad revolution in America.

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