Guest Blog by Dan Bilka

Image: Proposed Routes for Sec. 22214 Studies, primary routing options highlighted in yellow. Base map: Rail Passengers Association “Grid and Gateway” Vision Map.  

Over a half century ago, the United States created Amtrak to rescue the vestiges of a once thriving national passenger rail system operated by private railroads. Posting record ridership prior to the pandemic, Amtrak has become an integral part of over 500 communities nationwide. 

Yet we can do much better. The creation of Amtrak itself resulted in large swaths of the country being left without passenger rail service literally overnight. Since then, while Amtrak has opened a handful of new routes and boosted frequencies on others, it has also abandoned thousands of miles of long-distance trains, leaving major cities and rural communities alike far from service. 

Last year’s passage of the Bi-partisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is a once-in-generations opportunity to go beyond the status quo of previous decades. We have the opportunity, and I say obligation, to start constructing a National Network in the true sense of the word.  A National Network means one that provides passenger rail service to all parts of the country, not one that leaves entire swaths isolated without service. In recognition of the call to action made by Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews, I want to do what I can to ensure these funds are spent “are spent wisely and well.”

My primary purpose for this writing is careful consideration for routes to be selected under Sec. 22214 (the Tester Amendment), the “Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study” in order to garner the most “bang for our buck” for enhancement and growth of our National Network, the backbone for all other routes and services. Long-distance routes are not “Legacy” routes as described by some, they are “Multipurpose mobility machines“; lifelines for rural America. They are the proper scale and type of service to initiate passenger rail where we have no such services today. The primary market for long-distance national network services is not the endpoint-to-endpoint (i.e., Chicago to Los Angeles) but service to the hundreds of communities in between major hubs.

I thank Senator Jon Tester along with Sens. Wicker and Manchin for getting this language into the Bill and ensuring it wasn’t negatively altered along the way. We as a nation must make a commitment to all our citizens, including those in so-called “flyover country”.

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