As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled the transportation sector from buses to air travel, the downturn has been felt keenly in U.S. intercity rail passenger service, which was already suffering from a chronic lack of capital investment. Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station, rated Amtrak’s 8th busiest, has been something of a ghost town this past year with ridership sliding from 1.1 million Amtrak boardings in Fiscal 2019 to, based on national trends, about half that. And there’s no real doubt about the cause: Public transit requires people to be in relatively close proximity in confined spaces, which is exactly what public health officials are suggesting people avoid. That’s why Amtrak ridership nationally fell off a proverbial cliff plunging to 16.8 million customer trips in 2020, which was more than 15 million fewer than the previous year.
But those who would use these results to forecast Amtrak’s imminent demise ought to take a second look. In the short term, the system’s drop in operating revenue got a modest boost from the latest pandemic relief bill that President Donald Trump reluctantly signed on Dec. 27. The $900-billion measure contained about $45 billion for the struggling transportation sector including $1 billion for Amtrak. That’s not a game-changer but it should help keep the system intact as vaccinations move forward and prospects for a return to normalcy increase. People will hop back on trains, both commuter and long-distance, just as they did after the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. It’s not really a question of if, so much as when.
More importantly, there are reasons to believe there’s a brighter future here. For one, President-elect Joe Biden is an Amtrak cheerleader, and his support is likely to make a difference. But that’s just one political asset. Prior to the pandemic, Amtrak ridership was on a quiet upswing — including in Baltimore where Penn Station serves (at least until this past year) more commuters than any other East Coast city not named New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. And two major upgrades loom. The first was last Friday’s opening of New York’s $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall after three years of construction replacing dingy Penn Station across the street. But the next is even bigger: Acela’s new high-speed trains capable of speeds above 160 miles per hour that Amtrak expects to have in service in the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2021.
Fast and sleek, the trains are finally closing the gap with European and Asian high-speed service (they’re being built by the same company that supplies the TGV in France). And, under the Biden administration, one assumes that some overdue track infrastructure projects will follow including replacing West Baltimore’s 144-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel at a cost of $4.5 billion, a project long in planning but short in the federal funding. There is, after all, little point in having high-speed trains if they are reduced to a crawl when navigating the short segment between Penn Station and the West Baltimore MARC station. Why go to such an expense? Because passenger rail isn’t just a nod to the past, it’s an important part of the nation’s transportation future. Energy-efficient electrified passengers trains are among the lowest producers of greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle mile traveled.
Perhaps some day Baltimore will be a key stop for advanced magnetic levitation (maglev) trains, but for the near-term, Amtrak’s next-generation high-speed rail looks awfully attractive. And that’s likely why Baltimore is pursing Penn Station redevelopment and expansion that will include shops and eateries, outdoor spaces and soaring glass windows that will turn the midtown facility into a modern transit hub. Amtrak expansion is exactly the sort of investment that can take advantage of Baltimore’s top assets, its Northeast location, its affordability, historic charms and connectivity. Make a rail commute fast, reliable and convenient and more people are bound to work in places like D.C. but come home to neighborhoods like nearby Mount Vernon or Johns Hopkins-Homewood.
If the Biden administration is serious about climate change (and it appears to be) and the incoming president is the fan of high-speed rail that he has presented himself to be, Penn Station may prove to be one of this city’s most undervalued assets. If 2020 is remembered for Amtrak service cuts, layoffs and financial woes, perhaps 2021 will someday be recalled as the year when the future of passenger rail made a 180-degree turn. It would be nice for Baltimore to be on board when that happens.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.