Q&A: Amtrak President Joe Boardman on the Rational Inevitability of High-Speed Rail

Rendering of an Amtrak NextGen high-speed rail train. 

Amtrak plans to build a next generation high-speed rail network along the east coast zipping business travelers from New York to Philadelphia (or D.C.) fast enough to get them to their cheesesteak power lunch in a little more than half an hour. But the $151 billion plan lacks a dedicated funding source--a source that railroad executives are asking Congress to provide at a time of hostility to big projects. So Transportation Nation's Alex Goldmark chatted with Amtrak President and CEO, Joe Boardman about the future of our nation's rail network, and the prospects for Northeast corridor bullet trains in particular.

"The same kinds of arguments were delivered during the days of the building of the Erie Canal."

Amtrak's president predicted the business community will demand high-speed rail in the Northeast and pressure Congress to overcome its spending worries. He compared today's opponents of high speed rail to early 19th century naysayers of the Erie Canal, which enriched the city by bringing the bounty of the American midwest through the port of New York. Boardman believes we face a crisis of mobility similar to the one two centuries ago and that, this time, instead of canals, rail is the solution.

Joe Boardman: I think one of the things that’s most important is it’s really critical to the business community of the Northeast to have mobility and an ability to have the clustering of new technology companies. That will not happen if you do not have the mobility of something like high-speed rail for the Northeast and the increase in capacity [that would bring].

"It’s really critical to the business community..."

TN: What kind of upgrades are we talking about?

JB: A critical need here is to actually increase the capacity by actually increasing the number of tracks: having two new tunnels [under the Hudson River], improving the space within Penn Station itself, putting in a new Portal Bridge [in Northeast New Jersey], to make sure that gets done properly for the speeds we want to operate. And for the lack of being held up by movable bridges.

New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak are all working together we can begin to make a change for the future, and I think it will be a change that is very positive for the business community and all in the Northeast.

"I think the opportunities for having this funded over the next several decades are excellent."

TN: Is it realistic to expect Congress to find $151 billion for high-speed rail in the Northeast?

JB: I think the opportunities for having this funded over the next several decades are excellent. I think clearly it is absolutely required. I think it will include all levels of government and include the revenues that will come back from the improvements that we will provide for the customers in the Northeast.

JB: You’ve got right now about 20 percent of the GDP coming out of the Northeast United States. If we don’t fix this [mobility] problem, that won’t last. So the business community in the Northeast, as it begins to wake up to what’s necessary to have the free flowing mobility … is going to need to look at reasonable solutions to that mobility. That’s train travel.

"Look at China right now. A lot of the increase in their ridership came from induced demand."

TN: Aren't there other ways to get around besides the train?

JB: You can look at China right now. A lot of the increase in their ridership came from induced demand, not from taking from any other mode. You’re still going to need the highways, you’re going to need aviation, but you’re not going to be able to grow with the projection of the population of the Northeast unless what you do is improve capacity. The place to make that happen is the railroad.

And the railroad then will receive the kind of state, local, federal funds necessary -- and in some cases the indebtedness necessary -- for the railroad itself to pay off those debts in the future.

"What mode of transportation can really get built and then begin to generate revenues? "

 TN: Isn't there a reluctance to spend on large infrastructure projects?

JB: If that’s an obstacle, what mode of transportation can really get built and then begin to generate revenues? Not the highways. Not the airports largely. But on rail, what we’ve shown is an improvement in such a way that when you make these investments there is a surplus of revenues that are going to come forward. Where would you most likely want to make that investments then? It’s to the rail.

TN: Maybe the critics are right to say, "Let's delay high-speed rail and make do with what we have until we get our financial house in order."

JB: The same kinds of arguments were delivered during the days of the building of the Erie Canal. But once people saw the ability to really move products and move people in a much cheaper way and get greater mobility ... then the investments became available.

So I’m much more positive about the ability -- in the future -- for this country, and the younger people coming forward who are going to use this, to make those investments, to make us a continuing global competitor in the world.

*Transcript abridged for clarity.