May 18, 2021

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Amtrak boss has a plan to make you love trains again. Will it work?

Amtrak boss has a plan to make you love trains again.  Will it work?

In much of the United States, taking the train isn’t exactly convenient. Slow service, delays and poor access often make alternatives like flying or driving more attractive. But on March 31, President Joe Biden – nicknamed “Amtrak Joe” for his frequent trips between Delaware and Washington, DC – unveiled his American Jobs Plan, which among other things proposes $ 80 billion in new funding for Amtrak. the country’s main passenger rail service. Could that be enough money to get the country the high-speed rail network it deserves?

Probably not. But Amtrak CEO William Flynn, who took over the semi-public for-profit rail operator last spring, has big plans regardless. Before the pandemic, Amtrak – which turned 50 on May 1 – appeared to be on track: it posted revenue of around $ 3.5 billion in fiscal 2019, up nearly 3.5% year-on-year. , thanks above all to the record number of passengers. . But revenue plummeted about 31% in 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak, dropping to $ 2.4 billion in fiscal 2020. After weathering the pandemic, Flynn’s next job is to get it started again. Amtrak, as well as dealing with skeptical lawmakers who claim that a partially subsidized service is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

In a recent interview with TIME, Flynn said his first priority is expanding passenger service to new cities, while also evaluating and repairing existing infrastructure, mainly along the vital Northeast Corridor, which runs between Washington, DC, through New York City and up to Boston. and carried 12.5 million passengers in 2019. Flynn says about half of the $ 80 billion would go towards long-awaited repairs to centuries-old infrastructure along that route, such as the East River Tunnel, Hudson River Tunnel, and the Susquehanna River Bridge. The remainder would be used to expand inter-city passenger rail service and repair infrastructure outside the northeastern corridor.

“It really underscores the level of investment required from two points of view,” says Flynn. “To bring our Northeast Corridor and overall underlying infrastructure from Washington to Boston in a good state, because there have been decades of underinvestment in that corridor. But in addition, the president has talked about expanding intercity rail passenger transport across our country, and for that we also have a very clear plan and strategy. “

Tom Williams – CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty ImagesWilliam Flynn, right, Amtrak president and CEO, and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., Testify at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing titled “Passengers and Freight Trains: The Current State of the Network railway and tracks to go “Wednesday 21 October 2020.

What about high-speed trains? The United States leads the world with over 125,000 miles of rail lines crisscrossing the country, but the speed is significantly slowed. The United States does not have a single high-speed rail line, as measured by the International Union of Railways, which argues that “high-speed” trains should reach speeds of 124-155 miles per hour. Over the years, myriads of ultra-fast projects have been proposed. Microsoft, headquartered in Redmond, Washington, has invested more than half a million dollars in feasibility studies related to the Cascadia Rail high-speed project, an effort to connect cities in the Pacific Northwest. Texas Central Railway, a private railway company, is in talks to build a high-speed line connecting Dallas and Houston. Finally, after multiple delays and budget overruns, the California High Speed ​​Rail Authority project aims to begin service around 2029, according to CEO Brian Kelly. But none of these projects are remotely nearly complete, and any of them could be derailed along the way.

Amtrak is planning some small speed updates. Improvements along the Northeast Corridor will allow Amtrak’s latest Acela trains to reach a maximum speed of approximately 155 miles per hour, but this will only be possible along approximately 35 miles of track between Boston and New Haven, Conn. For the rest of the route, cyclists can expect a louder top speed of around 90mph. In contrast, true high-speed rail systems in countries like Japan and France can reach up to 200 miles per hour for long stretches of rail. But true high-speed rail isn’t on the table for Amtrak, which is in dire need of basic repairs and other investments before major upgrades are possible.

However, Amtrak cyclists may expect small improvements in the near future, such as more frequent trains and services in new cities, including Chattanooga, Tennessee. and Columbus, Ohio. “As we try to grow, as we look at those very large communities that today have no or very little passenger rail service, much of that growth will occur on rail freight infrastructure,” he says.

This could be a tricky short-term strategy. After all, it is easier to put more trains on existing lines than to build high-speed trains, which requires massive investments and solutions to problems such as land rights. But the plan may not appeal to motorcyclists. Amtrak lines that rely on rail travel often experience delays, as freight trains take priority over their passenger-carrying cousins, contributing to Amtrak’s reputation for slow service. Additionally, Christopher Barkan, a professor at the University of Illinois and executive director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center (RailTEC), says running more passenger trains on freight lines could reduce freight rail operators’ profits. “They have enough infrastructure to meet their needs,” says Barkan. “So if we want to add passenger trains to this network, we need to add more sophisticated infrastructure and control systems.”

Amtrak delay
Drew Angerer – Getty ImagesPassengers line up to board a delayed Amtrak train at New York’s Penn Station on June 19, 2019 in New York City.

Some railroad advocates argue that bringing the speed of US trains on par with that of other countries is the only way to get Americans back to the tracks – and there are environmental benefits to be started, as high-speed lines are typically electrified. eliminating the need for diesel engines. At least one US Congressman is pushing the Biden administration to think big. “If we just put more passenger trains on already congested freight lines, people won’t leave their cars to catch the train,” says Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, a Democrat. In December last year, he presented a bill calling for the construction of an ambitious national high-speed rail system. Its American High-Speed ​​Rail Act, currently reported to the commission, requires $ 205 billion in federal investment over five years and “would promote a growing national high-speed rail network, including the designation of new corridors,” for a summary. from his office, as well as encouraging public-private partnerships, a strategy that has proven to be successful in countries like Japan.

“Americans will take the train if the service is better, that’s the bottom line,” Moulton adds. “If you have the choice between a five to six hour journey in congested traffic or a 90 minute journey with a huge reclining seat and bar service, take the train.”

For now, Flynn hopes a more realistic strategy will help Amtrak find its way out of the pandemic and get back into the hearts of Americans, especially as people feel more and more comfortable traveling as the mass vaccination continues. “There is so much latent capacity in existing facilities that in some places they need reinvestment where … we can build train schedules and services that you and I would like to take,” says Flynn. “That investment must be the key to the strategy, the national strategy.”

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