America may be poised for a rail renaissance, one that could someday fulfill dreams of a high-speed network connecting major U.S. cities.
In November, President Joe Biden signed a once-in-a-generation infrastructure upgrade that, among other things, provides $66 billion for rail projects that will modernize existing rail lines, fix notorious trouble spots on the Northeast Corridor by 2035 and expand service options.
The funding represents the largest financial infusion in the half-century history of Amtrak, the national passenger-rail operator, which historically has subsisted with annual federal subsidies in the $1.5 billion to $2 billion range.
"That Congress has set aside money to start — and I want to be clear — start to develop a high-quality network is a huge, huge step in the right direction," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed Rail Alliance.
If the fresh funding provides a firmer foundation for the status quo, it does not necessarily, at least in the short term, alter the fundamentals of passenger rail's role in the larger transportation realm.
For those who imagine high-speed trains regularly zipping travelers between cities at speeds of 186 mph or greater — a threshold most rail experts consider the start of true "high-speed rail" — that future remains in an embryonic state.