Unbelievable news - the Senate just passed a 6-year, $11 billion funding package for Amtrak! Compared to the paltry $1.3 billion Amtrak received last year - and contrary to Bush's plan to break it apart and force privatization - this new plan gives Amtrak about $2 billion a year to play with. This is the first time in many years that Amtrak is being provided with multiple years of stable funding - and without the threat of politicians trying to kill the organization. And, considering that last year 25 million people rode the rails - using one of the most energy efficient forms of transportation available, this is going to be one of the key methods to mitigate environmental damage from transportation.
However, it might help to keep things in perspective - the 2006 federal transportation funding levels broke down to $40 billion for highways and $14 billion for the airlines - so this is just a drop in the bucket. However, it certainly has the potential to be a jumping-off point for expanding passenger rail service in the US, much like we have seen with the resurgence of light-rail urban transit systems in the US (something like 30+ cities have light rail under planning or construction, whereas 10 years ago only a handful of lines were operating.).
The interesting thing is that Amtrak is going to be focusing primarily on the intercity rail corridors that have proved so popular over the past decade - city-to-city travel, such as the Northwest's Cascades (Eugene - Vancouver, BC) and California's ever-popular Pacific Surfliner (San Diego - San Luis Obispo). Both of these routes are medium length, 467 miles and 350 miles, respectively, and have enjoyed steady growth in ridership over the past decade or so. In fact, the Pacific Surfliner has the second-highest ridership levels for an Amtrak route outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's Acela high-speed rail line (DC - Boston).
Unfortunately, unlike Acela's electrified and heavily-urbanized corridor, most of the rail lines in the rest of the country connect disparate locations, oftentimes rust belt cities with dwindling populations (Detroit, Cleveland, etc), or urban-sprawl oriented low-density metropolises (LA) that are much harder to serve with a centralized point-to-point system. On the other hand, statistics speak for themselves - even Los Angeles, the King of Cars, has major plans for rail transit. At the same time, Puget Sound has established its ultra-popular Sounder commuter rail system, and Portland will be opening its Wilsonville - Beaverton commuter rail line in 2008.
The longer-distance Amtrak trains give riders unique - and incredibly beautiful - perspectives on the vast interior wilderness of our country that few get to see from the Interstates. Hopefully these lines won't be put on the chopping block and will be preserved for future generations to experience - even if they aren't very useful for transportation.
Of course, when I heard about the news, my thoughts turned to Europe and my experience riding the rail systems that they have - long established with dedicated lines, conducive transit-friendly land use patterns, centralized stations, and massive investments in dedicated high-speed trunk lines (the Chunnel ride was particularly notable). However, as depressing as it is to compare the US to Europe, Japan and other industrialized nations, it probably won't be too long before we're investing billions and billions into new infrastructure projects - California's High Speed Rail project just got a shot in the arm recently, and the proposed HSR lines to Vegas and Florida still live on in someone's dreams.
And we can't just let France have all the fun!