Among modern presidents, it is fair to say Biden has no parallel for his love of trains. He famously commuted from Delaware to Washington, D.C., daily for his entire 36 years in the Senate. He launched his first run at the White House in 1988 standing on the back of a train and even took a train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania after that first chaotic general election debate last year. During the 2020 convention, one of the bio videos that organizers put together focused on Biden’s relationship with Amtrak workers.
This all made last week’s speech more exciting for railfans like Cupper, Goldfeder and Shughart. If ever a president was going to debut some truly historic rail policy, it would be this one. But Biden never actually talked about the amount of money he’s offering up for rail investment (though all three men know from prior reporting that there will be $80 billion for Amtrak, modernizing the Northeast Corridor and $85 billion for other existing transit). In fact, his comments about rail were rather brief.
As Biden left the lectern, Goldfeder pulled out his yellow legal pad of notes he’d been taking during the speech. “I did notice the first thing he mentioned when he went into details, the railroads were mentioned first. And he said something quite striking,” he said. “He’s talking about a coast-to-coast, high speed railroad passenger train. It’s rather breathtaking.”
But not everyone is sold. Shughart, a rail consultant jumped in: “He’s not going to build a high speed rail coast to coast with this money.”
“Well,” Cupper added, “he’s really talking about high speed being available from coast to coast in selected corridors.”
It just got deeper from there. They were under no illusion that rail was going to be the biggest chunk of the $2 trillion bill. They acknowledged it’s less than the roads and bridges portion. Goldfeder said “the word ‘enough’ hardly ever applies [to rail].” But he added, the $80 billion is “certainly a significant start.”
Cupper piped up: “Let’s talk about the next 50 years for Amtrak. They’ve never had the funding to do what’s needed. Highways have always had a gas tax, airports have a dedicated funding source but Amtrak has never had a dedicated funding [federal subsidy].”
Still, it seems they are just happy to be at the party, after two presidencies without enough focus or follow through on infrastructure. It’s a party that Shugart has made his life’s work. His obsession started with curiosity, “always wondering where that train is going, what they’re carrying, the mystery of it. That just a few people can move 10,000, 15,000 tons of stuff is just neat. That you can harness that much power.”
He started working for a railroad company that downsized after 9/11, but found a gig as a consultant and has done it ever since. Chatting with Cupper and Goldfeder, Shughart said it was “powerful” to hear Biden lean on that bipartisan history of rail support.
By the time the conversation ended, Cupper, Goldfeder and Shughart were hyped. They log off with the new information on Biden’s plans and fingers crossed that the administration can get some of it done.
Shughart has also emailed the other two (and this reporter) all the information necessary to sign up for his Argentina trip. The other two men seemed pretty interested. Even if Biden’s bill doesn’t come to pass, they’ll have that to look forward to.