As millions of Thanksgiving travelers prep for train trips between Washington, D.C., and New York City this week, Amazon’s
HQ2 announcement is giving passengers on the delay-ridden route something they haven’t felt in years: hope.
While car and subway commuters in Long Island City, N.Y., and Crystal City, Va., worry their trips to work will get worse, some heavy-rail train travelers between the two cities see reason for some optimism. With 25,000 new Amazon employees headed to each city, there’s bound to be some traveling back and forth, the reasoning goes. That prospect has train commuters and transportation advocates hoping the route will see long-awaited upgrades as a result.
‘It really could do a lot for the region and help be an accelerant to getting an excellent world-class train transportation up and running throughout the East Coast.’
“Rail has always gotten a back seat, and, if anyone can do it, it’s either Amazon or Elon Musk,” said Oren Eisenberg, a Philadelphia resident who routinely takes Amtrak to New York. “It’s frustrating to a lot of people who need to travel this corridor daily or weekly because the cost of tickets is so high, and yet the value of that high cost is lower and lower as the infrastructure becomes less efficient to use.”
CEO Elon Musk is said to be planning a high-speed “hyperloop” between Washington and New York. A spokesman declined to comment on whether HQ2 will affect that plan.)
Some Amtrak riders hope it will mean cheaper, faster, more modern trains, while others are longing for improvements to wi-fi connections on trains and in station lounges. Some are fantasizing that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos — worth an estimated $123 billion — will simply buy the rail line and improve it.
“It really could do a lot for the region and help be an accelerant to getting an excellent world-class train transportation up and running throughout the East Coast,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of government affairs and policy at the Rail Passengers Association.
But until now, he noted, “the near-term track record is one of abject failure in responding to surging demand for rail transportation.”
‘Rail has always gotten a backseat, and, if anyone can do it, it’s either Amazon or Elon Musk.’
Amtrak is more popular than ever
The trek needs all the help it can get. With airports in both cities congested, Amtrak has surged in popularity as a way to travel between the financial and political capitals.
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — a route that stretches from Washington to Boston, with notable stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York — is the busiest railroad in North America, an Amtrak spokeswoman said, and the number of passengers has climbed steadily since 2014, according to the Rail Passengers Association. But trains are routinely delayed by signal problems, derailments, collisions with vehicles and even errant tugboats — and those are just examples from the last few weeks.
On top of that, the trip is expensive. Tickets from Washington’s Union Station to New York’s Penn Station start at around $100 each way and go up to an average of $202 each way for the fastest train, the Acela, according to the travel site Wanderu.
HQ2 makes the Gateway Project more urgent than ever
One major reason the trip can be so slow: the rickety bridges and tunnels that trains use as they flow — or in many cases, crawl — in and out of the New York and New Jersey area.
Transportation advocates say Amazon’s decision to split HQ2 between two hubs on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor adds more urgency to its most pressing infrastructure upgrade, the Gateway Program, which will replace or modernize some of those spans and double the number of passenger trains that can run under the Hudson River.
“Right now, the delays that people are feeling in this region on Amtrak, a lot of them are connected to the fact that you have century-old infrastructure that is literally failing before our eyes,” said Dani Simons, spokeswoman for the New York–based nonprofit Regional Plan Association. “Amazon provides another reason why this is so urgent.”
A coalition of companies — including Siemens
and real-estate developers the Durst Organization and Brookfield Properties — have joined the effort to push the Gateway Program forward, and Amazon would be a welcome addition to that list, Simons said.
“It would be a win-win for Amazon to be involved in the advocacy for it,” she said.
Could Amazon HQ2 speed up federal funding?
A key part of the Gateway project — the replacement of the Portal Bridge — can’t move forward until it gets a federal funding commitment. Transportation advocates told MarketWatch they were hopeful Amazon’s announcement would spur action on that front from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But a DOT spokesperson said Amazon’s HQ2 decision would have no effect on the project’s timeline. “To the extent Amazon may have received financial incentives from state or local governments, no financial commitments of any kind were obtained from USDOT,” a spokesperson told MarketWatch.
Another alarming piece of evidence for Amtrak regulars who hope HQ2 will prompt upgrades: Amazon snagged a helipad as part of its deal with New York City and is trying to get one in Northern Virginia. The company will be limited to 120 landings a year in New York, so perhaps there’s hope yet that even top Amazon execs will use the train.
‘Stuck in a prettier shell’
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on whether the company had been in communication with Amtrak about its HQ2 plans. Amtrak wouldn’t comment on that question either, but an Amtrak spokeswoman noted that riders have some improvements to look forward to in the near future, regardless of Amazon.
“Long-established plans are underway to refresh trains, improve on-time performance, enhance wi-fi connectivity, upgrade facilities and expand onboard experience options,” said Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods.
Amtrak is modernizing D.C.’s Union Station to double the number of passengers it can hold, and a new fleet of Acela Express trains will go into service in 2021. “The new fleet will provide customers with world-class accommodations and amenities, along with a smoother and even more comfortable ride,” Woods said. The new cars will be much roomier, but they won’t necessarily make the trip any faster, because the trains still have to contend with crumbling bridges and tunnels.
“It should be a much more pleasant experience, but if you’re not moving the trains quickly and efficiently, you’re just stuck in a prettier shell while you’re being delayed,” said the Rail Passengers Association’s Jeans-Gail.
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Leslie Albrecht is a personal finance reporter based in New York. She worked previously as a local news reporter at the New York City neighborhood news website DNAinfo, and as a reporter at the Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star, two McClatchy newspapers in California’s Central Valley. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterLeslie.
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