Among the many groups of Americans who are eyeing President Donald Trump’s proposed budget with acute anxiety: rail travelers. The 2018 budget outline includes a 13 percent cut to the Department of Transportation, which would eliminate federal subsidies for long-distance Amtrak routes and likely erase train travel among hundreds of cities and towns.
What might the future landscape of U.S. passenger rail look like? For an answer we turn to Will Geary, who’s drawn out a fine side-by-side comparison of today’s Amtrak routes and those that would remain after such cuts took effect. At left, the visualization shows a typical week of Amtrak trips based on the latest available GTFS data. At right is the same week but excluding the 15 national routes threatened by the White House, including the Silver Star running from New York to Miami, the Empire Builder from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, and the Sunset Limited from Louisiana to California.
The budget would “risk disconnecting 145 million people for whom these routes are the only nearby Amtrak service,” says Geary, a data-science grad student at Columbia University with a bit of a transit obsession (he’s also mapped MTA journeys and New York’s multimodal symphony). “It would eliminate $2.3 billion in funding that would have otherwise gone toward new commuter rail and light-rail projects, as well as $500 million in grants intended for investment in new national-transit infrastructure.”
The cuts would not distributed equally across the country, Geary observes. “Towns and cities in the Southeast and Midwest would be impacted the most, while large, coastal cities in the Northeast and on the West Coast would be impacted the least.”
Geary is sourcing much of his information from the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which last month issued a dire warning that Trump’s budget would “place a disproportionate amount of pain on rural and working class communities.” At a minimum, the plan would totally cancel Amtrak service to 220 towns and cities, the association asserts, from Albuquerque to Dallas to Spokane to Worcester, Massachusetts.
How likely is it Congress will embrace the White House’s vision when it receives its more-detailed budget (which typically happens in mid-May)? Since the railroad association put out its alert it has witnessed a “huge public outpouring,” with thousands of its members calling their elected representatives, says Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of government affairs and policy. “We can verify Congress is hearing this outcry, and they’re taking notice. We’ve seen a shift among Republicans from guarded, noncommittal statements to guarded statements that emphasize that Congress has the power of the purse. That’s progress.”
Trump-leaning politicians might want to listen to these voices, as many of them are coming from the rural denizens that fed the president’s rise to power. “The majority of passengers on these trains aren’t using them to go from big city to big city,” says Jim Mathews, the railroad association’s president and CEO. “They’re small-town Americans who don’t have a lot of transportation alternatives. The ridership figures on these trains are lower because the towns they serve are smaller. If you live in McGregor, Texas, and you’re trying to get to Fort Worth for business or a medical procedure, the [Texas] Eagle is as important to you as the Northeast Corridor is to a New Yorker—probably more important, since Temple doesn’t have access to a LaGuardia or JFK.”
Geary has also made an interactive dot-distribution map showing specific Amtrak stations at risk under Trump’s budget. Bigger dots correspond to stations that saw larger amounts of passenger traffic in 2016 such as New Orleans and Denver, smaller dots are less-busy stations like Sanderson, Texas, and Thurmond, West Virginia.
In case anybody’s not clear on Geary’s own opinion, the data designer would prefer these stations still exist in the years to come. “We should be working towards faster, cheaper, and more frequent rail connectivity between American towns and cities,” he says, “not eliminating access to our national rail system for millions of Americans.”