Amtrak, you could say, is an aging railroad looking for a magic pill that can get its infrastructure juiced up enough so it can handle the fastest new things on the market.
Created by Congress in 1970 from the remnants of failing private passenger train lines, Amtrak remains saddled with failing, high-maintenance infrastructure as it tries to build for a higher-speed, tech-friendly, urban-fueled future that has already arrived in other parts of the world.
Even its most successful segment, the Northeast Corridor, is vulnerable to outages at several chokepoints, adding to a system-wide on-time performance that slipped to 70 percent as of June. Cross-country long-distance routes are on time only 41 percent of the time.
The railroad keeps running only with large cash infusions from Congress and other sources, its attempts at Wi-Fi have been met with much mocking from passengers, and yet despite all that, ridership is at record levels. To be successful, the future will come with a big price tag, as aging infrastructure reaches its breaking point, and passenger revenue alone can't foot the bill. For fiscal year 2015, Amtrak requested $1.62 billion in federal capital and operating funds, a 16 percent increase from a year ago.
"Just like the interstate highway system 60 years ago and the transcontinental railroad 140 years ago, high-speed rail is about how we imagine ourselves as a nation," said Allen Batteau, a Wayne State University cultural anthropologist who is working on a study of high-speed rail in the United States.
"Are we a nation or are we 50 separate states? Do we have something in common that leads us to connect up? Looking at every one of these systems, whether it's the transcontinental railway or the promotion of aviation, it was all about building a nation. And high-speed rail, like aviation, has this cachet of the future. A bullet train, it's cool, it's fast, it's futuristic," Batteau said.
"The whole question as a nation is: What are we going to invest in?"