Amtrak travel has a climate quandary

Amtrak travel has a climate quandary

By L.V. Anderson


In 1984, when Andrew Bader was 5, his parents took him on a cross-country train from California to New York. It was a special trip, one of the last experiences Bader shared with both parents before they split up. Decades later, Bader decided to re-enact a portion of the trip with his father and 6-year-old son. The plan was for the three generations of Baders to take Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train from the San Francisco Bay Area to Seattle, a 22-hour journey, then catch a Seattle Mariners baseball game at T-Mobile Park.

“I got from my father a love for baseball, and I was trying to connect that between generations,” said Bader, a Bay Area public school teacher. If all went well, he hoped to repeat the trip every summer, as a new family tradition.

Bader bought the Amtrak tickets in May 2021, with a plan to travel in late July. But in early July, he found out that a wildfire had damaged a bridge on the train’s route, interrupting the service for a month as the span was repaired. When he got a refund for his canceled tickets, Bader wondered, “Is this something we’re going to have to worry about every summer?”

In July 2022, Bader and his son finally got to make the trip they’d planned more than a year earlier. But Bader’s father wasn’t with them — he’d passed away from cancer just a few weeks earlier. Instead of a new family tradition, the trip was a memorial. Bader lamented the opportunity he’d lost because of the wildfire.

For Amtrak riders, canceled trains have become a familiar side-effect of the extreme weather fueled by climate change. In 2023, historic flooding in California disrupted the Coast Starlight again, for nearly a month, along with other Amtrak routes in the Golden State. In the past couple of years, wildfires, coastal erosion, heat waves, and mudslides have closed or altered Amtrak routes around the country for days, weeks, or months at a time. The federally chartered passenger rail operator tallied more than 450 disruptions from climate shocks between 2006 and 2019, costing the company $127 million in revenue from 1.3 million lost customers. Last year, Amtrak projected another $220 million in climate-fueled losses over the coming decade.

This is a much bigger problem than the frequent headaches and occasional heartbreak that come with canceled trips. If the United States is going to slash its carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050, as President Joe Biden has proposed, it will require a transformation of the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases: Transportation. And that is far less likely if passenger rail, one of the climate-friendliest travel options, isn’t able to withstand the extreme weather its widespread use could help prevent.

A recent federal report on decarbonizing the transportation sector said America will have to fully leverage “the potential for efficient travel modes like rail” to meet its climate goals: On average, Amtrak is 34 percent more energy-efficient than flying for every mile a passenger travels, and 46 percent more energy-efficient than driving. The precise carbon savings vary by route, and depend on whether a train runs on electricity or diesel fuel, but taking Amtrak can be half as carbon-intensive as flying.

As climate change worsens, Amtrak will be in position to help reduce transportation emissions. But that will require it to figure out a way to guarantee reliable service in the face of mounting disasters, while also expanding service to win over drivers and airline customers who today see passenger rail as either a curiosity or a last resort. And Amtrak will have to do all that without owning most of the tracks it operates on.

“We want to grow passenger rail in America,” said Adie Tomer, who leads the ​​Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan think tank. “Rail is cleaner. But the adaptation need is here right now.”

Amtrak has been thinking about climate change since at least 2014, when it set up a Climate Resilience Task Group “to explore potential climate risks and respond with recommendations.” To prepare for intensifying weather threats, Amtrak identified measures to reduce its vulnerability to sea-level rise, precipitation, extreme temperatures and wind. They include relocating buildings and equipment outside of floodplains, raising or flood-proofing buildings, and constructing barriers to keep rising water away from tracks and rail yards. Bridges could be raised, and stones strategically placed to prevent floating debris from damaging their foundations. Culverts, the tunnels that carry water beneath railroads, could be widened to handle climate-fueled floods, and tracks could be painted white to lower their temperature and prevent them from buckling during heat waves.

However, Amtrak is hamstrung in its ability to implement such changes, as it owns just 3 percent of the tracks it operates on. It can update infrastructure only for the tracks that stretch between Washington, D.C. and Boston, the only major chunk of rail network that Amtrak owns. Not coincidentally, it’s also the only major chunk of where Amtrak runs its high-speed Acela service — which is faster than regular Amtrak trains, though not so fast by international standards — and where Amtrak effectively competes with airlines. The rest of the network is primarily owned by freight companies that move consumer goods and industrial materials, like Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and CSX.

​​While weather events on the National Network impact Amtrak services and operations, we do not own most of the assets affected outside of the Northeast Corridor, and therefore would plan and assess vulnerabilities differently,” Olivia Irvin, an Amtrak spokesperson, told Grist.

Amtrak is planning to conduct a national assessment this fiscal year to “help us identify prominent climate-related risks by region, evaluate how our operations may be impacted, and identify business practices that position us for greater resilience,” said spokeswoman Olivia Irvin. It doesn’t have much room to maneuver.

Amtrak’s lack of control over most of the tracks it uses isn’t just a problem for planning for future climate changes. It’s also a problem for responding to the climate impacts that are happening today. When fires, mudslides, or floods damage tracks outside of the Northeast, Amtrak is at the mercy of freight train companies to get its trains up and running again. P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the importance of a route to the freight company dictates how quickly tracks get repaired.

Union Pacific, which owns the Northern California bridge damaged in the wildfire in 2021, rushed to repair it, since Union Pacific considers the route “vital.” But if the damaged track is a section that the freight company leases to Amtrak but doesn’t use for its own trains, then it may balk at the cost of repairs or ask the government to take on the burden of fixing it.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, the freight railroad owns the track, and so they should be responsible for fixing it,’” Sriraj told Grist. “That really depends on how the lease agreements are drawn up.” After Hurricane Katrina disrupted Amtrak’s Gulf Coast service in 2005, CSX and Norfolk Southern tried to get Amtrak to pay for $440 million of infrastructure upgrades as a condition of restoring service. (The companies eventually reached a confidential settlement allowing passenger rail service to return.)

A spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group, stated restoring and repairing tracks after disasters is “essential” and that freight rail companies “collectively invest more than $20 billion annually to maintain and enhance the rail network.” While each “host-tenant relationship is unique and subject to its own agreement,” the spokesperson said, “freight railroads collectively take substantial steps to increase infrastructure resilience and quickly restore service following a natural disaster.” The industry has also installed seismic, wind and water detectors along high-risk tracks, the spokesperson added, and replaced wooden bridges with concrete and steel alternatives.

When a flight gets canceled because of bad weather, passengers can usually book another within a few hours or days. When a road gets damaged by mudslides, motorists can generally find an alternate route. But Amtrak doesn’t have that kind of redundancy in its system. It operates on a measly 21,400 miles of track around the country, compared to 4 million miles of roads. When parts of that track network go down, Amtrak has to cancel its scheduled service or pile passengers onto buses. That’s what happened when rising sea levels forced the emergency closure of a section of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner — the coastal route that carries 3 million passengers annually between San Luis Obispo and San Diego in Southern California — last September, and again following a landslide in April. For more than half a year, Pacific Surfliner passengers have had to transfer from the train to a bus, and then onto a different train, in the middle of their trip.

The patchwork nature of Amtrak’s network means that making the rail operator more climate-resilient while also helping it attract more passengers is no simple matter. The bipartisan infrastructure law that President Joe Biden signed in 2021 could help, indirectly. The $550 billion in spending didn’t include any dedicated funding to make railroads more climate-resilient, though it did contain $22 billion in grants for Amtrak repairs and some $44 billion in other rail funding. This funding will be largely disbursed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), an agency within the Department of Transportation.

Michael Johnsen, FRA’s senior advisor on climate and sustainability, said the agency will be looking to invest that money in projects designed to handle a warmer world. The Biden administration announced in January that funding from the law will go toward two train tunnel improvement projects in the Northeast, and Johnsen said his agency wants to make sure “those are being built to withstand projected climate impacts.”

Of course, there’s still the problem of Amtrak not controlling the tracks it runs trains on. The solution there, Tomer said, is for state governments to play a more active role in resolving conflicts between passenger and freight companies — and, if necessary, buy up the tracks in the public interest.

This approach has seen enormous success in North Carolina and Virginia, which have taken active roles in expanding their rail networks. Both states saw train ridership reach all-time highs last year, even as national Amtrak ridership was still flagging from the pandemic.

“If the freight rail companies can’t collaborate in terms of capital investments with the public sector to build corridors that can allow trains to move at international high-speed rail standards, then the government needs to do it itself,” Tomer said.

Rail workers have called for nationalization of the railroads, and many observers have argued that publicly owned tracks could reduce the likelihood of environmental and public health disasters like the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Ultimately, it will take not just federal funding but also ambition from states to help Amtrak reach its full potential as a disaster-resilient climate solution — and to attract passengers who might not even consider it as an option today.

For Bader, the Bay Area school teacher, said that when he’s planning trips, the first thing he does is check to see if taking the train is possible.

“I would embrace any sort of train option over any sort of long car ride,” Bader said. “I would love to take trains over great distances to places that right now flying is the only option.”

Source:, a non-profit Northwest news site that’s part of Cascade Public Media. This article originally appeared in Grist, a non-profit, independent media organization ( covering climate issues.