The Curious Case of the Wilmington Acela

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A northbound Amtrak Acela train rolls past commuters at the Wilmington, Del., station in 2002. (Tim Shaffer/Reuters)

There’s no practical reason for the president’s tiny hometown to be a stop on Amtrak’s flagship high-speed-rail line.

It ought to surprise no one that President Biden would propose a major increase in funding for the Amtrak passenger-rail system, despite the system’s well-documented inefficiencies. Long known as “Amtrak Joe” for his regular train commute from Washington to his home in Wilmington, Del., Biden has now signed on to a bipartisan infrastructure deal that promises “the biggest investment in rail since the creation of Amtrak.” Yet even amid a restructuring process that began in 2017, the system still lost $75 million in 2018 and $30 million in 2019. (The numbers for pandemic-ravaged 2020 will, one imagines, be even worse.)

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There’s no doubt that train service between geographically close population centers can make good sense, but it’s also true that our government-train-service monopoly is often governed by politics instead of common sense.

The regular, high-speed service to Wilmington has taken the former senator and vice president between Washington, D.C., and the eponymous Joseph R. Biden Jr. Railroad Station an estimated 8,000 times. But it’s fair to ask, given Wilmington’s size, whether it should be served by Amtrak’s prestige Acela Express at all.

Wilmington, with a population of just 70,000 people, is among twelve stops on the Acela, Amtrak’s high-speed service between Boston and Washington. There’s no obvious reason that a train predicated on fast service between major cities would stop there. Wilmington, the smallest city on the line, is a mere 30-mile drive from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, the third-busiest Amtrak station in the country. (The Wilmington station is the 13th-busiest.) What’s more, the line bypasses a number of East Coast cities with much larger populations, including Bridgeport, Conn., and New Jersey’s capital, Trenton.

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It’s not as if Wilmington is not well-served by Amtrak trains other than the Acela Express, which tries to maintain a speed close to 200 miles per hour but is inevitably slowed by additional stops. The Northeast Corridor regional service, a slightly slower, older, less-comfortable train line, stops there at least a few times each day. It might be less convenient for Amtrak Joe, but it’s still far better than the rail-travel options available to most cities, especially cities the size of Wilmington.

The Joseph R. Biden Jr. Station directly serves 144 cities, with no train transfers and multiple daily Acela and Northeast Regional rides. Pittsburgh, which is also linked to lines based in New York and Washington, serves just 31 cities. Cleveland, which would benefit from regular trains to Chicago, sees only two each day: one at 2:59 a.m. and one at 3:45 a.m. St. Louis has only four daily trains to Chicago, one at 4:35 a.m. and another at 11 p.m. Meanwhile, Wilmington regularly has 23 daily trains to D.C.

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There might be a case for Wilmington to serve as a satellite station for Philadelphia, just as Stamford, Conn., serves metro New York and Massachusetts’s Route 128 station serves the Boston suburbs. But there’s a far stronger case for a satellite station linked to Philadelphia’s airport, just a 24-minute car trip from Wilmington and itself linked to the Acela rail line, which would emulate the sensible setup in Baltimore, where a city-center stop is complemented by an airport station.

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Amtrak has long had unrealized potential for reliable trips between major population centers, or perhaps for “land cruises” for tourists on its Western lines, which offer stunning vistas and comfortable dining cars with pretty good food. But America’s premier train service is held back by having to stop at and maintain stations such as Wilmington’s.

I once had occasion to speak off the record with an incoming Amtrak CEO. He told me that, on his first day on the job, he received an early-morning phone call from the then-Senate majority leader, George Mitchell (D., Maine). He said that he was summoned to Mitchell’s office, where Mitchell, in his thick New England accent, demanded “Fo-ah trains a day to Portland, Maine.” One can only wonder whether then-senator Biden leaned on Amtrak to service Wilmington in a similar manner.

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