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— by Angela Cotey, associate editor
The Northeast Corridor (NEC) is one of the most complex and congested rail lines in the world. Each day, more than 2,000 Amtrak, commuter and freight trains traverse the 457-mile corridor, which connects Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. More than 200 million commuter-rail and 13 million Amtrak riders use the services provided along the NEC each year.
In many locations, particularly near the major cities, the NEC is at or near capacity. It's fallen into a state of disrepair, too. The majority of the infrastructure is at least a century old and hasn't been adequately maintained; Amtrak, which owns most of the corridor, has struggled to keep up with repair needs, blaming it on a lack of dedicated federal dollars.
That's not to say the corridor services are unreliable. On-time performance for Amtrak and the commuter railroads that use the route is satisfactory by industry standards. But it takes only a minor delay at one of the NEC's many choke points to have a domino effect throughout the entire network. As Amtrak Vice President of Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Investment Development Stephen Gardner told Progressive Railroading during a 2012 interview, "With this network's constrained capacity, a sneeze in Baltimore is a cold in New York."
And those colds affect a lot of people. The NEC represents only 2 percent of the nation's land mass, but is home to roughly 50 million residents and a $2.6 trillion economy, representing 20 percent of the United States' gross domestic product. Population is expected to grow even more in the coming decades, and without an efficient and reliable transportation system, population and economic growth will be halted, Amtrak and other NEC stakeholders say.
That's why they are proposing a series of projects to repair, upgrade and increase capacity on the corridor. In the near term, Amtrak and states along the NEC are eyeing dozens of projects to repair or replace tunnels and bridges, improve track, upgrade signal systems and rehabilitate stations.
For the long term, Amtrak has proposed a next-generation high-speed rail system with trains reaching top speeds of 220 mph. The upgrades will transform the NEC into a network that can accommodate more trains, operating at faster speeds, with significantly reduced trip times and better service reliability, according to Amtrak.
That network would come at a hefty price. Amtrak officials estimate it would cost $151 billion between 2012 and 2040 to turn their vision into reality. For a transportation system that adequately supports the mobility needs of an economically vital region, it would be money well spent, they say.
Even the harshest Amtrak critics don't disagree with the need to invest in the NEC. Some even believe a dedicated high-speed rail network should be built. But the federal government won't be in a position to allocate tens of billions of dollars for the program anytime soon. Even if it were, it's doubtful Congress would agree to provide the level of funding Amtrak needs.
Amtrak and other NEC stakeholders are well aware of the obstacles they face — they've come to expect them. The railroad always is facing scrutiny, whether it's over subsidies, long-distance routes, food service or operations; there has been more analysis of Amtrak than of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman says. But amid their life under a microscope, Amtrak officials also need to be thinking long term. They hope Congress eventually will be in a position to do the same.
"Time is ultimately on our side. Growing population, increasing travel demand, a rebounding economy — all those things will exacerbate the congestion issues," Gardner told Progressive Railroading last month. "Congress has to make the decision to invest in American infrastructure."
In the meantime, Amtrak officials say they will do what they can to guide Congress in the right direction. Boardman says he'll continue to improve the railroad's cost controls and transparency, and educate Congress on how the railroad can meet current and future travel demand. Arguably, he already has. Under Boardman's leadership, Amtrak has continued to grow ridership and revenue, lowered its operating subsidy and spent capital dollars wisely, says Gardner.
"We've been building credibility. People see that Amtrak has a vision and is showing success, and I think that's what has helped get some early projects off the ground," he says.
One of those projects was completed in June, when Amtrak finished the three-year replacement of the Niantic River Bridge between East Lyme and Waterford, Conn. Funded in part through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the project called for building a two-track, electrified movable bascule bridge to replace the original structure that was built in 1907. The 54 trains that use the bridge daily will be able to move faster over the new structure, and a broader channel opening and higher vertical clearance above the water means marine traffic won't have as big of an impact on rail service.
Other NEC bridges are scheduled for near-term replacement, as well. Amtrak and New Jersey Transit have completed design for a new Portal River Bridge over the Hackensack River between Kearny and Secaucus, N.J. The two-track, movable swing bridge, built in 1910, is a source of delays and high maintenance costs, and needs to be opened frequently for marine traffic. Amtrak has proposed replacing the bridge with a new high-level, two-track, six-span bridge. NJ Transit has applied for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant and Amtrak has requested funding in FY2014 to help pay for the project, which will take five years to complete, says Gardner.
Meanwhile, Amtrak and the state of Maryland are conducting design and environmental work for the replacement of the Susquehanna River Bridge, which, at three-quarters of a mile, is the longest movable structure on the NEC. The two-track bridge restricts train speeds to 90 mph in an otherwise 120 mph territory. Amtrak plans to replace the Gunpowder River and Bush River bridges in Maryland, as well.
Amtrak also is advancing its Gateway Project, a $14.7 billion program that would expand rail capacity into Manhattan by adding twin tunnels beneath the Hudson River, expanding Penn Station and reconfiguring tracks to provide access to a new Moynihan Station. In May, the Federal Transit Administration awarded $185 million in Hurricane Sandy recovery dollars to build a concrete encasement beneath New York City's Hudson Yards development that would preserve underground right-of-way where Amtrak can build additional tunnels into Penn Station in the future.
"This is a relatively small piece of the total program, but it's incredibly important to ensure we can build tunnels under the river in the future," says Gardner.
Last month, Amtrak awarded a $133 million contract to Tutor Perini Corp. to build the 800-foot-long box tunnel, which is scheduled to be completed in late 2014.
Amtrak's fleet plans for the corridor are coming along, as well. As of press time, the first two of 70 Siemens-built electric locomotives were being tested at the Transportation Technology Center Inc. in Pueblo, Colo., while another was delivered to Amtrak's Wilmington, Del., shop for training and evaluation. The units will operate on the Northeast and Keystone corridors. This fall, Amtrak plans to issue a request for proposals for next-generation high-speed rail equipment, says Boardman.
Amtrak plans to continue completing near-term improvements as funding is available while helping to advance long-term planning initiatives that will increase capacity and allow for faster trip times.
"We're taking a stair-step approach, so we're not attempting to do the whole big program at once," says Gardner. "First and foremost, we need to make sure we're investing every year in basic maintenance of the corridor to ensure it's safe and continues to offer the same level of service that it supports today."
Amtrak needs about $400 million in capital funds annually just to keep up with corridor maintenance and begin addressing state-of-good-repair backlogs, says Boardman. To carry out expansion and high-speed rail visions, Amtrak will need much more. Railroad officials have estimated the cost for corridor repairs, upgrades and some capacity enhancements at $52 billion; the next-generation high-speed rail system is estimated to cost $117 billion.
And therein lies the biggest problem with Amtrak's NEC vision, says Joshua Schank, president and chief executive officer of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve transportation policy and leadership.
"From Amtrak's perspective, this plan makes sense. But it's highly unrealistic," he says. "You're talking about an amount of money that is so far above and beyond what Amtrak has been able to secure in the past … and you've got a plan that has political challenges that will make it very difficult to achieve."
On the other hand, it's worth noting that — despite deep budget cuts to various federal programs — Amtrak still is receiving adequate capital and operating dollars, Schank says. And that's a far cry from a decade ago, when Congress was talking about zeroing out funding for the railroad.
"Even this very conservative House sees relevance in funding a national rail system, and that speaks to Amtrak's success in communicating what it wants to achieve and how it wants to achieve it," says Shank. "Boardman has learned to speak the language, and you have to give him credit for that."
But at some point, talk will have to turn into action — and that, to a large extent, is out of Boardman's hands.
"In every [congressional] hearing I've been to, I answer all these questions about our costs and plans for the future. It's time for Congress to start making some decisions that balance funding between highways, aviation and rail so that we can grow as an economy," Boardman says. "It's absolutely critical that happen for us, but right now I'm not hearing word that those kinds of investments are going to be made."
They likely won't be for quite some time. The money for an infrastructure investment program the magnitude of what Amtrak has proposed just isn't there, says House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Penn.). While Shuster believes the NEC is worth investing in, Congress needs to "operate within realistic budget constraints," he says.
"Amtrak and others have testified before our committee that we need to focus on the state of good repair of the existing infrastructure. I think this is the proper course. When it comes down to investment, high-speed rail — while great in theory — is not realistic in the near term, given the NEC's immediate need for state-of-good-repair improvements," Shuster said in an email to Progressive Railroading. "We don't have unlimited funds, so we need to focus on what is achievable."
And that means making smart investments. Given the Northeast's population density, economic vitality and heavy congestion, federal investment in the rail corridor ideally would help attract other capital dollars, Shuster said.
"We want to encourage the private sector to get more involved, along with state and local governments, to fully leverage federal investments," he said.
That would be the best — likely the only — way that Amtrak and its NEC partners could obtain the federal support needed to carry out NEC plans, high-speed rail included, Schank believes. If Amtrak and the states along the NEC worked together to pool a significant amount of money for the improvements, there's a better chance the federal government would pony up more money for the upgrades, as well.
"Congress is much more likely to respond to a bottom-up approach rather than say, 'Here's a lot of money — build it,'" says Schank.
Securing funds for NEC improvements is one aim of the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission. Created by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) in 2010 and authorized under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, the commission is charged with coordinating the financing and implementation of major corridor improvements that cross multiple jurisdictions. The commission comprises voting members from each of the NEC states, Amtrak and the USDOT, and reports to Congress.
"Our aim is to gather everybody to define the near-term needs of the corridor to get it in a state of good repair, in the medium term to address capacity improvements and in the long term to look at some more visionary options," says Mitch
Warren, the commission's executive director. "Everyone needs to take responsibility for the corridor. It's a big, complex system and we need to all be marching on the same path."
In January, the commission issued "Critical Infrastructure Needs on the Northeast Corridor," a 76-page report that outlines the most important joint-benefit, high-priority projects that are needed on the corridor in the near term. Next, the commission will develop a five-year program that prioritizes the projects, so NEC stakeholders can begin making the investments necessary to bring the corridor to a state of good repair, says Warren.
The commission also is developing a cost-allocation methodology for the corridor, focused initially on basic replacement and operating costs, to determine how to fairly distribute those costs between the various NEC users.
"Clearly, to make the improvements, there will need to be additional funding at the state, local and federal level," says Warren.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is studying the corridor's long-term needs through an effort called the NEC FUTURE Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan. Launched in 2012, the initiative calls for creating a framework for future investments on the corridor through 2040. The FRA will analyze market conditions, develop alternatives and evaluate environmental impacts. The study is expected to be completed in 2015.
In the meantime, Amtrak and its NEC partners will continue chipping away at various corridor improvements. They'll also continue to promote their vision to members of Congress and the public. While it's unclear at this point where the funds to upgrade the NEC will come from, one thing is clear: Corridor congestion will continue to grow. Whether passenger-rail operators are positioned to capitalize on increased travel demand remains to be seen.
"We can do good work with the money we've been given, but every day, we're making very hard choices about how to spend constrained dollars against a huge pool of need," says Gardner. "But there's a limit as to how far decapitalization can go before it hurts our performance. Congress has to decide if the American economy requires a 21st century transportation system. Once they do, we think rail can be a huge part of it."