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by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
For the past several years, state-of-good-repair needs and long-distance route improvements have been top-of-mind concerns for Amtrak officials. The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will help the railroad address both issues.
PRIIA requires Amtrak to prepare a capital spending plan in consultation with the U.S. transportation secretary and northeastern states for infrastructure projects needed to return the railroad right of way, facilities, stations and equipment to a state of good repair. In April 2009, Amtrak released a report on Northeast Corridor (NEC) maintenance needs that indicated the railroad had a state-of-good-repair backlog of about $5.5 billion.
"This is a system that was created, invested in and abandoned," says President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman. "That's been the M.O. for Amtrak for years."
Maintenance needs include rehabilitating or replacing more than 200 bridges and Baltimore's B&P tunnels — which has a price tag of $1.2 billion alone — and about 100 interlockings, as well as improving electric traction systems.
In all, Amtrak needs to spend about $10.4 billion between FY2009 and FY2023 to return the infrastructure to a state of good repair on the NEC mainline and branch lines, and keep up with routine maintenance.
Amtrak's been able to take care of some maintenance needs with $1.3 billion secured through the stimulus bill. The railroad is using the funds to replace the Niantic River Bridge in Connecticut — a project that was delayed for more than a decade due to lack of funding — replace 10 other Northeast Corridor bridges, refurbish 81 rail cars and 15 locomotives, and upgrade facilities throughout the country.
Meanwhile, PRIIA also called for Amtrak to evaluate and rank each of its long-distance routes according to overall performance, then develop improvement plans for each route. The railroad would implement those plans in 2010 for the worst-performing routes, 2011 for the second-best performing routes and 2012 for the best-performing routes.
Amtrak already had begun addressing some long-distance route issues in 2007, when it launched a Route Performance Improvement (RPI) program that focused on several corridors. The railroad began working to improve all aspects of train service that impacted the customer — employee-passenger interactions, staffing levels, food service and amenities, equipment cleanliness and reliability.
For example, Amtrak has upgraded sleeping cars, enhanced room service and re-trained employees to focus on high-level customer service delivery on the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight route. On the Chicago-New York/Boston Lake Shore Limited, the railroad has added sleeping car service to Boston, overhauled dining cars, introduced a new menu, and changed the schedule so the train departs Chicago earlier and arrives earlier in New York.
Amtrak currently is working on a plan to improve the Los Angeles-New Orleans Sunset Limited, increasing service from tri-weekly to daily. The railroad proposes to extend the daily Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle to Los Angeles and establish connecting service between New Orleans and San Antonio. The change would cut seven hours from the schedule, provide daylight service to major cities along the route, increase ridership by more than 100,000 passengers annually and improve the route's financial performance, Amtrak officials predict.
The railroad is working with communities along the route and host railroads to see if the plan can be implemented. A decision is expected later this year.
To comply with PRIIA, Amtrak this year will expand its RPI process into a Performance Improvement Plan, which will include an evaluation of additional financial and operational issues, as well as customer satisfaction measurements. In addition to the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle, Amtrak officials are analyzing three of the railroad's other poorest-performing routes: the Chicago-Cincinnati-New York Cardinal, Chicago-Washington, D.C. Capitol Limited and Chicago-Emeryville, Calif. California Zephyr.