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U.S. DOT awards Amtrak $76 million for tunnel life safety


U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Federal Railroad Administrator Allan Rutter July 2 announced a $76.75 million federal grant to Amtrak for life-safety improvements to tunnels leading into and out of New York City.

The grant is part of the $100 million appropriated in fiscal-year 2002’s Department of Defense and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Recovery From and Response to Terrorist Acts on the United States Act, which Congress passed in January. The remaining $23.25 million will be made available for Amtrak’s tunnel-improvement project in FY 2003 through an amendment to the grant agreement, said DOT in a prepared statement.

Planned life-safety improvements include rehabilitating benchwalls, improving emergency access and egress — which currently consists only of 10-story tall, 27-inch wide spiral staircases — and installing modern ventilation and communication systems. In a March interview with Progressive Railroading, Dick Kelly, consultant to Amtrak for fire and life safety, described a system that would enable a fan ahead of the train to draw smoke and heat away from a stranded train, while shafts would provide fresh air for evacuees. The upgraded communication system had been installed in four of the six tunnels earlier this year.

But although Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road (which use the tunnels more than Amtrak) have invested in upgrades since 1976, the current grant still barely scratches the surface.

In March testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead estimated that needed life-safety improvements would cost $900 million — Amtrak would need about $5 billion to bring the entire Northeast Corridor infrastructure to a state of good repair.

Meanwhile, Amtrak and the Bush Administration plan to seek from Congress between $100 million and $170 million to keep the national passenger railroad afloat until Sept. 30, the end of its fiscal year.

DOT agreed June 26 to immediately loan Amtrak $100 million so that it could continue running trains at least through August. The loan is being provided through the Railroad Rehabilitation Infrastructure Financing program, even though it is designed to provide long-term capital assistance for railroads’ infrastructure needs — not Amtrak’s short-term operating shortfall.

Kathi Kube

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 7/8/2003