How Amtrak Can Provide World-Class Service on the Northeast Corridor

Yesterday was a tough day to try to get attention for a Senate hearing on the future of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. After all, at least one senator had gotten a poisonous letter and everyone on Capitol Hill was on high alert. What’s more, the Amtrak hearing coincided with the vote on gun control, one of the most dramatic and high-stakes votes in the body so far this session.

The Northeast Corridor is already at capacity during peak periods. Major investment will be needed to handle the increase in ridership that's already happening. Photo: WIkimedia/Peter Van den Bossche

Even Commerce Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, a passionate supporter of Amtrak, gave his opening statement and scooted out of the room to join the action on the Senate floor.

Before he left, Rockefeller lambasted Congress for creating Amtrak and then failing to establish a viable strategy for it to succeed. “Amtrak, and passenger rail in general, has limped along financially since it was created,” Rockefeller said. “Unpredictable federal financial support has been a detriment to Amtrak’s core responsibility to provide travel for millions of Americans and continues to hamper its long-term planning.”

The consequences, he said, are $22 billion in lost productivity each year due to congestion on the highways and in the airspace above the region. “Everyone in this room knows that simply maintaining what we have in the Northeast Corridor is not enough,” he said. “We need to provide expanded capacity to meet future needs of the region. Throwing $22 billion down the drain annually in this economy – all because we cannot agree that transportation infrastructure is a priority – is shameful.”

He put in a plug for his infrastructure bank bill and encouraged the transportation establishment to break down its modal siloes, which he compared to the intelligence community’s turf battles that were exposed after 9/11.

Frank Lautenberg’s absence at a hearing on his beloved Northeast Corridor was glaring. Health problems have kept Lautenberg away from the Hill for about a month, and though he did make it back yesterday – in a wheelchair – to vote for the gun control measure, he didn’t make an appearance at the hearing.

The Northeast Corridor carries twice as many trains today as in 1976, said Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman, making the corridor “among the most heavily-used rail lines in world.” About 150 Amtrak trains, 2,000 commuter trains (run by eight different agencies), and 70 freight trains run up and down that track daily.

“We’re eating our assets alive,” Boardman said. “Many segments of the Northeast Corridor are already at capacity, particularly during peak periods, and it’s not easy to add more capacity. Furthermore, Northeast Corridor rail ridership is projected to increase by over 50 percent by 2040. So, while the operators are succeeding, we’re running out of ways to cram more trains into the infrastructure. And we’re severely under-investing in a national critical infrastructure.”

Boardman speaks at a lot of hearings and conferences and he’s clearly getting frustrated that his pleas for investment – and Amtrak’s record-breaking success in recent years – don’t get him anywhere.

“We’ve become a nation that does not act upon our beliefs,” he said. “We talk about them, as if talk will build tunnels or rail lines or bridges.”

The Northeast Corridor will require contributions from all users, Boardman said, in order to keep congestion on the rail line from grinding the economy to a halt. That will include the private sector, but Boardman says no one should expect private investors to come up with more than about 15 percent of the needed funds. In the end, he said, it’s going to be up to the federal government to make a “significant, long-term investment commitment to the Northeast Corridor.”

But what should that commitment look like? European rail consultant Jim Steer had some concrete suggestions, based on experiences in Great Britain, France and Italy.

First, he said, major investment in the corridor has to be broken into manageable stages, with priority given to the Gateway project, which would alleviate a major chokepoint at the busiest part of the line. Given that implementation of any improvement plan is going to spread over decades, Steer said, there needs to be a clear mandate with federal and state governments delineating design outcomes, and there must be robust bipartisan support in order to avoid a “stop/go situation.” And there needs to be funding upfront.

Steer also praised Amtrak’s plan to separate the management of infrastructure from train operations, in part because track fees charged to operators provide a revenue stream that will help attract other investors. But as Boardman noted later, that means that much of the money to pay back the private sector will be coming from other public entities – the transit systems and commuter trains that use the track.

The Republicans had invited Richard Geddes of the American Enterprise Institute to give a full-throated endorsement of private investment. He said taxpayers were terrible at bearing financial risk, so that job should be outsourced to “professional risk-takers” in the private sector. Steer, however, said that a rail line needs to prove itself before the private sector steps up. In his testimony, he talked about a 189-mile line currently under construction between Tours and Bordeaux in France, an extension of an existing high-speed line between Paris and Tours.

“The most problematic section of the overall route (access to central Paris) has been built,” Steer said in his written testimony, “the market for services is proven; now it’s a matter of shortening an already improved journey between Paris and Bordeaux. This project (worth $10.3 billion) has been privately funded through a PPP structure. As an extension to what is now a core national network, the perceived risks are much lower.”

As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says often, every high-speed rail system in the world has been started with significant federal investment. There’s just no other way to do it.

The rail reauthorization is a perfect time to re-commit to doing rail right, said John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Teamsters.

Although the rail authorization isn’t on the same schedule as the reauthorization of the surface transportation program or the Highway Trust Fund, those could be reauthorized early to put them on the same schedule as the rail title and, finally, roll them all into one comprehensive bill, renaming the Highway Trust Fund the Transportation Trust Fund in the process. That’s what the president recommends in his budget proposal.

It’s too bad rail got short-shrifted yesterday for gun control votes. With any luck, there will finally be a moment this year when rail gets it due.