Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why Amtrak shouldn't own the NEC

Russ Jackson points out for RailPAC that Amtrak's ownership of the Northeast Corridor has resulted in severe myopia when it comes to what is notionally a national railroad corporation.

Well, it’s January, 2012 and the sounds of silence appeared in “Amtrak Moves Aggressive Agenda for 2012,” where they say “America’s Railroad is building for the future.” That future appears to be a withering of the long-distance trains by neglect while the company pretends to “strengthen current services.” What is in this “Agenda”? As expected, the already announced order for 70 new electric locomotives (NEC), 130 new single-level long-distance cars (Eastern routes only), plus a high-capacity next-generation high-speed rail system (NEC), upgrading tracks, bridges and other infrastructure (NEC) (which he claims are essential for supporting our national network), expanding Acela Express capacity (NEC), additional capacity into Manhattan, NY, (NEC), improving ADA station accessibility (not specified), development of the on board e-ticketing and the next generation reservation system (NEC and Corridors first), new technology for onboard food sales (NEC and Corridors first), 160 MPH HSR upgrades along a 24-mile section in New Jersey (NEC) , Positive Train Control (NEC first), and expanding the Amtrak Police Department (NEC). Oh, they throw in a Seattle, Washington Maintenance Facility (for the Cascade Corridor).

While he focuses more on the long-distance trains, it's important to note that much of that money could be quite well used on the corridors as well. The catenary upgrade in New Jersey is $450 million in exchange for about one minute of actual time saved. There are quite literally dozens of far more worthy projects across the nation that could greatly raise Amtrak patronage and lower its costs were they to be funded instead of this catenary upgrade. Depending on the particular report, that would pay in full or in part for the Miramar tunneling outside San Diego, for instance, which is quite likely the single biggest bottleneck and contributor to lengthy trips on the LOSSAN corridor.

Is the NEC important? Of course. But Amtrak is national and several other corridors have the potential to be just as important if Amtrak can simply disengage from its current focus on the NEC and instead invest in the entire nation rather than merely the one area where it happens to own the tracks. The Federal government needs to strip away the NEC and establish a national joint powers authority for the network, which is predominately used by commuter agencies anyhow.


  1. While it was not perfect, the tabled Mica-Shuster proposal would have been a step forward because it would have corrected a mistake that the Ford Administration made when it gave the corridor to Amtrak in 1976.

    The bulk of the rail community is unwilling to realize that when Ford failed to give NEC ownership to the USDOT, Amtrak’s costs skyrocketed due to the infrastructure. Last spring, we had a chance to have a really honest discussion over whether Amtrak would have been better off just running the trains between Boston and Washington and letting another government organization deal with returning the route to a state of good repair. Instead, most rail advocates decided to join Northeastern commuter railroads, politicos, and bureaucrats and scream “bloody murder” from the top of their lungs. So, by yelling “privatization,” they prevented that discussion from happening.

    On a different note, Amtrak’s focus on the NEC at the expense of not only the National System but also other corridors is reason enough for a state like California to dump the company for other operators that are clearly hungrier to operate passenger service.

  2. No. The Mica-Shuster proposal said nothing about maximizing performance or about minimizing total cost - it required the government to maximize private cost, and prefer operators based on their PPP model. It also did not remove the two biggest organizational obstacles outside Amtrak itself: commuter railroad ownership and operating patterns in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and FRA regulations.