Saturday, May 28, 2011

Opening up the NEC to private operators

Amtrak could lose Northeast line

WASHINGTON -- Congress would take away Amtrak's popular Northeast corridor train service and invite private investors to bid for the right to develop high-speed rail under a plan outlined by a key House Republican on Thursday.

The densely populated corridor -- which extends from Washington to Boston, including service to New York City and Philadelphia -- is the most viable region in the country for truly high-speed trains averaging speeds better than 110 mph, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said.

But Amtrak has failed to provide fast service despite tens of billions of dollars in federal aid, he said while outlining his plan at a hearing.

Amtrak's Acela trains reach speeds over 150 mph in some portions of the corridor. Mica said trip times average only 83 mph between Washington and New York and 72 mph between New York and Boston.

His calculations include wait times at station stops along the route, which lowers the average speed. Some trains in Europe and Asia achieve speeds over 200 mph.

Last year, Amtrak proposed a plan to upgrade its Northeast corridor track and trains and to eliminate bottlenecks so that trains can travel up to 220 mph. Trip time between Washington and New York would be reduced to 96 minutes and between New York and Boston to 93 minutes.

The plan would be phased in over 30 years and cost $117 billion to implement. The railroad is seeking private investment to pay for some of the cost.

Mica, a longtime Amtrak critic, wants to take away the rail company's 363 miles of track and infrastructure, place it under the control of the Transportation Department or a new government-created corporation, and solicit bids from private investors for the development, operation and maintenance of high speed service.

The plan will be incorporated in a long-term transportation spending bill the committee is drafting and expects to introduce around mid-June, Mica said.

"I believe that we have great potential in the Northeast corridor," Mica said. "The only thing standing in the way is Amtrak or the federal government or Congress."

Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Transportation highway subcommittee, said Mica's plan probably has enough support from Republicans to pass the House, but it is unlikely to be accepted by the Senate.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a leading Amtrak supporter, warned in testimony at the hearing that potential Northeast corridor investors will want a profit, which means ticket prices likely would increase.

Mica's plan "hasn't begun to get any legs to stand on as I see it," he told reporters afterward. He said the plan would amount to a "death potion" for the transportation spending bill, which pays for highway and transit construction.

Amtrak is a private corporation, but it depends on federal subsidies. Amtrak is in debt to the federal government for about $4 billion, according to a committee briefing memo. Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said the railroad had paid off about half the debt as of last year.

Amtrak was created by Congress in 1971 to provide passenger train service between cities after passenger railroads failed in the face of competition from airlines and interstate highway travel. But with the U.S. population expected to exceed 400 million people by 2050, nightmarish congestion is forecast for the nation's already crowded highways and airports.

President Barack Obama has said he wants to put high-speed intercity trains within reach of 80 percent of the American public by 2025, but he has run up against resistance from Republican governors and members of Congress who say the nation can't afford the cost.

Quite frankly, this is a reasonably good idea, as long as it is handled well (for instance, by mandating that whatever private organization receives the NEC makes certain improvements, ie regular service between NYC and Washington, D.C. within two hours, upon pain of severe penalties and revocation of franchise). Amtrak's handling of the NEC has been extremely poor, their plans quite frankly incompetent, and any improvements by Amtrak would be at taxpayer expense.


  1. In regards to the Mica-Shuster proposal, the NEC SHOULD be transferred to a track maintenance organization because it's the ownership of tracks that's putting Amtrak deep in the red.

    As a matter of fact, ALL trackage should be transferred to an ownership group that would be run by either the FRA or the USDOT. The TMO would do all of the work as far as construction, development and maintenance go. All railroads--big and small, freight and passenger--would pay an annual track fee to access rail ROW.

  2. I don't see how transferring the NEC to a track maintenance program would actually help matters. Amtrak would simply be assessed the same costs, plus probably a small additional due to the extra bureaucracy, which keeps it in the same position.

    As for transferring track to Federal control, that strikes me as more of a solution in search of a problem. There are occasional conflicts between passenger rail desires to use the same ROW or rail, but this can be handled legislatively (either through simply mandating the sharing or making corridor improvement grants contingent upon such sharing). I find it rather doubtful you'd see as much private investment in rail capacity and new rail lines as you currently do if you were to nationalize the rail lines.

  3. Think of it this way: Instead of Amtrak spending undue billions to fix crumbling infrastructure, the TMO under partial or total control by the feds would do the task.

    There's this industry-wide perception that if Amtrak loses control of the NEC, it wouldn't be a "real railroad." I disagree with that assessment because a USDOT-run NEC would allow Amtrak to run routes and not spend lots of money maintaining a 100+ year old system that was passed unto them. Instead, the TMO would be able to fix the NEC to a state of good repair at a much lower cost than the $117 billion Amtrak is proposing for a brand new NEC.


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