Billions of dollars in Amtrak funding could modernize aging rail system


WASHINGTON – Officials up and down the East Coast have long been clamoring for money to help replace crumbling bridges and tunnels along the Northeast Corridor, the busy route between Washington and Boston. After decades of underinvestment, the $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill President Biden signed last month is poised to make much-needed improvements.

The funding includes the largest investment in passenger rail transportation since Amtrak’s inception in 1971, giving the agency billions of dollars to deal with its backlog of repairs, modernize its fleet and reduce journey times. The $ 66 billion in new rail funding could also fuel Amtrak’s expansion on its routes across the country, an elusive goal that could generate millions in additional revenue for the agency and expand its network to new ones. regions.

“This is a fundamental change,” said John Robert Smith, former chairman of the board of directors of Amtrak and president of Transportation for America, an advocacy group. “They’ve never had anything like this.”

Still, officials say it will take time for passengers to see the full impact, as Amtrak will need to increase recruitment and construction projects could take years. Shortages of electricians, machinists and train operators could also lengthen improvement projects.

“It’s going to take a long time before they appear to be truly finished infrastructure,” said Amtrak president Stephen J. Gardner, who will be the new chief executive from Jan. 17.

The money is intended to help modernize the mainline rail system in the United States, which has long lagged behind Asian and European countries in terms of speed and coverage. In China, authorities have already built more than 20,000 miles of high-speed railroads and inaugurated a train that would reach more than 370 miles per hour. By comparison, the fastest Amtrak Acela trains reach 150 miles per hour in a few sections of the northeast corridor.

Mr Gardner said the agency has long needed to clear its backlog of repairs and modernize the northeast corridor, which includes bridges and tunnels more than 100 years old. This could help eliminate major bottlenecks along the corridor, which serves around 750,000 passengers per day under normal circumstances, thereby reducing service disruptions and making journeys faster.

The package aims to fulfill a campaign pledge by Mr Biden, who has pledged to pump billions of dollars into the railways and frequently mentions his fondness for Amtrak, when as a senator he returned from Washington to Delaware every night. to care for his two sons after his wife and granddaughter died in a car accident.

Amtrak, which owns nearly 80 percent of the Northeast Corridor, is working with members of the Northeast Corridor Commission to determine which improvement projects to prioritize. It will also work with states and other groups to submit applications for a $ 44 billion pool of money that the Department of Transportation will distribute through competitive grant programs.

Of the $ 22 billion that goes directly to Amtrak, about $ 6 billion will be used for improvement projects along the Northeast Corridor. The corridor could receive an additional $ 24 billion through competitive subsidies.

The money comes at a critical but complicated time. Amtrak is already struggling to cope with labor shortages, which are affecting employers across the United States. For more than 16 months, as the pandemic plagued train travel and ridership levels plummeted to 97 percent, Amtrak has stopped hiring workers. Employees have also retired or resigned, resulting in a 10% drop in the number of train engineers and conductors due to attrition.

Earlier this month, Amtrak’s Inspector General released a report that the understaffing in the agency’s human resources department would affect Amtrak’s ability to “find and hire qualified candidates on time. to meet the company’s hiring needs ”.

To retain workers, Amtrak offered $ 48.5 million in performance pay this year to about 2,600 management employees, a spokesperson said. About 82 percent of these payments were made to non-management employees who are part of management.

The agency is now trying to fill around 200 open positions.

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said he was optimistic about reducing worker shortages in the coming months, but that it would be a challenge to recruit staff, given the size projects.

“Even in normal times, we don’t necessarily have the workforce in this country to support this,” said Mr. Mathews.

This could be made even worse by a vaccine warrant. Although Amtrak temporarily abandoned its vaccine mandate after a federal court suspended enforcement of the federal contractor requirement, Amtrak officials said on Tuesday they would continue to update. update the policy “as needed”. About 97 percent of Amtrak employees have received an injection or a retrofit offering an exemption.

Amtrak executives had previously warned of service cuts next month due to the tenure, but the agency no longer expected to cut service, according to the memo.

Although ridership is still declining, it has reached about 70% of pre-pandemic levels, Gardner said.

The Northeast Corridor Commission has identified more than 150 improvement projects that would cost $ 117 billion over 15 years. This includes replacing the nearly 150-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, the biggest bottleneck between Washington and New Jersey, with a faster two-mile tunnel. The new Frederick Douglass tunnel would cut travel times by allowing speeds as fast as 100 miles per hour, up from the current top speed of 30 miles per hour.

Authorities also want to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River to complete the ruined one that was badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The project would cost $ 12.3 billion to rehabilitate the old tunnel and build one. new.

Other projects include replacing the Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland, improving 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, and expanding Penn Station in New York City.

According to the commission’s plan, the improvement projects would have lasting benefits, including increasing daily service along the corridor and speeding up Acela trips from Washington to New York and from New York to Boston to nearly 30 minutes. faster.

Mitch Warren, executive director of the Northeast Corridor Commission, said funding for the infrastructure bill would benefit many of the projects outlined in the commission’s plan. As these improvements are made, the number of track and power failures, which cause delays, is expected to be reduced, he said.

“After decades of underinvesting, having lived on investments made by previous generations, this gives us a way forward,” Warren said. “This infrastructure bill lays the foundation for new investments in the Northeast Corridor that will last for generations. “

The funds would also help Amtrak replace nearly 40% of its railcar fleet by 2031 and retire some of its older cars that have been in service for 45 years.

Outside the corridor, the money could fuel a vast expansion of the Amtrak card across the country. In May, Amtrak released a $ 75 billion plan to expand its network to more than 160 new communities by 2035, creating 39 new routes that would serve cities like Nashville, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Roads could also be restored in areas that lost service decades ago. David Strohmaier, commissioner for Missoula County in southern Montana and chairman of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, said he hoped the funding would help restore the North Coast Hiawatha route, which connected Chicago to Seattle before it ended 42 years ago.

He highlighted the potential economic gains: Restoring the route as a daily service could generate $ 271 million in economic benefits per year for the seven states it passes through, according to an analysis by the Rail Passengers Association.

The funding could also help the agency make all stations accessible to people with disabilities. More than 300 stations were not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, according to a September report by the Amtrak inspector general.

Even with the funding, hurdles remain for Amtrak’s ambitious plans. The host railways, which control the majority of the tracks Amtrak uses outside of the Northeast, could challenge Amtrak’s ability to expand and start service in new areas. Freight rail companies are already trying to halt restoration of service along the Gulf Coast, arguing that further studies must examine potential delays in freight service. The Surface Transportation Board has yet to rule on the case.

Local politics could also hamper its expansion across the country if state and city officials resist using local funds to subsidize rail service.

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