» “America’s railroad” is not going to let foreign operators get all the good stuff without a fight.
In a conference call and press release yesterday, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman made clear he wouldn’t let his company’s current dominance of the American intercity rail market simply fade away with the expansion of high-speed rail on corridors across the country. Notably, Amtrak intends to offer its services to the State of Florida for the operation of the planned fast train line between Tampa and Orlando, likely to receive billions of dollars in funding from the federal government later this month.
In the interim, the government-owned railroad will ask Congress for billions of dollars in additional funding to pay for upgrades of the Northeast Corridor and hundreds of new locomotives and passenger railcars, both long awaited investments.
Amtrak’s interest in the Florida corridor is further evidence that the project is set to receive a large chunk of the stimulus’ $8 billion devoted to high-speed rail. Mr. Boardman’s position — that his is the only company with experience in operation of high-speed trains in the U.S. — suggests that he feels the heat from foreign competitors, some of which have already produced in-depth studies of potential American rail operations. Indeed, it would be dangerous for the company to be relegated to providing slow-speed services along the country’s least-frequented routes while private operators such as Veolia or public providers from abroad such as SNCF pick up the profitable new main lines.
But whether Amtrak will be able to move past its mediocre reputation for service and persuade conservative politicians in the Sunshine State not to engage in the current fad of public-private partnerships is another question. Mr. Boardman will have a lot of convincing to do before the Florida service opens in 2014: Existing Amtrak lines in Florida are slow and frequently late.
California, the other state eagerly pushing for new high-speed trains, has yet to determine how service would be provided on its tracks.
In the shorter term, Amtrak plans to upgrade its existing corridors with improved tracks, renovated trains, and new equipment. This year, the company will increase speeds from 90 mph to 105 mph between Porter, Indiana and Kalamazoo, Michigan, affecting Blue Water and Wolverine routes most directly. In addition, Acela Express trains on the Northeast Corridor will get wireless internet in March and new seats later in the year.
Amtrak recognizes that its train fleet is ancient; apart from the Acela, no new passenger cars have been purchased since the 1980s. As a result, the company will release a plan in February to replace all of the nation’s locomotives and railcars over the next few years; there are some 1,400 in all, including more than 100 locomotives as well as single and bi-level railcars. The report will coincide with the agency’s Congressional budget request for FY 2011. Amtrak will probably demand a multi-year financial commitment from the federal government to pay for the new equipment.
It will also move forward with the already studied $16 billion plans to upgrade the Northeast Corridor and reduce travel times by 15 minutes between both Washington and New York and Boston and New York. Such a project would require a huge governmental commitment that could be partially financed by high-speed rail funds in the future. However, since Amtrak owns the line already, it could simply ask for an independent allocation that the currently rail-friendly Congress may well produce. Difficult budget conditions, however, may make such a project impossible over the next few years.
After years of retrenchment during the Bush Administration, the news that Amtrak has become newly entrepreneurial is good for the system’s users, who will eventually benefit from more comfortable and modern trains and faster travel along the Northeast Corridor. The railroad’s ambitions, however, have yet to be accepted by Congressional officials and there is no guarantee that the company will be provided the funds to complete its upgrades. If it does so, however, Amtrak will have a leg-up on operating fast routes in other parts of the country like Florida, proving that it has the organizational resources to provide a high-quality service and the governmental resources to ensure adequate maintenance along existing lines.
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