» Delving into the national railway’s plans for growth.
Let it be known: Amtrak’s focus is on the Northeast Corridor. While Congress may require it to provide long-distance, cross-country services, the public company owns most of the rail corridor between Boston and Washington and it intends to exploit it fully… If it gathers sufficient resources to do so.
That, at least, was the message projected by Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman, who spoke on his company’s future vision in Cambridge last week. And it is in line with the mission the organization has been slowly constructing since the Obama Administration entered office: Not only to upgrade the existing line, as the company has been doing since it was founded in 1971, but also to build a new parallel corridor such as the $117 billion project the agency sketched out last year, which would allow travel times of about three hours between Boston and Washington, compared to six hours today. Such an investment has been being discussed for decades, but for the first time, Amtrak appears to be taking the cause seriously.
With political consensus circling around the idea that something must be done to improve travel in the Northeast, Amtrak could have a winning proposition in its hands.
The national equation has changed what is considered feasible. Less than three years ago, Amtrak President Alex Kummant dimmed the hopes of high-speed rail enthusiasts, suggesting that any advance in the Northeast would be slowed by “20 years in court on eminent-domain proceedings,” not to mention serious difficulties getting the required funds from Congress. Thanks mostly to President Obama’s ability to get $10.5 billion out to states to begin work on intercity rail investments over the past two years, however, that skepticism no longer seems applicable to the rail company. Sounding a different note, Mr. Boardman, who has been heading Amtrak since 2008, argued persuasively for new infrastructure spending.
Amtrak sees a massive investment in the Northeast Corridor as a necessary one, both from an economic perspective and in terms of physical infrastructure. Noting the Northeast’s role as the nation’s most productive region, Mr. Boardman argued that its health depends on the transportation systems that connect it. “We’ve lived off investments that were made two centuries ago,” he said. “And we haven’t made the investments that we need to make for the future.” Amtrak, as the provider of intercity rail and the owner of most of the line, can serve an essential role.
Mr. Boardman noted Amtrak’s record ridership (28.7 million passengers last year) and pointed out that the corridor is reaching its physical limits. As Amtrak’s air/rail mode share has increased — from 37% between Washington and New York and 20% between Boston and New York in 2000 to 69% and 53% respectively today — the rail company has simply not been able to expand its carrying capacity. This explains why Amtrak fares in the Northeast Corridor are so much higher than those on competitor intercity buses: There is too much demand and not enough supply. Part of the problem is due to the fact that trains are simply not long enough, a difficulty that Amtrak hopes to resolve partially with the addition of new cars to each Acela Express train. Mr. Boardman said that purchase would pay for itself over six years thanks to the Acela service’s operating profits.
But the more long-term problem is that Amtrak cannot bring more trains into New York City because of a lack of space on the tracks and at Penn Station. This fact explains why the company jumped at the chance to propose a new tunnel under the Hudson River almost as soon as New Jersey cancelled the ARC project. And in the longer term, the company’s projections suggest that the entire corridor will reach its carrying capacity in thirty years — which is exactly when it has said it wants to open the full extent of its new high-speed corridor.
Amtrak may have found the right cause at the right time. The Obama Administration’s high-speed rail investment program has benefited some states like California, but its expansion into a $53 billion spending regime, as the White House recently suggested to the Congress, is compromised by the fact that fast trains have become — like it or not — a partisan issue.
Yet some Republicans in the House do seem to be interested in funding a project in the Northeast Corridor. At last week’s hearing on privatization of passenger railway provision, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) repeated his complaint that federal funds were not focused enough on the Boston-Washington line, a place that he deems appropriate for federal investment.
Can Amtrak leverage bipartisan support to get its project done, not in the 30 years it has described but instead in ten to twelve, as Mr. Mica has said he wants? Mr. Mica refers to Amtrak as a “Soviet-style” system because he thinks that it as a government monopoly it is inefficient; this implies that Republicans like him will hesitate to offer the national rail company any direct assistance such as in the creation of a new line. Yet Mr. Boardman (himself a Republican) comes across as extremely competent, and it is clear that with its increasing ridership and newly proclaimed interest in radically improving travel in the Northeast, Amtrak is a responsible entity.
If the company can make a convincing argument that it is the right organization to perform radical repair on the Northeast’s main spine and to construct a brand-new corridor through its biggest cities, it could find support among politicians left and right. It would be very difficult to get away with calling a train line between New York and Washington a “train to nowhere,” to repeat the way too many members of the Tea Party have dismissed other infrastructure projects. It is hard to imagine a big investment regime in fast trains that ignores other parts of the country. People in the Midwest and California will want similar funds if Amtrak gets them for the Northeast. But the sheer density of the area and its vital importance to the national economy may mean that it deserves something different.
But even the $117 billion investment program wouldn’t be enough to solve Amtrak’s long-term issues. With infrastructure that is in many places more than one hundred years old, the existing Northeast Corridor must also be improved, and Mr. Boardman suggested that achieving a state of good repair would cost an additional $52 billion. Finally, the agency head noted another problem: “Every Amtrak President since the late 1990s has either been forced out or fired… Amtrak is unable to ever say no to anyone anywhere, because of the political football that it is.”
Does the mere fact that Amtrak is owned by the public make it impossible for it to adequately respond to the public’s demands? Perhaps. But Amtrak’s management has successfully improved the service over the past several years, and with Mr. Boardman in charge, it continues on the right course. The Amtrak of three years ago would have never had the gall to introduce serious plans for a brand-new Northeast Corridor. Today’s Amtrak is a different beast.
Image above: An Amtrak Acela Express train, from Flickr user John H. Gray (cc)