Passenger Trains Bump Along With Fixes Outrunning Funding

U.S. investigators looking into the May 17 Connecticut commuter-rail crash haven’t yet found a clear cause.

The fact a broken rail became the most immediate suspect speaks to years of deferred maintenance that have left trouble spots throughout a Washington-Boston network that carries more than 700,000 people a day and dates to the 1800s.

“We are eating our assets alive,” Joseph Boardman, chief executive officer of Amtrak, said in an interview May 21 after testifying at a congressional hearing.

Tracks maintained by the intercity passenger railroad and states along the most densely populated part of the U.S. carry half of U.S. rail traffic. Amtrak now accounts for 76 percent of the air and rail trips between New York and Washington, up from 37 percent in 2000, according to the Northeast Corridor Commission, a body Congress created in 2008 to assess the system’s most critical infrastructure needs.

Between New York and Boston, the share has increased from 20 percent to 54 percent.

“One cracked rail is making it extremely inconvenient for thousands and thousands of commuters,” said Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. “That has a drag on the overall metropolitan region. This is an infrastructure that needs to be brought up to a state of good repair.”

Ownership Hodgepodge

Unlike with highways, which count almost all Americans as a constituency, and aviation, which is backed by the airline industry and a powerful trade group, Amtrak -- the biggest player along the 457-mile Northeast Corridor -- has stood almost alone as it asks Congress for money to cover operating shortfalls and maintain its tracks.

Formed by Congress in the early 1970s to take over unprofitable passenger operations from freight railroads, Amtrak owns the track between Washington and New Rochelle, New York, and from New Haven, Connecticut, to the Massachusetts border. Metro North Railroad and the state of Massachusetts own the other sections.

The corridor hosts commuter lines in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts as well as slower freight trains that add to the wear and tear on rails.

1889 Bridge

Hundreds of bridges and tunnels are more than 100 years old, according to the corridor commission. Five bridges in Connecticut built between 1889 and 1907 need to be replaced, with costs exceeding $1.6 billion, the commission said.

Portions of the electrical system date to the 1930s, including Connecticut substations that rely on oil-filled circuit breakers.

As service demands in and around New York increase, Amtrak has less opportunity to spend time doing maintenance in the area, Boardman said. The railroad can only take the six tunnels under New York out of service for a total of 55 hours each week to maintain them, he said.

Because Amtrak and commuter rail lines share tracks, delays on one can cascade through the system, Connecticut state transportation commissioner James Redeker testified at an April Senate hearing. All major segments of the system are at or close to capacity, making service increasingly susceptible to disruptions, he said.

In last week’s wreck, a section of the eastbound track “fractured at a rail joint” and is “of interest” to NTSB investigators, the board said in Twitter postings May 18.

‘Deteriorated, Decrepit’

“The NTSB routinely looks at what, if any impact infrastructure may have had in the accident,” Kelly Nantel, a board spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “This is something we are looking at in this case as well.”

The accident occurred in an area where a set of double tracks had been taken out of service for upgrades, Boardman said in the interview.

“What that collision or accident shows is our rail lines are deteriorated or decrepit or outdated,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said yesterday at a confirmation hearing for Anthony Foxx, Obama’s nominee to become secretary of transportation.

The national railroad lost $5 million in revenue from the time of the Connecticut crash during the evening rush hour May 17 through the morning of May 21, Boardman said.

6 Miles

“Amtrak in the Northeast can’t afford for this to occur,” Boardman said about the bottleneck that resulted from the crash. “It would be the same in the tunnels, it would be the same in Penn Station, because we haven’t made the investments over the years.”

Amtrak, according to a company fact sheet, spent almost nothing on capital improvements in the 1990s, a period in which it battled Congress over aid for a number of years. Starting in 2003, the railroad shifted from doing emergency repairs into an organized plan to replace ties, rail, track beds, signal cables and overhead wires.

An average of 43 miles of rail a year must be replaced to keep the corridor in good repair, Amtrak estimates. For seven years before 2003, it replaced 6 miles a year. It made up for the deferrals by rebuilding 240 miles in 2004, then addressed an average of 34 miles in the five years ending in 2010.

Amtrak, which is supposed to be self-sufficient while never being so, asked for $2.1 billion in U.S. funds for its capital budget next year and $212 million for debt service, up from $905 million combined in fiscal 2013, according to a March 27 letter to Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner.

Long-Distance Trains

Boardman has described it as a down payment on a $151 billion, three-decade effort that would lead to 220-miles-per-hour trains between Washington and Boston and create enough additional passenger demand to make the Northeast operations self-supporting.

Before that plan was unveiled, Amtrak wrote a $52 billion Northeast Corridor master plan geared toward upgrading tracks and infrastructure.

Congress over the years has focused on the causes of Amtrak’s operating losses, whether to continue using taxpayer money to offset them and whether to jettison Amtrak’s money-losing cross-country routes. A May 20 House hearing called “Understanding the Cost Drivers of Passenger Rail” focused on widening losses on long-distance trains since 2008.

Amtrak said today it was extended Boardman’s contract for another two years, citing his good performance. Boardman, 65, has headed the railroad since 2008 after serving as head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

‘Death Spiral’

Lawmakers may be operating under a mistaken impression that dropping long-distance trains would enable a Northeast-centered Amtrak to pay for itself, said Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, an advocacy group.

“The NEC requires considerable investments just to stay in place,” Capon said at the May 21 House hearing. “Without federal capital support, the NEC’s downward drift would accelerate into a death spiral.”

Representative Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat, told the House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee that airlines wouldn’t make money if they had to build their own infrastructure the way Amtrak does.

Congressional underfunding has made a once-vibrant system a liability, she said.

“We used to be the leaders in rail,” Brown said. “Now we are the caboose, and we don’t use cabooses anymore.”

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