Billions of Amtrak funds could modernize the aging railroad system

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WASHINGTON – East Coast officials have long been calling for money to replace crumbling bridges and tunnels along the Northeast Corridor, the heavily trafficked route between Washington and Boston. After decades of underinvestment, the $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed last month is on the verge of making much-needed improvements.

The funding includes the largest investment in passenger rail transport since Amtrak was founded in 1971, providing the agency with billions of dollars to help clear its repair backlog, modernize its fleet and reduce travel 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 territories.

“This is a fundamental change,” said John Robert Smith, a former chairman of Amtrak and chairman of the Transportation for America advocacy group. “You’ve never had anything like it.”

Still, officials say it will be some time before drivers see the full impact as Amtrak needs to up the hiring and construction projects could take years. The lack of electricians, machinists and railway operators could also prolong improvement projects.

“It will be a long time before they emerge as a fully-fledged infrastructure,” said Amtrak President Stephen J. Gardner, who will be the new CEO on January 17th.

The money is intended to help modernize America’s primary railroad system, which has long lagged behind Asian and European countries in speed and coverage. In China, officials have already built more than 20,000 miles of high-speed rail and debuted a train that would go over 370 mph. The fastest Amtrak Acela trains in comparison Reach 150 miles per hour in some sections of the Northeast Corridor.

Mr Gardner said the agency has long had to clear its repair backlog and modernize the Northeast Corridor, which includes some bridges and tunnels that are more than 100 years old. This could help remove major bottlenecks along the corridor, which in normal times serves around 750,000 drivers a day, reduce service disruptions and speed up journeys.

The package aims to fulfill an election promise made by Mr Biden, who pledged to invest billions in railroading, and frequently mentions his fondness for Amtrak as he traveled home from Washington to Delaware every night as a senator to look after his both sons care wife and little daughter 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 should be prioritized. It will also work with states and other groups to submit applications for a $ 44 billion pool of funds that the Department of Transportation will distribute through competitive grant programs.

Of the $ 22 billion that will go direct to Amtrak, approximately $ 6 billion will be used for improvement projects along the Northeast Corridor. The corridor could gain an additional $ 24 billion from the competitive grants.

The money comes at a critical but complicated moment. Amtrak is already battling labor shortages affecting employers in the United States. Amtrak stopped hiring for more than 16 months as the pandemic undermined rail traffic and slumped passenger numbers by as much as 97 percent. Employees also retired or quit, reducing the number of train drivers and conductors through churn by 10 percent.

Earlier this month, the Amtrak Inspector General released one report The shortage of staff in the agency’s human resources department would affect Amtrak’s ability to “find and hire qualified candidates in a timely manner to meet the company’s hiring needs”.

To keep workers, Amtrak offered approximately 2,600 executives $ 48.5 million in earned benefit payments this year, a spokeswoman said. About 82 percent of these payments were made to non-executive employees.

The agency is now trying to fill around 200 vacancies.

Jim Mathews, the president and executive director of the Rail Passengers Association, said he was optimistic that the labor shortage would be alleviated in the coming months, but staffing was a challenge given the size of the projects.

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

This could be reinforced by a vaccination mandate. Although Amtrak temporarily dropped its vaccine mandate after a federal court stopped enforcing requirements on federal contractors, Amtrak officials said Tuesday they would continue to update the policy “as needed”. Approximately 97 percent of Amtrak employees have received either an injection or an exemption from lodging.

Amtrak executives had previously warned of service cuts in the next month because of the mandate, but the agency no longer expected to cut services, according to the memo.

While passenger numbers are still declining, they are about 70 percent 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 Tunnels, the largest bottleneck between Washington and New Jersey, with a faster two-mile tunnel. The new Frederick Douglass Tunnel would reduce travel times by allowing speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, up from the current maximum speed of 48 miles per hour.

Officials also plan to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River to complement the crumbling tunnel that was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The project would cost $ 12.3 billion to rehabilitate the old tunnel and build a new one.

Other projects include the replacement of the Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland, the improvement of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and the expansion of Penn Station in New York.

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

Mitch Warren, executive director of the Northeast Corridor Commission, said the infrastructure bill funding would benefit many of the projects outlined in the commission’s plan. These improvements should reduce the number of track and power outages that cause delays, he said.

“After decades of underinvestment, after having lived on the investments of previous generations, this points a way forward,” said Mr. Warren. “This Infrastructure Act lays the foundation for new investments in the Northeast Corridor that will last for generations.”

The funds would also help Amtrak replace nearly 40 percent of its wagon fleet by 2031 and remove some of the oldest wagons that have been in service for 45 years.

Outside the corridor, the money could wreak havoc on the Amtrak card across the country. In May, Amtrak a $ 75 billion plan by 2035, expand its network to more than 160 new communities and create 39 new routes that would operate in cities such as Nashville, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Lines could also be restored in regions that were withdrawn from service decades ago. David Strohmaier, a district commissioner for Missoula County in Southern Montana and chairman of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, said he hopes the funding will help restore the area North Coast Hiawatha Routethat ran between Chicago and Seattle before ending 42 years ago.

He pointed out the potential economic benefits: Restoring the route as a daily service could bring economic benefits of $ 271 million annually to the seven states it crosses, according to a Analysis of the railway passenger association.

The funding could also help the agency to make all stations accessible to people with disabilities. More than 300 wards did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, according to a September report from the Inspector General of Amtrak.

Amtrak’s ambitious plans also remain hurdles when it comes to financing. The host rail companies, which control the majority of Amtrak’s tracks outside of the Northeast, may question Amtrak’s ability to expand and add service to new regions. Rail freight operators are already trying to stop restoring service along the Gulf Coast, arguing that more studies are needed to investigate the possible delays in freight traffic. The Surface Transportation Board has yet to decide on the case.

Local politics could also hamper its expansion across the country if state and city officials refuse to use local funds to subsidize rail transport.


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