Friday, March 13, 2009

Amtrak's Boardman paints a bright picture

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Following an infusion of $1.3 billion in capital (over and above the $13 billion over five years authorized last year) and indirect access to $8 billion in state-administered funds under President Obama’s economic stimulus program, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman is faced with determining how best to invest this near-windfall within a relatively short time frame.

“We have to deliver the things people expect—now,” Boardman said in a March 12 meeting with the Railway Supply Institute Passenger Transportation Committee. Federal Railroad Administration stimulus package language stipulates that projects falling under Amtrak’s $1.3 billion portion must be completed by February 2011. Given the long-term nature of rail capital projects, Amtrak wants to clarify whether “completed” means “substantially completed” or “finished,” Boardman said. The $8 billion, whether or not some of it goes to an Amtrak project (for example, upgrading New York State’s entire Empire Corridor to 110 mph), must be spent within three years, according to the guidelines.

joseph_boardman_for_website.jpgAmtrak’s needs, Boardman said, cover the spectrum from short-term to wish-list, so some programs will fall under economic stimulus, others under general capital outlays. There’s an immediate need to replace aging Heritage Fleet baggage cars and diners, using the existing Viewliner platform. Amfleet, the durable stainless-steel single-level cars that have served Amtrak well for the better part of 40 years, can be refurbished yet again, but they will eventually need replacement. GE P40 diesel locomotives need rebuilding, and the Northeast Corridor’s reliable but aging AEM7 electric locomotive fleet needs replacement. Amtrak will be applying for a RRIF loan to replace the AEM7s. High speed Acela Express trainsets are now 10 years old and will soon need refurbishment. 

Boardman mentioned “next-generation Acela” services, in terms of both equipment and infrastructure. Trip times on the south (New York-Washington) end of the NEC could be reduced to two hours, 15 minutes with constant-tension catenary capable of supporting speeds above 150 mph, rebuilding of the notoriously slow tunnel approaches to Baltimore Penn Station, curve realignment in some areas, and numerous other improvements whose effect would be cumulative. Longer-term, Boardman said NEC electrification could be extended as far south as Richmond, Va., and the State of Virginia would support that. Ideally, a larger portion of the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Virginia is a good candidate for electrification and high speed rail service .

Boardman said that the $8 billion in state-administered stimulus funds designated for high speed rail would be best-spent on improvements to existing freight/passenger corridors to enable higher-speed service (110 mph). He said that reducing trip time between city pairs is a far more important consideration than top speed. Higher-speed rail, he said, “is competitive and realistic.” Maglev isn’t.

Already, said Boardman, “serious discussions” are taking place with Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin about developing the Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Milwaukee corridors, both of which are part of the Midwest High Speed Rail initiative. Other states have passenger rail plans in various development stages. For example, the 245-mile Atlanta-Charlotte corridor (over Norfolk Southern) is served by one train per day, the Crescent. It’s a six-hour trip that takes place during the night. Replacing the short-haul flights between those cities—and all the hassles involved with air travel—with convenient, downtown-to-downtown higher-speed rail service, would reduce airport congestion and offer business travelers a much more comfortable, productive trip. Atlanta-Charlotte is part of NS’s Crescent Corridor, a public-private partnership to increase freight rail capacity in the Southeast.

Given the broad scope of national intercity passenger rail needs and the intense competition for funds, $8 billion won’t go very far, Boardman said. Not clear at this point is whether the stimulus funding is a “down payment” on an extended period of national passenger rail development, or a one-shot infusion of capital.

Though NEC ridership has dipped (Boardman attributes this to a decline in business travel caused by the recession), ridership on Amtrak’s long-distance trains has increased, compensating for the downturn in NEC revenues. Amtrak carried nearly 29 million passengers in 2008, the highest number ever in its 38-year history, and the numbers are expected to grow, perhaps to as high as 35 million annually. Long-distance services, Boardman said, “look very solid, and it’s important to consider them within the context of surface transportation connectivity of all modes.”

“Amtrak must be ready to provide more service when the economy starts moving again,” Boardman said. With that in mind, a consistent, dependable source of annual capital is needed. “We can deal with having to ask Congress every year for operating support,” he said. Capital funding shouldn’t be subject to that process, and Boardman hopes that changes will be made to that effect when SAFETEA-LU is reauthorized later this year.