WASHINGTON – Officials up and down the East Coast have long agitated for money to help replace crumbling bridges and tunnels along the Northeast Corridor, a heavily traveled route between Washington and Boston. After decades of underinvestment, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Biden signed last month is poised to deliver much-needed reform.
The funding includes the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak in 1971, handing the agency billions of dollars to address its repair backlog, modernize its fleet, and reduce travel times. The $66 billion in new funding for rail could also fuel Amtrak’s expansion of its routes across the country, an elusive goal that could generate millions more revenue for the agency and expand its network into new areas. .
“This is a fundamental change,” said John Robert Smith, a former Amtrak board chairman and president of Transport for America, an advocacy group. “They had nothing comparable to that.”
Still, officials say it will take time for riders to see the full impact because hiring Amtrak will need to accelerate and construction projects can take years. Shortages of electricians, machinists and train operators can also prolong improvement projects.
“It’s going to take a long time for them to show up as a real ready infrastructure,” said Amtrak president Stephen Jay Gardner, who will be the new chief executive officer starting January 17th.
The funds are intended to help modernize America’s primary rail system, which lags far 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 introduced a train that will reach more than 370 mph. In comparison, the fastest Amtrak Acela trains reach 150 mph in some parts of the Northeast Corridor.
Mr Gardner said the agency has long needed to address its repair backlog and modernize the Northeast Corridor, which includes some bridges and tunnels that are more than 100 years old. This could help eliminate major choke points along the corridor, which serves approximately 750,000 riders daily in normal times, reducing service disruptions and speeding up trips.
The package is intended to fulfill a campaign pledge from Mr Biden, who promised to inject billions into the railroad and often mentions his fondness for Amtrak, when as a senator he was looking after his two sons. Every night he traveled from Washington to Delaware. Wife and newborn daughter died after being hit by car.
Amtrak, which owns about 80 percent of the Northeast Corridor, is working with members of the Northeast Corridor Commission to determine which improvement projects to prioritize. It will also work with states and other groups to submit applications for a $44 billion pool that the Department of Transportation will do through competitive grant programs.
Of the $22 billion going directly to Amtrak, about $6 billion will be used for improvement projects along the Northeast Corridor. The corridor could receive an additional $24 billion through competitive grants.
Money comes at an important but complicated moment. Amtrak is already struggling to deal with labor shortages, which are affecting employers across the United States. More than 16 months after the pandemic caused rail travel and ridership to drop by 97 percent, Amtrak stopped hiring workers. Employees also retired or left their jobs, resulting in a 10 percent drop in the number of train engineers and conductors.
Earlier this month, Amtrak’s inspector general released a report stating that the agency’s human resources department lacks staff. will affect the ability to take.”
To retain employees, Amtrak offered $48.5 million in accrued performance pay this year to about 2,600 management employees, a spokesperson said. About 82 percent of those payments were made to non-executive employees who are part of management.
The agency is now trying to fill around 200 vacancies.
Jim Matthews, president and chief executive of the Rail Passengers Association, said he is optimistic that the labor shortage will be addressed in the coming months, but given the sheer size of the projects, it will be a challenge for the workforce.
“Even in normal times, we don’t necessarily have the workforce to support us in this country,” Mr Mathew said.
This could be further complicated by a vaccine mandate. Although Amtrak temporarily dropped its vaccine mandate after Amtrak halted enforcement of the requirement for federal contractors, Amtrak officials said Tuesday they would continue to update the policy “as needed.” About 97 percent of Amtrak’s employees have received either a one-shot or a discounted accommodation.
Amtrak executives previously warned about service cuts next month because of the mandate, but according to the memo the agency no longer expects to withdraw service.
While the number of riderships is still low, it has reached about 70 percent of pandemic levels, Mr Gardner said.
The Northeast Corridor Commission has identified more than 150 reform projects that will cost $117 billion over 15 years. This includes replacing the nearly 150-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, the largest barrier between Washington and New Jersey, with a two-mile high-speed tunnel. The new Frederick Douglass Tunnel will reduce travel times by allowing speeds of up to 100 mph over the current maximum speed of 30 mph.
Officials also want to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River, which was severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The project will cost $12.3 billion to rehabilitate the old tunnel and build a new one.
Other projects include replacing the Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland, improving 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, and expanding Penn Station in New York.
According to the commission’s plan, the improvement projects will have long-lasting benefits, including increasing daily service along the corridor and accelerating the Acela journeys from Washington to New York and New York to Boston by about 30 minutes.
Mitch Warren, executive director of the Northeast Corridor Commission, said funding the infrastructure bill will benefit many of the projects outlined in the commission’s plan. As those improvements are carried out, the number of track and power failures, which cause delays, should be reduced, he said.
“After decades of underinvestment, moving away from investments made by previous generations, it gives us the way forward,” said Mr. Warren. “This infrastructure bill lays the foundation for new investments in the Northeast Corridor that will last for generations.”
The fund will help Amtrak replace about 40 percent of its rail car fleet by 2031 and remove some of its older cars that have been in service for 45 years.
Outside the aisle, the money could fuel the vast expansion of Amtrak’s maps across the country. In May, Amtrak released a $75 billion plan to expand its network to more than 160 new communities by 2035, creating 39 new routes that will serve cities such as Nashville, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Routes can be restored even in areas that lost service decades ago. David Strohmeyer, a county commissioner for Missoula County in southern Montana and president of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, said he hoped the funding would help reestablish the North Coast Hiawatha Route, which would run between Chicago and 42, before it ends. Between Seattle. Many years ago.
He pointed to potential economic benefits: According to an analysis by the Rail Passengers Association, restoring the route as a daily service could generate economic benefits of $271 million annually for seven states.
Funding can also help the agency make all stations accessible to people with disabilities. According to a September report from Amtrak’s inspector general, more than 300 stations were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Even with the funding, obstacles remain to Amtrak’s ambitious plans. Host rail companies, which control most of the tracks used by Amtrak outside the Northeast, may challenge Amtrak’s ability to introduce and expand service into new areas. Freight rail companies are already trying to prevent the resumption of service along the Gulf Coast, arguing that more studies are needed to examine possible delays in freight service. The Surface Transport Board is yet to decide on the matter.
Local politics could also hinder its expansion across the country if state and city officials resist using local money to subsidize rail service.