Historic Amtrak Funding Aimed at Reducing Delays and Replacing Cars Nearly 50 Years Old

WASHINGTON – Emma Campbell, a technician at the National Museum of Heath and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md., Has taken Amtrak trains at least twice a year since attending college in 2012.

Half of the Amtrak trains she took were delayed from 15 minutes to four hours, she told Capital News Service.

Amtrak’s next-generation Acela Express enters service in the Northeast Corridor in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Amtrak)

“I have a love-hate relationship with Amtrak because I love what they could be, but I don’t like who they are,” Campbell said.

Amtrak hopes to change those negative experiences with a historic influx of $ 66 billion in funding through President Joe Biden’s $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The funding will be used to reduce maintenance backlogs, improve tracks and signals, replace nearly 50-year-old cars, and replace or renovate old tunnels and bridges as part of a massive effort to modernize the nationwide passenger rail service.

The bill will provide $ 6 billion in directed grants over five years to projects along the Northeast Corridor, a 457-mile-long highway connecting major cities from Washington to Baltimore to Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The corridor is Amtrak’s busiest, serving 6.1 million passengers in fiscal year 2020, which represents an almost 50% decrease in ridership from Amtrak’s pre-COVID reports for fiscal 2019.

The delayed replacement of a century-old infrastructure has been a burden on Amtrak employees, said Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn. testimony last May before the House Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Railways, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

“But Amtrak and commuter rail passengers who use the Northeast Corridor daily also pay the cost, as they endure the unreliability that depends on infrastructure never designed for today’s demands.” , said Flynn.

The leading cause of Amtrak passenger train delays is freight train interference – when passenger trains on tracks owned by freight railways, known as host railways, are delayed by trains goods slower ahead of them, according to Amtrak.

“The biggest threat to the future of our long distance network is not COVID-19, but rather poor punctuality which diminishes the value of these services for our customers and the sclerotic roads that cannot be altered or extended by due to the host railway. resistance, ”Flynn said in October testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transport.

Federal law requires passenger trains to have priority over freight trains. However, the Justice Department only enforced this law once and that was 40 years ago, according to Amtrak.

“They claim rail passenger transport in America has the right of way and that’s a lie,” Campbell said. “You wouldn’t know how many times I have been told ‘the train cannot move because there is freight in front of us.'”

Freight train interference has accounted for about 60% of Amtrak’s system-wide delays in recent years. These delays are a major factor in Amtrak’s operating losses, according to a 2019 report by the Office of the Inspector General of Amtrak. In fiscal 2018, the passenger railroad lost $ 171 million.

(Amtrak said it was on track to erase its losses by fiscal 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic nearly wiped out ridership for a while, resulting in an operating loss of 801 millions of dollars.)

However, freight interference is far from the main cause of delays in the Northeast Corridor, as Amtrak owns the tracks in this region. But that makes up most of the 3% of track Amtrak owns out of the 21,400 kilometers its trains travel, according to Amtrakthe Host Railroad 2020 Report Card.

Passenger-related delays, such as delays related to disabled passengers, wheelchair lifts, large groups, etc., were the main cause of the 880 delays on the northeast corridor for which Amtrak was responsible during the third quarter of fiscal year 2021. And, of the 873 delays responsible for the host railway, only 39 were caused by freight train interference.

Most of the remaining tracks across the country are owned by freight rail companies such as CSX, which make all train allocation decisions, including which trains have priority over others. The Capitol Limited Road from Washington to Pittsburgh is the only road in Maryland owned by CSX.

System-wide, according to the Amtrak bulletin, “Freight trains caused Amtrak passengers 700,000 minutes of delay in 2020, which equates to more than a year of passengers waiting for freight to leave.” first “.

The only other two sections of the Northeast Corridor that do not belong to either CSX or Amtrak are the 46 miles between New Rochelle, NY and New Haven, Connecticut, belonging to the Connecticut Department of Transportation and 38 miles between Massachusetts and the Rhode. Island border and Boston, which is owned by Massachusetts but operated and maintained by Amtrak, which shares the track with commuter train service.

To alleviate the delays, Amtrak could add more lanes to minimize conflict with cargo, said Dr. George List, professor of civil engineering at North Carolina State University.

“In order for Amtrak to implement and offer new services such as adding new tracks, the company will need to negotiate with freight railways to make arrangements for these services to be offered,” List said.

Most railroads in the United States have limited track capacity and the railways don’t tend to overinvest in that, List said.

“In this sense, if passenger trains and freight trains try to use these facilities at the same time, it is a somewhat complex planning problem to understand how to integrate passenger trains into the movements of freight trains, ”List said. . “If there is an interest in having faster services, delivered or augmented by investment, more capacity is probably something that needs to happen. “

The increased funding for the Northeast Corridor will help Maryland, but the state has not spoken to CSX about adding more tracks, said Peter Weendolkowski, interim president of Rail Passengers Maryland, a local subsidiary of the National Rail Passengers Association, which is focused on transit issues.

“No matter where the funds come from, challenges are always encountered with freight railways, whether it is for interference from freight trains, access to tracks or money for certain improvements. “Weendolkowski said.

According to Testimony of the house From Edward Hamberger, President and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, “The expansion of passenger rail operations on the nation’s freight rail network involves significant opportunities and challenges.”

“The chances that these challenges can be overcome will be higher if certain principles are followed,” he said. In his prepared testimony, Hamberger said: “The use of rail tracks by passengers on freight rail corridors should not compromise the ability of freight railways to serve current or future customers. “

In April, Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Representative Donald Payne, Jr., D-New Jersey, introduced legislation to improve Amtrak’s punctuality. Legislators’ bill, known as the Rail Passenger Fairness Act, would allow Amtrak to sue freight rail companies that do not comply with the law giving priority to passenger trains.

“With the Rail Passenger Fairness Act, we can finally hold freight railways to account when they don’t follow the law and get Amtrak’s performance back on schedule,” Durbin said in a statement. .

One improvement that Amtrak riders won’t wait long for is the replacement of the 45-year-old Northeastern Amfleet I regional cars with new rolling stock: 83 intercity train sets, deployed on routes accounting for nearly half of Amtrak’s annual ridership, according to the Ministry of Transport.

Campbell said she looked forward to new Amtrak cars.

“From what I know, most of their trains are still from the 80s, which is why it doesn’t surprise me that things are breaking down,” she said.

On one occasion, Campbell said she recalled being told over the train’s loudspeaker that the auxiliary engine had failed. Her train had stopped in the middle of nowhere and it was dark outside, she said.

“None of us were very confident of getting to our destination,” said Campbell, who said she generally found her Amtrak delays to be due to problems with the locomotives.

Amtrak’s new rail assemblies will be powered by dual-mode diesel-electric locomotives, allowing them to run on the electrified Northeast Corridor route, and then continue to destinations beyond diesel power use. conventional, eliminating the need to stop for engine changes, according to Flynn.

Amtrak spokeswoman Beth Toll told CNS that the infrastructure bill will provide federal funding to advance rail projects and initiatives in the Northeast Corridor and across the country.

Projects that will move forward include implement a plan to do a 15-year investment in 150 projects along the northeast corridor, Toll said.

The plan includes replacing the Amtrak and commuter railroad through the aging Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel with a three-kilometer-long, four-lane tunnel called the Frederick Douglass Tunnel, which will reduce travel times by allowing speeds of up to 100 mph The old tunnel will be modernized to allow faster passage of freight trains from the port.

“The tunnel has become a major bottleneck for the port. From now on, the Port of Baltimore will receive a grant of $ 125 million to modernize this tunnel so that freight trains can double through this tunnel ”, Biden said during his Nov. 10 visit to Baltimore.

Repairing the Baltimore tunnel and extending Union Station in Washington, Weendolkowski said, will increase MARC service on the Penn Line, one of three service lines connecting Washington, Baltimore and other stations in Maryland. .

“Having Baltimore in the mix is ​​really important to Maryland,” he said.

Plans also include the replacement of the Susquehanna River Bridge near Havre de Grace, Md., And the construction of two new platforms at Baltimore Penn Station to allow Amtrak Acela service to pass the slower trains of the regional northeast and MARC in both directions.

By 2035, the upgrades are expected to save $ 140 million per year through reductions in commuter and long distance travel time as well as a 33% increase in Amtrak long distance service, according to the plan of the Northeast Corridor Commission.

This article was originally published on CNSMaryland.org December 9, 2021.

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