Why Does Amtrak want to expand Penn Station for New Jersey Transit?

The recent crash of Amtrak Train 118 in Philadelphia on May 12th set off a series of rhetorical contortions that tried to “blame” this crash on a lack of funding for the Northeast Corridor (NEC). As it turned out the crash was the result of human error. The errors were on the part of both the train’s operator and Amtrak Management. The existing signalling system for the NEC with its roots going back to the 1930’s has the capability to bring a train to an emergency stop if the train exceeds the speed limit. The signalling system for trains going southbound in Philadelphia was able to stop trains if speeding. However this was not true for trains going northbound like the 118. There hasn’t been an explanation from Amtrak why this was so. The FRA ordered Amtrak to fix this problem before it will be allow to restore service through Philadelphia. Since service has been restored, it was likely not difficult to fix.

Amtrak does have serious infrastructure problems on the NEC. Amtrak owns most of it and controls dispatching of most of its trains as well as many of the commuter trains running on it and freight trains. Amtrak was “given” the NEC in the mid 70’s as part of the reorganization of the PennCentral Railroad into Conrail. Conrail was only too happy to get rid of the NEC, the cost of which was a major factor of the bankruptcy of the PennCentral.

Most of the Federal dollars that goes to Amtrak are spent on the NEC, The total cost from the start of Amtrak in 1971 until today for the Federal Government is 45 billion dollars. The NEC was in terrible shape when Amtrak got it in 1976. Efforts to put the NEC into a “state of good repair” continues even after almost 40 years and billions of dollars of repairs and improvements.

An example of this is the ongoing effort to build a new train tunnel connecting Manhattan with New Jersey. The existing tunnels are over 100 years old and were damaged from flooding by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Amtrak wants to avoid running all rail traffic though one tunnel at a time while the other is repaired, a process that could take up a year for each. Their plan is to build a new double track tunnel before shutting down the old single tracked ones. The old tunnels will still be repaired so in the end there will be a doubling of train capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan.

Does Amtrak really need double tracking for all its traffic in and out of Manhattan? Amtrak runs a peek of 3 to 4 trains an hour in each direction to Manhattan. But New Jersey Transit runs 20 trains an hour during rush hours. Clearly New Jersey Transit can’t get by with only one tunnel.

Amtrak’s planned solution is to spend up to $20 billion dollars. Part of this would be to build 2 addition tracks in a new tunnel. This extra capacity with 4 tracks would be used in the future mostly for running additional New Jersey Transit trains into Manhattan. The problem is Penn Station as it is currently managed won’t be able to handle this new traffic. So what is being planned is a new set of tracks and platforms in an annex next to Penn Station for New Jersey Transit.

There are much cheaper alternatives. Grand Central Station has plenty of extra room to handle the extra New Jersey Transit trains. A tunnel connections to Grand Central would be much cheaper that building new platforms for Penn Station. Also Grand Central is in a better neighborhood than Penn Station.

The problem with Penn Station for commuter trains is that the trains all terminate there. The station is operated as a stub end station which is the least productive way to run a station. The result is New Jersey Transit averages only three trains an hour at a platform. This could be fixed by merging service between New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Railroad with run through service between both commuter railroads. For an example, Penn Station today is struggling to handle 300,000 passengers a day with 12 tracks. In Paris, its busiest commuter station: Châtelet-Les Halles, handles a half million passengers with run through service on 7 tracks.

To top everything else, even though most of this construction is planned for New Jersey Transit’s benefit; New Jersey Governor Christie pulled out his state’s share of the funding for this project.

Despite claims that Amtrak operates trains on the NEC at a “profit”, these profits get more than eaten up by the costs of the infrastructure for the NEC. In most countries today ownership and funding for railroad infrastructure is separate from the operation of passenger and freight trains. Infrastructure is expensive and difficult to make money from owning. In one form or another government spending is usually needed to build and maintain infrastructure around the world. Without infrastructure the economy comes to a grinding halt.

One example of this is the breakup of British Rail. This lead to privatization of all rail service in 1994 with all passenger and freight rail service provided by for profit companies. For rural and commuter rail passenger service there are government subsidies. The companies providing these subsidized services must win the contracts by competitive bidding. Intercity rail passenger service operations in Britain and in most counties for that matter is profitable.

The owner of the tracks and stations in Britain today is called Network Rail. It is a not for profit company. Sixty percent of the revenue for Network Rail is from the British Government, while the rest comes from track use charges and concessions at its stations. Network Rail was formed originally as Railtrack in 1994 as a for profit company like the rest of what was British Rail. The results were cut backs on maintenance and higher track user fees. After several major train accidents blamed on failing infrastructure, Railtrack was reorganized as Network Rail in 2002 as a not for profit company. Track maintenance has improved since 2002. But problems remain and Network Rail is far from being loved by all in Britain.

The freight railroads of this country are able to make a profit while owning their own infrastructure. It helps that they often have had over 120 years to amortize ownership of their infrastructure. Also freight is more profitable and less expensive to carry than passengers. The freight railroads can carry more freight with fewer but much longer trains than in the past. With fewer trains, traveling slower than passenger trains, the railroads keep the cost of their infrastructure under control. Adding passenger trains can disrupt their freight operations unless there is government funding for track improvements needed for joint freight and passenger service.

The NEC dominates Amtrak. The majority of Amtrak’s train traffic is run on the NEC. The majority of Amtrak’s employees work on the NEC. The ownership, operation, maintenance and construction on the NEC is a major part of Amtrak’s bureaucracy. The prospect of breaking this up by separating the operations of its trains from management of the NEC is not welcomed by Amtrak’s bureaucracy. But the fixation of owning the NEC is preventing it from what is suppose to be its main function, which is to provide rail passenger service nation wide. Also many of the states on the NEC are more than happy to have Federally supported Amtrak deal with the costs of ownership of the NEC and not have it dumped on the States.

The NEC is not the only place, nor is rail service, let alone transportation the only place funding has fallen behind for our Nation’s infrastructure. In San Diego County alone, there are over 200 billion dollars in transportation projects proposed over the next 35 years. Politics boils down to who gets government spending and who pays. These are the 2 issues that dominates all political debate with everyone wanting what they consider “their fair share”.

Taxpayers want and are willing to pay for government services. In California several counties have passed sale tax increases for transportation by popular vote. Such measure require a 2/3rd majority to pass. The secret to getting enough popular support for these measures is to have something for everyone. These measure usually have money for road, rail and transit. Congress is going to have to work together to raise tax dollars for infrastructure improvements and spend the money in a way that satisfies the most people.

What can be done on the NEC would be to create a NEC Infrastructure Authority as a government agency which is not owned by Amtrak or any of the NEC commuter railroads. This is the way most railroads operate around the world today. This is how California High Speed Rail will operate with the State owning the railroad and a private company operating the trains for profit, and paying the State to use the railway.

Separating NEC ownership from Amtrak  would allow it to concentrate on its core business, which is operating a National Rail Passenger service. This will give the public a more honest idea of the true costs of operating trains, and the cost of infrastructure. The NEC Infrastructure Authority should have no pretensions of being for profit. Nationally there also should be increased funding for new and improved rail services. This would be very useful for improving and expanding Long Distance Passenger services. To get the support for additional funding for the NEC, there also has to be something for the other regions of the County too. That’s politics.

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