Amtrak Uses Climate Adaptation as an Excuse to Waste More Money

When the Gateway tunnel project began at the start of this decade, it was justified on the same grounds as the older ARC project: more capacity for trains across the Hudson. This justification continued even after the existing tunnels suffered damage in Hurricane Sandy. As costs mounted and it became clear there was no political will to round up $25 billion of federal and state money for capacity, the arguments changed. An engineering report softly recommended long-term tunnel closure for maintenance, without comparing the cost of new tunnels to that of continuing to close the tunnels one tube at a time on weekends, and subsequently both the funding requests and the press releases shifted in tone to “we must close the tunnels or else they’ll collapse.” Unfortunately, this racket is now spreading to other parts of the American mainline rail network – namely, Amtrak and its high-speed rail program.

Case in point: in an internal report, leaked to the press via a belated public records request, Amtrak fearmongers about the impact of rising sea levels on its infrastructure. Bloomberg helpfully includes maps of rising sea levels inundating part of the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure in low-lying parts of Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland.

What Bloomberg does not say is that the Northeast Corridor is slightly elevated over the parts shown as inundated, due to river crossings. There’s even an attached photo of the station in Wilmington, clearly showing the train running above ground on a viaduct, at what looks like about five meters above sea level. There are no photos from other areas along the corridor, but regular riders as well as people looking closely at satellite photos will know that through the flood-prone parts of Secaucus, the Northeast Corridor is already on a berm, crossing over intersecting roads, and the same is true in most of Connecticut. On Google Earth, the lowest-lying parts of the route, passing through southeastern Connecticut and parts of Maryland, are 3-4 meters above sea level.

The rub is that a sea level rise of 3-4 meters is globally catastrophic to an extent that doesn’t make Amtrak any of the top thousand priorities. Cities would be flooded, as helpfully shown by photos and images depicting the railroad running above street level. Entire countries would be wiped off the map, like the Maldives. Low-lying coastal floodplains, so crucial for high-intensity agriculture, would disappear. In Bangladesh alone, a sea level rise of a single meter would flood 17.5% of the country, which with today’s demographics would displace about 25 million people; the sea level rise required to threaten the Northeast Corridor is likely to produce a nine-figure global refugee crisis.

To Amtrak’s credit, it’s somewhat pushing back against the apocalyptic language – for now. The Bloomberg article tries to demagogue about how unconcerned Amtrak is with climate change-related flooding, but at least the quotes given in the piece suggest Amtrak views this as a concern, just not one it’s going to talk about while the president openly says climate change is a Chinese conspiracy. Once the political winds will shift, Amtrak as portrayed by a close reading of the article will presumably shift its rhetoric.

However, the credit Amtrak gets for not pushing this line right now is limited. Sarah Feinberg, a former FRA administrator who was also on the panel for Governor Cuomo’s MTA genius grant competition, is described as saying talking about climate change won’t fly in Congress. In other words, in Feinberg and Amtrak’s view, “we need money to flood-proof the Northeast Corridor” is not a preposterous proposition, but a demand to be reserved until the Democrats are in charge of the federal government.

In the 2000s, Amtrak fired David Gunn from his position as CEO, since he wouldn’t succumb to political pressure to skimp on maintenance in order to achieve on-paper profitability so that Amtrak could be privatized. In his stead, the Amtrak board installed the more pliable Joe Boardman. Then Obama replaced Bush and economic stimulus replaced domestic spending cuts, and suddenly Amtrak discovered a backlog of maintenance, demanding billions of dollars that could have built 350 km/h high-speed rail between Boston and Washington already for state of good repair instead. The backlog has increased ever since, as it became clear Amtrak could just ask for more money without having to show any work for it as long as it was couched in language about maintenance.

The same mentality is still in place today. The required response of the American transportation complex to climate change: an immediate end to any public spending on roads and airports and massive spending on public transportation, intercity rail, and electric car charging stations, in that order. Amtrak has a role to play in advocating for more rail use as mitigation of transportation emissions, which are currently the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

However, responding this way would require Amtrak to run better service. It would require it to stop playing agency turf games with other railroad agencies – after all, the planet does not care who owns which piece of track on the Northeast Corridor. It would require it to show visible improvements in speed, capacity, coverage, and reliability. It is not capable of producing these improvements and neither do other federal organs dealing with passenger rail, such as the FRA-led NEC Future effort. Thus, it is preparing the way to argue for a massive increase in spending that is explicitly not designed to produce any tangible benefit.

There is a way forward, but not with any of the people in charge today. They are incapable of managing large projects or even smoothly running a railroad in regular service, and should be replaced by people who have the required experience. Feinberg is a political operative who before her appointment as FRA head in 2015 had no background in transportation; evidently, together with the other judges of the genius grant she greenlit manifestly impossible projects.

Evidently, when New York City Transit hired a chair with a strong transportation background, namely Andy Byford, suddenly plans became more than just the state of good repair black hole plus court-mandated accessibility retrofits. Byford insists on specific positive improvements, which lay riders can judge in the coming decade as they see more elevator access and higher train frequency, provided his plan’s very high cost is funded.

With Amtrak, in contrast, there is only a black hole. There is an extremely expensive high-speed rail plan out there, but the first segment Amtrak wants to build, Gateway, wouldn’t provide any tangible benefit in speed or even capacity (the current state of Gateway is a $11 billion tunnel without additional surface tracks, so the two-track bottleneck would remain). A project that was once a critical capacity increase has since been downgraded into the state of good repair black hole, in which many tens of billions of dollars can disappear without showing anything. As the NEC Future process evolves, any calls for high-speed rail in the Northeast are likely to evolve in the same direction: no improvement, just endless money poured on the same service quality as today, justified in terms of adaptation or resilience.

31 comments

  1. Tunnel Vision

    Not disagreeing about AMTRAK being a black hole.

    Gateway will provide two new tunnels which means the existing tunnels can be rehabbed. In actuality the tunnels are serviceable the systems inside them less so according to the detailed inspection reports prepared. Obviously you don’t live in NJ and rely on service through those tunnels……if you don’t think capacity will improve.

    The previous version of Gateway or the ARC project provided no benefit to Penn or the existing tunnels because the final version had no connection into Penn.

    And frankly the resiliency issue has only arisen since the FTA started moving the goalposts for federal funding under Herr Drumpf.

    • Alon Levy

      Gateway as conceived in 2011 or thereabout included a four-track path from Newark to Penn Station. The current version includes a four-track tunnel but only two tracks on the surface from the portal to Newark (and not even the deeply misguided Secaucus Loop, which would allow four-tracking just between the portal and Secaucus).

      The detailed inspection report says it recommends long-term closure but doesn’t say it is necessary, only easier than the current schedule of weekend shutdowns. But it doesn’t cost the current schedule (long-term closure is $350 million, it says), perhaps because then people might notice the cost is an order of magnitude less than that of the tunnel. Nor does it repeat the lie that if one of the tubes has to be closed long-term without replacement, peak capacity will drop to 6 tph (12 is doable with platooning every half hour, and 18 should be doable with asymmetric but still bidirectional service).

      • amiablebowfin

        …wait, it doesn’t include a four-track path to Newark!? I’d just kind of assumed it did because not doing that would make utterly no sense. *sighs*

        • Alon Levy

          It doesn’t. And this is despite the fact that the only hard part of four-tracking the surface route, Portal Bridge, is separate and already under construction and sort of fully funded (state bonds are already sold, the feds gave the money and are now freezing it until Jersey renames itself after Trump or something).

          • adirondacker12800

            They had a definitive answer, with all of the paperwork completed, for the ARC tunnel. They knew where it was going to be and had a proposed completion date. They have a very good idea where the Gateway tunnel is going to be but …………. the lawsuits haven’t wended their way through the courts yet. Or a schedule for when it will be completed. They can walk, chew gum and juggle at the same time so they are building the north bridge and can do all the paperwork for the south bridge and more track when they have a definitive answer on where the Gateway tunnels will be. They can do something clever like build the new bridge, tear down the old bridge, put the second bridge where the old bridge was….

          • adirondacker12800

            It was always going to be two bridges. Started out as westbound three tracked and eastbound two tracked if I remember correctly. Until they have four tunnels to Manhattan they only need two tracks so they are building that now.

    • Subutay Musluoglu

      So we trade one flaw for another, because while the the ARC plan may have been flawed for not having connectivity to Penn, which would have increased flexibility, it actually did provide a net increase in capacity across the river, because the new tunnels led to a dedicated terminal providing new track capacity. Gateway’s first phase does not increase capacity because after its completion you have four tubes going to the same Penn Station that has not increased in size. Phase 2 proposes to fix this flaw with a massive new station that is unlikely to be built anytime soon. So, unless there is a sea change in this country, Phase 2, if it happens, would be on a typical American timescale – see you in a century. ARC does not look so bad in hindsight.

      • Alon Levy

        The limiting factor is not Penn Station tracks, though; it’s a combination of train egress and platform egress capacity, both of which are far better on the LIRR side of the station than on the NJT side. Moynihan phase 1, i.e. the extra corridor, is really useful for this, it’s phase 2 that’s a budgetary black hole. The reason Gateway as currently conceived doesn’t increase capacity is that, to save money, everything except separately-sort-of-funded Portal Bridge got cut, including the four-track surface path to Newark and the deeply misguided Secaucus loop.

        • adirondacker12800

          You need the box of crayons with 24 colors instead of 8. The box with 48 would probably be better because someday far far in the future there will be things like the intraregional trains to Scranton, Harrisburg and Richmond, expresses to Washington versus the all stops trains to Washington and the trains to Atlanta and Cleveland. Make it fast enough the train to Cleveland goes all the way to Detroit. Splurge on a pack of page protectors so you can overlay the layers. You can play with fun things like is the train to Harrisburg in the express SEPTA layer, are the intraregional trains their own separate layer or is it lumped into the intercity layer.
          Changing trains in Secaucus doesn’t work very well unless you do something like extending East Side Access out there to free up space on the trains to Penn Station for the people relegated to the trains to Hoboken. Though that isn’t working out very well today Something will have to be done about that. Or Hudson County has to stop building condos in 1995.
          Without looking there’s 8 tracks across the Passaic River to Newark, it will take a very very long time to suck up all of that capacity. And plenty of space out in Meadows to have flyovers or duckunders in Kearny and loops in Secaucus. That they can plan that definitively when they have a completion date for the new tunnels and permission to tear down the old bridge across the Hackensack.

        • Subutay Musluoglu

          I should have added some clarity to my post – Penn Station as currently configured and managed is a significant constraint, more an issue than size. Operating a through station as three separate terminals is mind boggling. There are comparable through stations around the world that can process more trains on less trackage, because they are not operated as terminals, and managed more reliably and consistently, where passengers do not congregate underneath the departure board every day waiting for track assignments and then stampede when the track is announced.

          • adirondacker12800

            They run 23 trains an hour to and from New Jersey at peak. Rumor has it that there can be one 60 minute period when it’s 26. That’s quite respectable.

  2. Benjamin Turon

    David Gunn who was fired in 2005 was NOT replaced by Joe Boardman, but by a David Hughes (intern), Alexander Kummant, William Crosbie (intern) and then by Boardman in 2008. Mr, Kummant was Amtrak CEO 2006-08. During the years before become CEO of Amtrak, Boardman was the NYS DOT commissioner suing Amtrak over the Turboliner debacle. Gov. Andrew Cuomo setled the matter with Amtrak and scraped the half-rebuilt Turboliner train-sets.

    I agree that both the Gateway and NEC Future plans are overly expensive (making them unlikely to be funded) but the basic part of Gateway would seem to increase capacity in the long run — by building two new tubes under the Hudson, rebuilding the existing tubes, for a total of four single-track tunnels under the Hudson River. The Portal Bridge is planned to be replaced by two high-level double-track bridges. Are what you saying they don’t plan to put four tracks connecting the bridges and tunnels?

    • Benjamin Turon

      Joe Boardman was NYSDOT Commissioner 1997-2005 and then FRA Administrator June 2005-2008 when he became the head of Amtrak.

    • adirondacker12800

      You insist on three hours between Boston and Washington D.C. and sending all the trains through Hartford and Providence you get things like a tunnel to North White Plains and going through Waterbury.

  3. telso

    Back in 2004 a friend told me BART and co. always had to thread the needle arguing that earthquakes were just dangerous enough that billions were needed to retrofit and, in case of catastrophe, build another tube across the Bay so as not to snarl traffic for half a decade, but not *so* dangerous that passengers would feel unsafe riding.

  4. adirondacker12800

    suddenly Amtrak discovered a backlog of maintenance, demanding billions of dollars

    They didn’t discover anything. They had plans that could be implemented almost immediately to spend the money almost immediately. Which was one of the requirements for getting the money.

    • Alon Levy

      For years in the Bush administration they were arguing they were on the way to on-paper profitability and deferred maintenance to achieve this veneer.

      • adirondacker12800

        That doesn’t mean they didn’t know about it and have plans. They’ve had plans since they figured out that running Metroliner IIs at 160 would pop the circuit breakers. Which was never a problem because nobody ever got around to buying Metroliner IIs.

        • Alon Levy

          Okay, so they knew about the deferred maintenance, and they had moreover just fired a chair who opposed the practice and replaced him with a more pliable guy, and then the more pliable guy cried poverty as soon as money was available.

          • OldAmtrakSignalGuy

            Excellent discussion with obvious expertise all around. So, what’s the best path forward around the politics of the day?

  5. The Economist

    While your criticism is valid, it is not true that the NEC is completely safe from sea level rise. If I recall correctly, there is a section of track in Connecticut (I have not travelled that portion of the NEC in ages) that is only a foot or so above the water at high tide. Yes, in most places where the tracks cross the rivers they are a few meters above the water due to the bridges and the need to clear at least some boat traffic without bridge openings, but there are definitely a few places where that is not true. The other issue is that even in places where the tracks are on berms, the supporting infrastructure frequently is not. To go back to your example of Secaucus, yes the tracks are elevated and by the time they get flooded the whole area will be uninhabitable, but even there not all signal huts and power supply equipment is elevated. Indeed that is why some of it got damaged by Sandy. The tracks were fine after the storm, but the signals and the power were out.

    Off-the-NEC there is a lot of trackage that will be flooded. That trackage is not owned by Amtrak, but it represents a large enough ridership for Amtrak that they should be looking into it with the track owners. The most endangered such trackage is the water level route to Albany. There are locations in Metro-North territory where the ballast under the ties is in the Hudson River during high tide. Amtrak’s portion of the line (leased from CSX) north of Poughkeepsie is marginally better, but certainly has portions that will end up under water.

    While I agree that there is no need to sound the emergency bells, there are areas that need addressing when it comes to climate change and sea level rise. Brushing it off completely does not represent sound planning.

    The one thing that continues to amaze me is your insistence that we can solve the problems at Amtrak (and elsewhere) by replacing the people at the top. While there are people at Amtrak who do not deserve to be there, and while we can find people with more experience that the ones currently running the place, they are not going to be meaningfully more successful at running the railroad. The people currently running Amtrak and any prospective replacements do not operate in a vacuum. There are vast implicit constraints imposed on them by the US political system and the US society. Specifically, in the US individualism is valued to such extremes that it penetrates the political system at all levels. That coupled with the fact that the political system has more levels than practically anywhere else in the world makes for very little incentive for cooperation between the decision makers who at the end are always the politicians. There is no decision that can be made by anyone at Amtrak about how to run things at Penn Station that can come to pass while opposed by the political forces. For example, you can bring whoever you want to run Amtrak, the best world expert or the worst amateur railfan. They will never be able to establish through running through Penn as long as it is opposed to by the political representatives of New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester. Due to the limits that the Constitution imposes on the Federal Government, the Federal Government cannot impose impose through running on the states and their transit agencies. The natural incentive for cooperation of the politicos across state borders is practically nil, so the only way cooperation can be achieved is by “buying out” all involved parties by offering them sweeteners that they cannot refuse. That gets expensive really quickly and when coupled with the general distaste of at least half the US population (and politicians) of public transportation you get to the place where we are with very little ever accomplished, separate fiefdoms for each state/agency and so on.

    For you (or anyone) who wants to make a difference on issues like this, here is my advice: First you need to understand why the system is what it is, what makes it be what it is and why the current state is relatively stable. Second, you need to become part of the system as that is the only way to change it. A change will only occur slowly and from within. By being part of it, you can influence it. You will be amazed how much one can influence from inside, but also it is nowhere close to the complete re-designs that people frequently propose. And third, be patient and make your expectations realistic. The US society will remain individualistic for many generations, and the probability of changing the Constitution is nil, so focus on what you can change and influence, not on what you cannot.

    • PJC

      I agree with this completely! I feel that this website is moving further and further away from reality into some sort of RER-based fantasyland

      Alon, while you begrudge Gateway or the new Portal Bridge from Paris or wherever you’re writing from, I invite you come take the train from NJ to NYC 2x every single day which has become completely hellish in the last 9 months with daily delays/cancellations/annulled service. I used to be able to get from Princeton Jct. to Penn in 57-60 minutes on the NEC from 2014 to early 2018…from about March 2018 it’s been absolutely horrendous. I know people who have been fired for “chronic tardiness” because their train is 30+ min every day because there is always something (Portal is stuck open, pieces of the catenary literally falling down in the tunnels, “Amtrak signal problems” amongst other, daily problems).

      • Alon Levy

        These agencies are visibly undermaintaining their system and the solution is to take them at their word that they need tens of billions of dollars? Meanwhile, low-cost investments that improve punctuality, like high platforms to reduce variation in dwell time, are not pursued.

        • adirondacker12800

          Level boarding doesn’t stop Portal Bridge from getting stuck. NJTranist actually does upgrade stations to level boarding now and then unlike other transit agencies.

  6. adirondacker12800

    They will never be able to establish through running through Penn as long as it is opposed to by the political representatives of New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester.

    Metro North and NJTransit do for “Train to the Game” when they can. Have been doing it for years. If you have a ticket good for Metro North to Grand Central you can even buy a ticket for Penn Station to the Meadowlands at a Metro North TVM. But that’s not as much fun as imagining conspiracies.

    • The Economist

      The “Train to the Game” is one train a few times a year on a weekend when rail congestion is minimal. Going to the game is a “leisure” activity that is unlikely to evoke deeply held grudges. With through running the first time there is big failure on one side of Penn (for example in NJ), the other side (LI or Westchester) will make such a big fuss that the through running will be cancelled immediately.

      If through running had any chance, Metro-North would be looking at paying NJT to run their trains up to New Rochelle for Penn Access instead of putting third rail on a half mile stretch and building a new substation to power that. There is nothing that prevents Metro-North from buying a few pieces of equipment of the same types that NJT runs on their electric lines and having NJT run Trenton to New Rochelle the same way that NJT runs the Port Jervis line. However that is NOT happening. I am not sure if this was even considered during the Environmental Assessment. Politically this cannot come to pass. How is Cuomo or his successor going to placate the riders when NJT or Amtrak screw up west of Penn and the trains do not show up at all east of Penn? Joint running will not happen until the hard political border between NJ and NY disappears in some way. As of right now I am not aware of anything that is making the border less relevant. Look at the way NY and NJ run the Port Authority: it is a “tit-for-tat”, I mean useless Path Extension to EWR for even more useless Air Tran going in the opposite direction from Manhattan. Cooperation on the scale that you envision will not happen any time soon, like it or not. It is our US individualistic way of doing things …

      • adirondacker12800

        AIrtrain isn’t there to get people to Manhattan. It’s there to keep shuttle buses out of the terminals and to keep people who would be using the shuttle buses out of automobile congestion. Extending PATH to the airport is very useful, it’s going to allow them to run ten car trains on the Newark-World Trade Center line.

  7. Pingback: Air Travel in 2018’s America and High-Speed Rail | Pedestrian Observations

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