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.