Amtrak's vulnerability [Editorial]

No doubt there were some lumps in throats at Amtrak headquarters last month when they heard the words "collapse" and "rail line" in Baltimore. As it happens, it was a CSX freight line that was affected by the loss of a 120-year-old retaining wall in Charles Village that sent tons of dirt, pavement and cars spilling onto the tracks below.

But it might have been the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, Amtrak's only passage through West Baltimore. It's 140 years old and can't accommodate more than two tracks, double-stacked trains or speeds above 30 miles per hour. The renovation of B&P;, as it's commonly known, is overdue, a $1.5 billion project that's on the drawing board but not yet funded.


And that's not even the biggest headache along Amtrak's vital Northeast Corridor. Last week, Amtrak's CEO reminded an audience in New York that the century-old rail tunnels beneath the Hudson River have less than 20 years of service left. That's particularly worrisome, considering it would take "seven to nine years" to build new ones, Amtrak's Joseph Boardman said, "if we all decided today that we could do it."

Amtrak actually had a plan in place to replace and Hudson tunnels and expand rail service in and out of New York, but the $12.4 billion project was derailed, so to speak, by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2010 as too costly. Amtrak has a new proposal with a 2030 completion date but currently doesn't have the financing to move forward with it.


Congress and the Northeastern states can't continue to ignore the region's aging rail infrastructure, particularly tunnels and bridges that date back a century or more. In a 2012 report, Amtrak estimated that its Gateway project to fix and improve passenger rail service in the Northeast would require an investment of $151 billion between now and 2040.

Yet last week, House Republicans unveiled a budget for next year that would cut Amtrak's capital construction allowance below this year's amount. As current spending levels have already contributed to long-term neglect, it's easy to see the proverbial track ahead — more landslide-like events and other catastrophes involving rail lines followed by finger-pointing and "you should have warned us" pronouncements.

Of course, Congress can always allow Amtrak to gradually shrivel up and die (indeed, conservatives have already called for it to be zero funded), but as the Northeast from Richmond, Va. to Boston, Mass. remains the nation's economic powerhouse, that strategy could prove costly. Home to 50 million people and a $2.6 trillion economy, the Northeast is this country's most densely populated region and the most dependent on rail service to keep going.

It's not just Amtrak passengers who ride Amtrak rails, there's a plethora of commuter rail lines from Maryland's MARC to Massachusett's MBTA that use it or feed off it, too. Amtrak ridership is growing by about 5 percent annually, and there's been similar growth in commuter rail traffic. The region's highways are ill-equipped to handle the overflow — the I-95 Corridor Coalition has its own wish list to overcome chronic (and potentially economically-debilitating) traffic congestion along the highway that would cost $25 billion per year.

The bottom line is that there's really not much choice. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor must be sustained if only because the region lacks alternatives. And the sooner Washington replaces rail infrastructure that dates back a century or more, the sooner commuters can rest easy that a landslide isn't waiting around the next bend.

It's also remarkable that for all the tax dollars the federal government has willingly poured into airport security since 2001, there's been so little interest in preserving rail lines as an alternative to air travel. After 9/11, it was those same rails that brought home many of those left stranded when the Federal Aviation Administration was forced to shut down the skies after the terrorist attacks.

We certainly don't expect the B&P; Tunnel to come crashing down any time soon, and perhaps the Hudson River tunnels have many years left — as might the aging bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush and Gunpower rivers in Maryland that are also slated for repairs. But it just seems foolish to risk so much by continuing a strategy of neglect along the Northeast Corridor, financing small projects like new signals here or catenary there, when so many major challenges are ignored at the public's eventual peril.

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