Rail overhaul, investment are vital to northeast corridor

By RICHARD STOWE, a REP member in Connecticut

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 9, 2008. Reprinted in the New Haven (CT) Register and Stamford (CT) Advocate.


Home to 56.3 million people, the nation’s capital, and powerful financial, media and academic institutions, the Northeast region produces 20 percent of America’s GDP and 27 million jobs, but is only 2 percent of the nation’s landmass.

The mega-sprawlopolis is most clearly defined by the intensity of its sky glow at night, light pollution symbolic of the profligate energy consumed by short-haul flights and millions of automobiles.

Amtrak owns and operates the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston. The energy-efficient electrified corridor generates half of Amtrak’s riders nationwide and serves 80 percent of America’s commuter-rail passengers.

In all, 540,000 passengers travel daily on Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and Metro-North Railroad (MNR) from suburban region-to-city center (including reverse commute); 440,000 passengers board seven other commuter-rail lines daily.

Amtrak, which carries 32,000 passengers daily, accounts for 50 percent of corridor train miles and 10 percent of corridor trips.

Therein lies the paradox: Amtrak, a quasi-private corporation, owns and operates all but 15 percent of track miles on the Northeast Corridor without transparency, public accountability, or a dedicated funding stream, but generates only 4 percent of Northeast Corridor riders.

Over its 37-year history, Amtrak has been the recipient of declining rates of congressional subsidies, increasing politicization, and no aggressive growth strategy plan.

In this vacuum of vision, local rail agency fiefdoms engage in poor planning, Amtrak provides compromised service, expansion of commuter-rail service is stymied, and rail freight movements into New York and New England are thwarted.

That calls for a transfer of ownership, oversight and management of the Northeast Corridor coupled with a sound strategic vision that focuses on Amtrak’s strengths, commuter-rail growth, and rail freight shipments through the Trans-Hudson Express tunnels.

To achieve that: Transfer ownership of track, infrastructure and right-of-way to the eight corridor states – Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts – and the District of Columbia. Management should operate under a joint power authority and include regional stakeholders such as Amtrak, commuter-rail operators, state governments, District of Columbia, rail freight carriers, and members of the public. The authority would establish a corridor master plan; oversee procurement and operation contracts, which conform to and exceed the highest green standards; set policy (provide bicycle parking on trains) and monitor measurable goals.

Providing four-city Acela Express service (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington) without 15-minute Penn Station layovers, low-cost New Haven-originated commuter trains running nonstop or one-stop from Penn Station to Washington, and express commuter-train service from Philadelphia International Airport to Penn Station would allow a much-needed shift from congestion-choking and delay-inducing short-haul air trips to fast, high-speed rail trips.

Rail investment helps reduce oil imports, global warming, overcrowded skies, and traffic-related deaths. A vibrant Northeast Corridor is critical to our national interest.