Amtrak seeks private investment in Northeast Corridor

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WASHINGTON — Amtrak today outlined a plan that would develop a blueprint for private sector investment in the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure. The plan is aimed at neutralizing efforts of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., to sell off its Northeast Corridor assets to private developers.

Al Engel, the company's vice president of high speed rail, told reporters that Amtrak had received 26 expressions of interest from investment bankers, real estate developers, and infrastructure companies in a request for proposals it issued in April. The request proposed that Amtrak would be the "key developer and operator" of a high speed rail system. Proposals are due June 10, and once they are received, Amtrak will "identify and develop public and private funding sources and address issues of risk, credit, debt, and investment phasing, among other criteria."

Amtrak had previously unveiled its plans for a $117 billion upgrade of the Northeast Corridor that included building dedicated 220-mph-capable trackage along its existing right-of-way between Washington and New York, replacement of the 100 year-old Portal Bridge in New Jersey, construction of new tunnels under the Hudson River, creating additional Penn Station platforms, bypassing Harold Interlocking near Sunnyside Yard in Queens, and eventually constructing a new high speed alignment. This alignment would bypass the slow-speed Metro North-owned and operated New York-New Haven segment. Today's press conference in Washington provided details and a timeline for these initiatives.

By 2016, the company expects to place an additional two coaches into service on each of its 20 six-car Acela Express trainsets, thereby increasing capacity by 40 percent, and two years later place "next-generation trainsets" into service. Engel said that these would probably be electric multiple unit vehicles rather than locomotive-hauled trains. "They will pay for themselves in a self financing business model," he said.

Meanwhile, plans to upgrade segments south of New York to 160 mph maximum speeds with constant-tension catenary replacing the fixed termination system now in place would proceed concurrently, to be completed by 2017. The company had already announced plans to upgrade a 24-mile "raceway" between Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J., but today revealed that the next segment would probably be south of Newark, Del., where straight sections and no commuter traffic would be most ripe for an upgrade. "Our strategy is to build parallel tracks while we are doing this work," said Engel, to avoid service disruptions.

He emphasized that all of the plans — travel demand, revenue forecasts, and cost estimates — were blessed by groups of high speed rail "peers" such as Japanese operator JR East. Clearly, Amtrak's involvement of recognized experts was meant to head off complaints of Rep. Mica and Railroads Subcommittee chairman Bill Shuster, R- Pa., that any plan presented by Amtrak lacked credibility.

After today's announcements, it will be interesting to see whether Mica, who is in charge of shepherding the next surface transportation reauthorization through Congress, will again invoke his familiar complaint that Amtrak is a "Soviet-style" railroad. — Bob Johnston
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