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October 10th, 2004, 10:32 PM
NY Times

October 10, 2004

A Fast Train, Running Late


A rebuilt Amtrak Turboliner, on display in 2000, was supposed to be a fast means from Albany to New York. That was before problems with costs, tracks and air-conditioning.

It began six years ago as a grand plan to make New York a national leader in high-speed rail service.

At the time, the details sounded simple enough: recondition a group of old trains with high-powered turbine engines, make some adjustments on railroad tracks to create more straight-aways and allow the trains to pick up speed, and, just like that, a fast, convenient way to travel between Albany and New York City in just two hours would be set to roll.

Gov. George E. Pataki unveiled the $185 million program in 1998 with much fanfare, hailing it as a landmark partnership between Amtrak and the state's Department of Transportation to build a high-speed rail corridor that would become a national model.

But today, the program is caught in a downward spiral of cost overruns, poor planning, Amtrak's financial problems and plain bad luck. Only three trains out of the seven slated for the service have been delivered by the manufacturer, and they have never reached their promised speed because almost none of the needed track improvements have been completed. After a brief run, the trains were sidelined over the summer because of problems with their air-conditioning.

The state, angry at Amtrak, has filed suit. Amtrak, angry at the state, has hauled off the three trains to a Delaware rail yard for "safekeeping." And riders are stuck on the slow train for the foreseeable future.

"I would say that at this point it is a fiasco," said State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Democrat from Buffalo and chairman of the Assembly's task force on high-speed rail service. "Now we're in a finger-pointing game of who to blame."

In truth, the program ran into serious problems almost from the start. Some railroad experts questioned the decision to revamp older trains for the service, instead of buying new equipment. Using electric trains was not an option, even though they travel much faster than diesel trains, because of the cost of building the needed infrastructure along the route.

As a result, Amtrak's high-powered Turboliners, which had been idle since the early 1990's because they were too expensive to run, were picked for the project. Instead of standard diesel, they use fuel similar to that used in jet airplanes. Engineers said that with the modifications to the track, the trains could travel up to 125 miles per hour, compared with the 110 m.p.h. speeds of the regular trains, shaving 20 minutes off the travel time between Albany and New York City.

There was little precedent, however, for modifying trains the way the state wanted. Making matters worse, according to an audit done last year by State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, Super Steel Schenectady, the company picked to refurbish the trains, did not have the engineering expertise to do the job. The state's Transportation Department also did not have much experience running projects of this kind, Mr. Hevesi said, resulting in poor monitoring of the company's progress.

The first two trains were supposed to be in service by 1999 but repeated delays pushed back the date by several years. Because of its own financial problems, Super Steel had cash shortfalls early on during the project. Later, asbestos found in the engines and cars of the trains had to be removed, and costs quickly began to rise.

Another snag developed over plans to lay down a second track on a heavily traveled stretch between Albany and Schenectady that is a frequent bottleneck for train traffic. CSX, the freight company that owns the track, would not do the work, even though the state would pay for it, because the company would ultimately have to pay higher property taxes. It took two years for advocates and state officials to secure a tax exemption for the company.

By then, however, Amtrak had begun taking significant steps to rein in its expenses. In 2002, when the railroad nearly went bankrupt, David Gunn, Amtrak's tough-talking new president, ordered that the railroad's capital costs be pared to the essentials.

"David Gunn came in and said stop the music on virtually all capital investment plans on anything other than Amtrak's right of way and Amtrak's facilities," said Clifford Black, a railroad spokesman.

As a result, Amtrak began quietly trying to extricate itself from the project. Although state officials blamed the federal government, which finances the railroad, for leaving Amtrak constantly short of cash, Joseph H. Boardman, New York's transportation commissioner, also accused Amtrak of intentionally delaying the project and trying to wring more money from the state.

The state and the federal government have poured about $70 million into the project over the years, but Amtrak has spent almost nothing.

The dispute has dragged on, escalating over the last few months. Amtrak offered the state $20 million to get out of the agreement, but the offer was summarily rejected. Meanwhile, one train went into service in April 2003 and a second over the winter. A third train served as a back-up to the other two. The problems with the air-conditioning, however, hobbled all of them over the summer.

With the program at a standstill, the state sued Amtrak in August in federal court in Albany, accusing the railroad of a breach of contract, and of intentionally misleading the state over the years about its intentions for the project. State officials also said that they might consider dropping Amtrak completely from providing rail service within the state.

Last month, Amtrak towed the three trains to a rail yard in Delaware for what it called maintenance, prompting state officials to accuse the railroad of stealing them.

In a letter to state officials, however, Amtrak said it was simply "following its ordinary train set maintenance practice" of moving out-of-service equipment to Delaware, where they would be kept "pending the resolution of our disputes."

Mr. Black said the high-speed rail plan was flawed from the start. "It was an ill-conceived plan that Amtrak provisionally agreed to and then ran out of money for general operations and informed the state that we could not participate in," he said.

In its response to the state's lawsuit, Amtrak lawyers asked that the contract be nullified because of "mutual and/or unilateral mistake," as well as "illusory and unenforceable promises" and "impracticability."

State officials said they planned to persist in trying to force Amtrak to make good on the agreement. Their lawsuit asks the railroad to fulfill its contract or pay $477 million, which is the cost to run the trains over the next 15 years and the financial losses the state said it would incur with Amtrak's pulling out.

Transit advocates are urging the state to move on. Flailing away at Amtrak will never get the train service up and running, said Bruce Becker, president of the Empire State Passenger Association.

"You're asking Amtrak to pay money it doesn't have," he said. "Where's that going to get you? Nowhere."

October 12th, 2004, 10:21 PM
You'd think something esp. being created as a "model" would have all the necessary & appropriate strategic planning put into play from the word go.

Shame about the 2002 bankruptcy, but even a bigger shame it was cut back to the "essentials". Can't have both, but when priorities change halfway it's (obviously) not a good combo.

October 12th, 2004, 10:58 PM
Its really about Federal funding. Amtrak has backed out of this as well as the Moynihan Station project in Manhattan. They don't have a choice, and there is little chance that congress will fund a NY project.

The airlines and highway systems receive 20-30 times from the federal government what the only national rail system has to beg for each year.

October 13th, 2004, 08:14 AM
^^ Seems to be a unviversal problem ie the terribly biased funding of roads over public transport infrastructure.

October 14th, 2004, 12:03 AM
Airlines are pretty highly subsidized too. Although, it does make a certain sense in countries with large land areas.

December 10th, 2004, 09:22 AM

Undoing the seams of Amtrak's American quilt

State riders lose when trains are cut from the "national" network. Would you do this to a highway?

Three recent Amtrak service reductions have serious implications for the entire system.

The popular Turboliners that plied the Albany-New York Empire Corridor were removed from service in June, and now sit dead behind Amtrak's Bear, Del., shop. The New York-Pittsburgh Pennsylvanian, which posted the highest year-to-year ridership gain of any Amtrak train (once it was retimed for passengers instead of mail), has been eliminated, because Amtrak dropped mail and express. And communities across the Three Rivers' route in Ohio and Indiana, who ponied up money for stations in 1990, are about to see their train disappear - again.

Corridors without state operating support

What all three cutbacks have in common is that the trains in question are funded out of Amtrak's national operations pot, serving states that don't currently commit dollars to those services. No question, New York and Pennsylvania have made big contributions to rail. New York pays about $4.2 million a year for the New York-Montreal Adirondack, spent over $70 million to rebuild RTL-III Turboliners, and gave $24 million for the new Albany-Rensselaer station. The Keystone State helps fund 22 Philadelphia-Harrisburg weekday round-trips for $6.2 million a year, and is matching a $70 million Amtrak capital outlay to upgrade that corridor to 110 mph by 2006.

Other states providing incremental operating support to Amtrak trains are California, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. They have earned the right to debate and affect the outcome of Amtrak's service delivery trade-offs.

But in cases where the only financial stake belongs to Amtrak, the national carrier has exclusive control over the service, even though a state's citizens suffer the same fate from a train cutback as a motorist waylaid when an Interstate highway bridge is toppled by a hurricane.

This was the dilemma Pennsylvania encountered in late August when Amtrak announced it was dropping the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh leg of the Pennsylvanian on Oct. 31, and the Pittsburgh-Chicago leg of the Three Rivers on March 1, 2005 - cutting New York-Pittsburgh frequencies in half.

"They gave us less than a day's notice," recalls Pennsylvania DOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick. "Later they told us we could keep the daily round trip for $2.5 million." But the money would have had to come out of the state's general revenues, which were already committed through next June to public services such as education, Medicaid, and mass transit. So the state had to decline Amtrak's offer.

The $2.5 million amount, Amtrak's "net savings" from canceling the Pennsylvanian, is suspect. The railroad didn't hit its record of 25,053,564 riders in fiscal 2004 by cutting a schedule where passenger counts grew nearly 38% over last year. (System wide, ridership was up 4.3% from last year.) Three Rivers ridership grew 11%, too.

Rather than give Pennsylvania's budgeting process a chance to take its course, as Amtrak has done numerous times when threatening to drop state-supported trains, the railroad was free to act unilaterally, and chose to drive out costs over serving passengers.

Similar issues underpin a legal dispute between Amtrak and New York State over the Turboliners. Two issues that surfaced even before the trains' 1993 debut prompted Amtrak to sideline the Turbos: Continuing air-conditioning problems, and an unfavorable cost differential for the kerosene-guzzling Turbos vs. conventional diesel-powered Amfleet equipment.

In August, the state filed a $477 million lawsuit against Amtrak for not fulfilling its part of a $185 million partnership signed in 1998. The pact included rebuilding seven Turboliner sets (state-financed), and constructing a second track between Albany and Schenectady (Amtrak-funded).

Only three Turboliners have been rebuilt. They were towed to Delaware on Sept. 21, Amtrak insists, because there is no safe place to store them at its Rensselaer facility, and no promise the dispute would be resolved soon. (Meanwhile, the 17 P32AC-DM locomotives malfunctioned enough this summer and fall that Amtrak was often short one or two units of the 15 required to protect Empire Service.)

In truth, the Turboliner rebuilds were not a joint decision, but a New York initiative that Amtrak agreed to when management was preoccupied with the Acela Express trains and Boston-New Haven electrification. The state's promise of 125-mph Turbo operation was fulfilled - just once - in a nocturnal test held Feb. 16, 2001, on an 18-mile stretch of 110-mph track north of Hudson, N.Y. However, the 20-minute NYC-Albany time savings from regular 125-mph running were conditioned on track improvements not covered in the original $185 million partnership. And in order to meet federal 125-mph safety requirements, New York would have had to spend an additional $1 million for instrumented wheelsets and testing.

Now, the state and Amtrak are at a standstill, neither one willing to pay the operating difference for the Turboliners. Amtrak says it has no legal obligation to run the sleek and popular trains since the Empire Service is part of the national system. Both parties refused to comment for this story.

Ultimately, it's the passengers who lose out when the lack of federal transportation money forces states to look in a junkyard for equipment (how New York settled on rebuilding Turboliners) and forces Amtrak to cut service from its national network, because the cost savings are more measurable than the lost revenues.

December 14th, 2004, 03:50 PM
It would have been nice to have those bullet trains for the NYC to DC run. They look really nice. Tho I have been finding myself flying more often.

February 15th, 2005, 05:37 PM

Audit questions $1 million in Amtrak project

February 15, 2005, 2:45 PM EST

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ The state should withhold more than $1 million in a contract to build faster trains for the troubled Amtrak rail system because the spending wasn't properly documented, a state audit released Tuesday stated.

The audit found nearly $1.4 million in payments from the state should be denied to Super Steel Schenectady Inc. because the costs weren't substantiated. Auditors found some of the requested payments were based on projected costs rather than actual costs and some were double billed because items were included at two locations. Other problems had to do with inventory shortcomings and data entry mistakes.

The audit called for the state to disallow the payment, review additional payment requests and recover any overpayments.

Super Steel Schenectady was to rebuild seven 1970s diesel-turbine powered trains for the $185 million rail project, begun about six years ago. Amtrak cut the number to four last year. The project was called into question when cash-strapped Amtrak said it could not carry through its part of the deal.

Comptroller Alan Hevesi had released three Amtrak-related audits in 2003. They showed the state Department of Transportation project on Amtrak's Empire Corridor is $21 million over budget and years behind schedule. In the six years since the Turboliner modernization project began, $51.5 million has been spent and two of the seven trains planned are in service but not running at the faster speed.

To help land the contract in New York state, the state agreed to build a $1 million rail line connection, provide job training and provide a $500,000 grant to defray interest costs.

Spokesmen for the state Department of Transportation and Super Steel didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

May 29th, 2005, 12:34 PM


ALBANY — The state has agreed to pay a Schenectady company $5.5 million to kill a project to build seven Turboliner trains that were to serve on a high-speed rail corridor between New York City and Albany.

Last month, the state Department of Transportation agreed to pay the money to Super Steel Schenectady Inc. to end the project. The money would cover remaining costs and move four unfinished trains into storage.

The state has already spent $64.8 million on Super Steel's work on rebuilding the 1970s-era Turboliners. Three completed trains Amtrak claims are not suitable for service have been put in storage.

The full settlement payment is contingent on an independent audit of the project, DOT officials said.

State Comptroller Alan Hevesi approved the settlement, saying it would cost millions more to complete a project that wouldn't even deliver what the state wanted.

In 1998, Gov. Pataki unveiled a $185 million plan to create a high-speed rail corridor. Ultimately, though, the project went bust due to a series of missed deadlines, engineering problems and disagreements about who should pay the extra costs. AP

May 31st, 2005, 07:13 AM
Pure comic opera.

January 30th, 2006, 11:55 PM
Im completley astounded by how poorly run Amtrak is. High speed trains if they were ever made to work would bring people back to the rails.

January 31st, 2006, 12:53 PM
Amtrak was actually run VERY well given what they had. The gov't gives them next to no funding, while at the same time they keep bailing out the airlines at millions, sometimes even billions, more.

However, things will be getting worse probably as Bush's transportation board just fired David Gunn.

Also, service sucks so much because much of the country is single track and it's almost all freight territory. CSX always screws Amtrak over and holds them up to let their slower trains through first, delaying Amtraks even more.

February 1st, 2006, 02:32 AM
I remember reading somewhere a few months ago that Amtrack as a whole was on the verge of collapse. Would they completley shut down the whole thing. No cross country trains?

February 1st, 2006, 12:11 PM
We need a regional transit system independant of Amtrak. As has been discussed before, Amtrak turns a profit in just 2 regions of the country, California and the Boston-Washington corridor. Think of how the service would improve if we didn't have to subsidize the rest of the country. With the improved finanical state of this regional network, Albany could then be connected to both NYC and Boston benefitting the enitre region.

February 1st, 2006, 04:47 PM
How would the regional work then if you wanted to take a cross country train ride, or a NY to Chicago for instance?

February 2nd, 2006, 03:58 PM
Scruffy, yes, that was true I believe twice now. All that because Bush refuses to give Amtrak any significant amount of funding.

And making regional sections would almost definately cause massive problems. Think about this. In order to have cross country, or even a train running halfway across the country, there'd have to be coordination between regions for funding, maitanance, all that crap. It'd be incredibly difficult to have services like the California Zephyr, the Southwest Chief, and Sunset Limited, or the Crescent. Or are you suggesting we eliminate those kinds of services and just force people to transfer? Yeah, that's really going to get people to ride.

You want service to improve for us all? Then Bush needs to restore proper funding to Amtrak.

February 6th, 2006, 12:40 AM
How would the regional work then if you wanted to take a cross country train ride, or a NY to Chicago for instance?
Amtrak would be responsible for long-distance travel, so NY to Chicago would still be serviced by them, however with the loss of the northeast corridor, I doubt that they'd be able to survive. The question is this: does a need for a cross-country passenger rail system exist?

A shuttle route between NYC and Chicago is 2.5 hours, the same route on Amtrak is nearly 19 hours. Cost-wise, the flight is ~$200 where the train is $75.00. That train fare caught me off guard... I had no idea how cheap Amtrak is when you're off the northeast corridor. I can understand taking the train for a scenic detour, as there's a certain romantic charm associated with the rails, but is that enough to keep a run like this open?

February 7th, 2006, 01:41 PM
Considering that nearly every single Amtrak train out of the NEC is almost always sold out, I'd say yes, the desire for such service exists.

NYC-Chicago only takes so long because the route speeds are a joke. About 80mph average on a lot of the system. You might as well drive. If the Amtrak got decent funding, perhaps they could actually persuade the freight railroads into upgrading the tracks for much higher speed services.

Europe has it right.

December 12th, 2007, 08:06 PM
Oh it has been a while for this one...


New York, Amtrak settle high-speed rail dispute

Amtrak will pay the state $20 million; New York and Amtrak will jointly invest $10 million in infrastructure improvement projects on the Albany-New York City Empire Corridor.

December 12. 2007 2:33PM

(AP) - New York state and Amtrak have resolved a contract dispute and federal litigation over a so-far unsuccessful program to develop high-speed passenger rail service between New York City and the Albany area.

The plan for "Turboliner" modernization ultimately ran years behind schedule and over budget.

Under the terms of the settlement announced Wednesday, Amtrak will pay New York state $20 million. New York and Amtrak will jointly invest $10 million in infrastructure improvement projects on the Albany-New York City Empire Corridor.

The New York State Senate High-Speed Rail Task Force will oversee those projects.

December 13th, 2007, 12:15 AM
I wish we would build at least one 'real' bullet train over here (the Acela is the closest thing we have). Europe is so far ahead of us with bullet train infrastructure, at least if we build one system it could serve as a catalyst and benchmark on how such a system would work in North America. Government funding is nothing short of required

March 9th, 2009, 08:59 PM
Monday, March 9, 2009, 1:41pm EDT

NY seeking fed money for high-speed rail

The Business Review (Albany) - by Pam Allen

Gov. David Paterson on Monday announced a statewide $10.8 rail plan that calls for improving service between New York City and Niagara Falls and increasing freight rail usage by 25 percent.

The plan—the state’s first formal rail initiative in 22 years—would open the door for higher-speed rail from Albany to Niagara Falls by adding a third track and increasing travel time to 110 mph, from the current 79 mph, over the next 3-5 years building new train stations and creating the nation’s first “green” rail fleet, Paterson said.

It would cost $3 billion to increase passenger rail speed to 110 mph, and another $2 billion to get to 150 mph.

New York is grappling with a $14 billion deficit and does not have money for the project.

However, Paterson said New York will compete for a portion of the $9.3 billion in federal stimulus funds allotted for high-speed rail. He acknowledged that while the state is ready to submit an application as soon as the feds outline a submittal process, there are no guarantees.

“Obviously, in these economic times, it’s hard to say that anything is actually committed,” he said.

In all, New York’s rail plan details $10.8 billion of rail initiatives over 20 years.

Astrid Glynn, commissioner of the state’s Department of Transportation, said the plan was critical to the state’s future success.

“As we face difficult economic times, now, more than ever, we need to invest in our infrastructure and our transportation systems,” she said.

Other improvements in the rail plan include: meeting 95 percent on-time performance between Albany and New York City, shortening travel time between Albany and Montreal from 8 hours to 6.5 hours, adding at least three new ports/stations for container traffic, and adding connections in Utica, Syracuse and Rochester.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, chairwoman of the House rules committee, said she partly blames New York’s inadequate rail system for its current economic struggles.

“We want to be sure that as soon as [the federal government] puts out criteria, that New York is ready and first,” she said.

Building a third track for higher-speed rail would create 12,000 jobs and positively impact the economy by $2 billion, she said.

Rail advocates lauded the rail plan. Bruce Becker, president the Empire State Passengers Association, called it a “clear and realistic blue print for future passenger rail improvements.” His organization was among the many private groups and state agencies that helped craft the 2009 New York State Rail Plan.