NEW YORK – On the heels of yet another train derailment impacting the commutes of countless New York City-area transit riders, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer is making a new push to prioritize investing in our rail systems before derailments and maddening delays happen more often than not. Schumer said that Amtrak is facing an over $28 billion state-of-good repair backlog, which could have contributed to the maintenance issues that caused the derailments over the past two weeks. In addition, other regional transit systems including the MTA and NJT also have serious maintenance backlogs. Schumer attributed the widespread maintenance issues plaguing the Northeast Corridor to a lack of funding, and called for a major increase in rail and transit maintenance funding to help address the issue.
“Maddening delays for rail commuters across the region, from Long Island to New Jersey, have exposed the repair backlog like never before,” said U.S. Senator Schumer. “Even the smallest of maintenance issues, left unchecked, can become the reason for the next big delay, or worse, disaster. For far too long, Amtrak has been tremendously undercapitalized to the point that they now have an over $28B State-of-Good-Repair Backlog. In addition, transit systems across the region lack the necessary funding to make much needed repairs. So, simply put, no matter how hard Amtrak, or other rail systems, work to prioritize safety, because of a lack of funding, some projects and improvements are just not getting done.”
Schumer said that a plan to make these investments exists but has not made any traction yet in Congress. Specifically, Schumer highlighted his infrastructure blueprint which called for a major investment of over $180 billion over the next 10 years to repair aging rail and transit systems, and specifically $5 billion a year to Amtrak, which would help alleviate delays. Schumer said making rail and transit improvements should be a major priority in any federal infrastructure legislation. In addition, Schumer said just providing basic increases to Amtrak’s capital account in the annual appropriations process would be a major lift to helping address some of these issues. Schumer said that if Republicans don’t pass that infrastructure bill we will need more immediate increases in capital funding for Amtrak to address the state of good repair backlog. Schumer, today, vowed to make rail safety a top priority before another derailment inevitably occurs.
Schumer added, “We learned this lesson in New York in the 1970’s when we systematically disinvested in the MTA and the system broke down. We had delays, derailments, dirty trains and ridership fell to historic lows. But when we made the change and invested into the system, ridership went through the roof and maintenance vastly improved. When you delay maintenance, it only leads to disaster.”
Over the past two weeks, there have been two derailments at Penn Station. On April 3rd, a New Jersey Transit train derailed resulting in the closure of 8 tracks at Penn Station and delays for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road commuters. The derailment was caused by equipment issues related to the rail tie and switch system, a maintenance problem Amtrak knew needed fixing but had failed to immediately address. On March 24th, an Acela train derailed as a result of a weakening of timber ties beneath the tracks that caused the rails to widen.
The lack of adequate investment in Amtrak has led to an over $28 billion state-of-good-repair backlog and has led to a situation where Amtrak is currently operating on some bridges built between 1890-1910, tunnels built between 1900-1910 and signaling systems dating back to 1930. This outdated system can only be addressed through a robust series of major federal investments in rail infrastructure. Such an investment would not only create jobs but also help to keep the Northeast corridor growing.
Schumer said maintenance issues are also made worse by a lack of redundant capacity in and out of Penn Station. This means that when issues like those that occurred in the last two weeks do happen the delays can last for days because there is only one way in and out of Penn Station. Schumer said increasing capacity into Penn Station is a major focus of the Gateway Program, and that successfully completing the Gateway project is the key to ensuring that small problems don’t become massive headaches, like they did this week.
In the Northeast alone, each day 750,000 people travel on rail systems from Washington, DC to Boston, contributing $50 billion to our national economy. The Northeast Corridor consists of 8 commuter railroad systems (including Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Rail Road and New Jersey Transit), and 4 freight railroad systems that carry shale oil, coal, and other goods to and from ports. Overall, the corridor includes a total of 2,000 daily trains. In its current state, service disruptions on the Northeast Corridor alone cost the national economy over $500 million per year and a loss of transit service on the Corridor for a single day would cost the US $100 million.
Explaining the backlog, Schumer quoted from an infrastructure report card that explains that “…while safe to operate, much of the North East Corridors infrastructure is beyond its useful live, increasing maintenance costs and reducing system reliability. The average age of major NEC backlog projects is 111 years old, including 10 moveable bridges, three sets of tunnels, and one viaduct. Upgrades and repairs to basic infrastructure items like signals, power systems, and tracks, as well as service improvement projects to add capacity, are needed to meet growth in the northeastern economy and related travel demand.” Schumer explained how neglecting even the simplest of repairs to signals, tracks and rail ties are what can lead to the next derailment and maddening delay, as seen this past week.