ABOVE: For Amtrak in the 1970s when introduced the futuristic Turboliners were the very image of high-speed rail
The great potential of the Empire Corridor has been repletely stymied by a lack of institutional capacity at the state level necessary to envision, plan, build, and manage investment in intercity passenger rail infrastructure and services. These needs to change if Upstate NY is to ever be served by a modern intercity rail service.
ABOVE: Across the state in Spring 2014 a series of public workshops were held for the "High Speed Rail" Empire Corridor Tier 1 EIS study.
Creating a Robust Rail Program
If New York State going forward is to have a robust program for intercity rail, it is going to have to have a robust “Passenger Rail Division” within New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT). The spinning of the wheels of the Empire Corridor HSR Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and lack of an updated state rail plan – as required by federal law – are symptoms of the problem of state-supported passenger rail service at NYSDOT. The Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau – with a very small, dedicated staff – is far down the organizational flow chart at NYSDOT, compared to other state DOTs with robust PRIIA Section 209 state-supported Amtrak corridor services. Several states have established passenger rail authorities to manage their corridor services.
We however cannot to ignore that New York state over the past decade has made a significant investment in the Empire Corridor, a credit to the efforts of the staff of the Freight and Passenger Rail Bureau within the Office of Integrated Modal Services and the Rail Projects Group located within NYSDOT's Engineering Division. With the receipt and implementation of large American Recovery & Reinvestment Act High Speed Rail and USDOT TIGER grants during the Obama Administration several large projects were completed – including the Albany-Schenectady second track; track and platform work at the Rensselaer station; signaling and grade crossing work on the Hudson Line; and the construction of several new stations in Upstate New York at Schenectady, Rochester, Buffalo-Exchange Street, and Niagara Falls.
Yet there are also major problems with the overall long-term planning for the Empire Corridor. Now, as of spring 2022 the release date of the Empire Corridor Environmental Impact Statement is moved back every year since the release of the Draft EIS in spring of 2014. The state has also failed to update its State Rail Plan issued in 2009. Other states that have impressive programs for their state supported PRIIA Section 209 Amtrak corridors, have large and capable organizations overseeing passenger rail. For example: North Carolina and Washington State both have large rail divisions within their DOTs to actively manage their Amtrak Cascades and Piedmont/Carolinian services; Maine created a passenger rail authority for the Downeaster; and California joint-power authorities for the Capital Corridor, San Joaquin, and Pacific Surfliner.
ABOVE: Introduced by Amtrak in 1970s, the American built Rohr RTL Turboliners and French built RTG II Turboliners gas-turbine trainsets served Upstate NY for over twenty years. The older imported RTG II sets were retired in the mid-1990s after several engine fires.
PHOTO CREDITS: Stephen A. Leonardo
High Speed Fail: New York
When NYSDOT had a sizable rail division in the 1970-80s the state had an impressive intercity rail program. Starting with several bond acts over a $100 million was invested in tracks, signals, and stations; while travel time was cut, and train frequency increased between New York City and Albany. The result was a 75% increase by 1983 in ridership over 1974 number, with trains carrying 1.25 million passengers. This was growth significantly higher than the national average by other Amtrak services.
Outside the BosWash Northeast Corridor, the Empire Corridor in the 1980s had the fastest and most frequent intercity rail service in the nation, with ongoing planning to build on this success by further reducing travel times NYC-Albany to 2 hours, building a third mainline track Hoffmans-Buffalo along the then Conrail mainline, and building a new high speed rail line between Albany and Montreal.
Budget cutting in the late-1980s however shrank the rail division within NYSDOT to a bureau, leading to a loss of institutional knowledge and capability. Some people active at the time in state government, including long time NYS Senate staffer Anthony Rudmann, blame an infatuation with maglev trains as dimming interest in further upgrading conventional rail services, including in then Gov. Mario Cuomo. Like with Hyperloop today, the question asked was why invest in a soon to be obsolete technology when the future of transport is so near?
Unfortunately, maglev never took off as it was very expensive, while offering few advantages over conventional high-speed trains, that by the late-1990s could reach 200-mph on new dedicated track while still utilizing existing rail infrastructure. This offered considerable savings over the "all-new-build" maglev, as existing tracks could be used by high-speed trains (traveling at lower speeds) to reach existing stations in dense urban cores, serve smaller cities on secondary lines, and to inaugurated a service while incrementally phrase in new infrastructure, as with the Paris-London-Brussels Eurostar service which for a decade used existing commuter tracks to connect London with the Channel Tunnel.
Plans to build maglev lines around the world faltered as nations from Spain to South Korea built new high-speed rail systems instead, mostly utilizing infrastructure and trainsets derived from France’s very successful TGV. Still with maglev with a few limited lines – including the Transrapid Shanghai Maglev and the SCMaglev Chūō Shinkansen under construction in Japan – has fared better than Hyperloop. A decade now since Elon Musk released his white paper on Hyperloop replacing high speed rail in California, serious commercial efforts to bring such passenger transport to fruition are quietly winding down as of spring 2022, with perhaps the exception of Musk's own Boring Company.
ABOVE LEFT: The Northeast Corridor demonstration service and national tours of the Swedish X2000 (pictured) and German ICE trainsets were the start of a cycle of public enthusiasm for high-speed rail in the early 1990s. ABOVE RIGHT: One federally funded project was the rebuilding of an RTL Turboliner (in the center of photo) for high-speed testing on the Empire Corridor and Northeast Corridor.
PHOTO CREDITS: Amtrak Press Kit (left) and Tom Romano (right)
Yet the rail ambitions of New York State politicians did not ebb with their reduction in rail staffing at NYSDOT. A push for high-speed rail by the Clinton Administration – the Northeast High Speed Rail Improvement Project's electrification of the Northeast Corridor New Haven-Boston and introduction of the Acela trainsets and service being the primary lasting result of the federal funding – led to New York State seeking both long-term funding for both a NYC-Albany-Boston maglev system and money for a short-term non-electrified high-speed rail technological demonstration and testing project utilizing the existing Turboliners. The expense of railway electrification led to the search for a way to achieve high speeds without the overhead catenary of the Northeast Corridor.
The Turboliner project was funded, with $7 million dollars ($3 million in USDOT FRA grants, $2 million from Amtrak, and $2 million from NYS) spent on upgrading 17-miles of track on the Hudson Line south of Albany for 125-mph running and rebuilding an existing RTL Turboliner into a “RTL II” trainset; with the power cars reengined by Morrison-Knudsen in Hornell, NY (now the Alstom plant) and the coaches refurbished by Amtrak at its Beech Grove shop. In 1995 the RTL II trainset was successfully tested at 125-mph on the realigned portion track on the Hudson Line and then also on the Northeast Corridor. The test program complete, the trainset then entered regular service on the Empire Corridor, remaining in use till 2002.
ABOVE LEFT: Gov. George Pataki exiting a rebuilt "RTL III" Turboliner at Super Steel in August 2000. ABOVE RIGHT: A completed RTL III Turboliner trainset in an Acela inspired paint scheme.
PHOTO CREDITS: Tom Romano
While the new administration of Gov. George Pataki was initially seen as being hostile to passenger rail, the high-speed rail bug eventually bit the Republican governor, who announced a $185 million "High Speed Rail Improvement Program" in October 1998. The plan was to rebuild the seven remaining Empire Service's 1970-era Turboliner gas-turbine trainsets into new "RTL III" sets while also upgrading the existing tracks, accelerating the existing Amtrak service NYC-Albany with a new 2-hour express service.
In fact, by the time of the governor's announcement in October the process of rebuilding the Turboliners had already begun, with the state already having signed a contract in February 1998 with Super Steel for rebuilding two of the sets at its new facility in the Scotia Glenville Industrial Park. The first rebuilt trainset was expected to enter service in early 1999.
However, this seemingly modest and seemingly straightforward project nevertheless, after numerous delays, resulted in an embarrassing high-speed failure. Over $70 million and a decade's worth of effort was spent on the Pataki Administration's High Speed Rail Improvement Program, with nothing to show for it but a half-dozen broken trains. According to a 2003 report by the state controller mismanagement by NYSDOT was a primary cause of the project's collapse. The agency according to the report lacked the necessary experience to run a complex rail project, The New York Times in the October 10th, 2004 article "A Fast Train, Running Late" reporting that:
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... as a result, Amtrak began quietly trying to extricate itself from the project.
It would not be till the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo that the four half-rebuilt Turboliner trains stored at the Glenville industrial park would be auctioned off for scrap in December 2012, their warehouse full of parts in Rotterdam sold at a separate public auction on a rainy winter day. New York State had been paying $150,000 annually to store the trainsets and their parts, the auction of the four trainsets and parts grossed $420,000, including $16,000 each for the eight power cars and $7000 each for the eight coaches and four café cars.
ABOVE LEFT: A forlorn Turboliner RTL II trainset awaits its sad end on a frosty winter day in December 2012. ABOVE RIGHT: Advertisement in local newspaper for the auction of the RTL II trainsets, which were scrapped in January 2013.
ABOVE LEFT: A decade old publicity digital rendering of a high-speed train racing along the San Francisco Bay shoreline. ABOVE RIGHT: A recent image of the completed San Joaquin River Viaduct in the Central Valley.
IMAGE CREDITS: California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA).
High Speed Fail: California
An even bigger mismanagement of a state high speed rail program has occurred in California. In 2008 voters approved a $10 billion ballot issue to jump start the estimated $33 billion HSR project that had been in planning for over a decade by a dedicated authority, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). Rather than beefing up the authority’s staff with in-house planners, engineers, and other experts, the decision was made to save money by outsourcing nearly the entire effort to private consultants, led by the international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhof, now WSP of Montreal.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times in their April 26th 2019 article “How California’s faltering high-speed rail project was ‘captured’ by costly consultants” the consultants manage nearly every aspect of the state authority:
They direct day-to-day construction work in the Central Valley and negotiate with farmers to buy land. They assess the geological conditions in the San Gabriel Mountains and estimate how many people will ride the future system. They produce tens of thousands of pages of reports and attend community meetings. They even oversee other consultants.
It is WSP that holds the lease on much of the office space at rail authority headquarters, supplies proprietary software that the authority uses and provides servers that store the project’s data. The firm also helps oversee three other consulting ventures that monitor construction teams — Wong-Harris for the Fresno area, Arcadis for Kings County and HNTB for Tulare County. (Each of those three consultants have teams of subconsultants who work under them.)
“They became a consultant-captured organization,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of the union. “This is an entity run entirely by engineering consultants for engineering consultants.” Toppin provided state budget documents from 2010 that showed the rail authority’s contracts with consultants averaged $427,000 per engineer, compared with the rail authority’s state in-house costs of $131,000 per engineer. The counterargument made by consultants is that those numbers do not reflect differences in efficiency or quality of work.
State Auditor Elaine Howle released a scathing assessment of the project in November, citing the role of consultants 81 times. Consultants, the audit said, “may not always have the state’s best interests as their primary motivation.”
Howle and others say it hasn’t helped matters that the rail authority still relies on consultants to manage and oversee other consultants — an arrangement that has resulted in the appearance of a conflict of interest in at least one case and poor oversight of project work in general. The rail authority, she said, has become dependent on WSP staff to fill jobs in its contract management and support offices, which have “performed only weak and inconsistent oversight” of the project work.
The audit examined nine sample contracts and found “significant problems” in reviewing invoices and documenting that work had actually been completed. In one example, the rail authority staffed a new office intended to improve contract management with seven consultants. WSP executives said it was a “stretch” to allege that any problems they caused were responsible for billions of dollars in cost increases.
The result a decade later is a fiasco as the project is now in 2022 years behind schedule and many tens of billion over budget. Governor Gavin Newsom is working to get the project back on track by reducing dependency on consultants and contractors; bringing the necessarily talent into state employment within the CaHSRA so that oversight and management responsibilities are in the hands of state employed staff. The institutional failure of having a part-time board oversee a public megaproject entirely run by private consultants and contractors has greatly damage the image of high-speed rail in America.
In a November 2021 interview with the nonprofit news organization Calmatters the retiring state auditor Elaine Howle in response to the question "“Based on your audits of high-speed rail, do you have any thoughts about that project’s ability to succeed?” answered:
“I think it’s been slow going. … We looked at that project over multiple audits and from one audit to the next, you’re seeing improvement, but not enough. You know, it’s been a long, long process and it’s just incredibly expensive. Nobody is going to suggest that high-speed rail is not a good idea, but the fact that the state has had to rely so much on contractors … Clearly, you need to rely on contractors for certain types of expertise, but we need to have our own control — state employee control — over certain processes.”
For public works megaprojects from the Panama Canal to the Hoover Dam to the Interstate Highway System, private engineering and construction firms have played an important role. Yet without proper oversight and independent knowledge by the public agency responsible for the project – unquestioned bad decisions can lead to unquestionably bad outcomes.
Overall, the public sector in New York State and America at large has become awfully bad at infrastructure in the last several decades. Recent reporting by the New York Times on two MTA projects – the 2nd Ave Subway and LIRR East Side Access – showed how these projects cost billions more than comparable projects in Europe and East Asia. Compared to subway construction in Paris, in New York City there was a shocking lack of following international best practices in management and construction of rail infrastructure.
ABOVE: Four of the numerous recent reports and studies completed by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT). Having a dedicated a well-funded agency oversee public transportation in the DRPT has given passenger rail the staffing, expertise, and continuality at the state-level to effectively manage the significant improvement and expansion of the Commonwealth’s state-supported Amtrak corridor services over the past two decades. The planning studies of passenger rail do not collect dust in Virginia.
Success in Virginia
Virginia has become a leader in the state planning, management, and financing of its state supported passenger rail services. The Commonwealth has been making steady progress over the past decade improving and expanding its Amtrak service. On October 26th, 2020, the board of the new Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) met for the first time (virtually online) to outline their role in the Commonwealth’s grand program of building a modern higher speed passenger rail system, including the rebuilding of the Washington DC-Richmond mainline into a 90-mph triple track railway.
The VPRA board includes 13 voting members, chaired by the Director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, and 2 non-voting “ex-officio” members from Amtrak and the Virginia Railway Express. The VPRA board includes Charlottesville resident Wick Moorman, the former president and CEO of both Amtrak and Norfolk Southern. The creation of a dedicated rail authority to complement the existing Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) was necessary to oversee the public state ownership and management of rail right-of-way and infrastructure in Virginia.
The authority has the power to build and maintain rail facilities, borrow money, and issue bonds to finance rail facilities. The Commonwealth in December 2019 made a deal with the freight railroads to invest in rail infrastructure as part of the $3.7B landmark agreement – called Transforming Rail in Virginia Transforming Rail in Virginia (TRV) – that includes purchase of over 350 miles of railroad ROW and 225 miles of track of track – with the freight railroad CSX and VPRA sharing ownership of the key DC-Richmond mainline.
Foremost among the projects being pursued by Virginia is the program to build a higher speed passenger rail service along the 1-95 corridor from the Long Bridge over the Potomac to the North Carolina border. Virginia is now working with freight railroad CSX to build a 90-mph dedicated passenger track on the state-owned right-of-way of the DC-Richmond mainline, reducing 30 minutes from the current over 2-hours travel time, while increasing the daily Amtrak frequency to fifteen roundtrips with additional Northeast Regional trains extended from the Boston-DC Northeast Corridor. The Virginia Railway Express will also see significant benefits from this investment with expanded commuter service.
South of Richmond the Commonwealth is working with North Carolina to convert the dormant S-Line railroad into a 110-mph passenger railway to Raleigh, part of a “Southeast Corridor” from Washington DC to Charlotte, NC. Branching off from this higher-speed corridor is Amtrak Northeast Regional service to Newport News and Norfolk. Expansion of Northeast Regional service is planned for along the tracks of Norfolk Southern to Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and Roanoke in western Virginia. The Commonwealth is also examining an east-west Virginia Beach-to-Blue Ridge Mountains service across the state on newly purchased freight tracks.
The impressive progress being made by the Commonwealth of Virginia with its intercity rail could not have happened without the state first addressing the managerial and funding issues of its intercity passenger rail program. In 1992 to better plan and manage the state’s public transport and railroad efforts legislation was passed to spin off from the Department of Transportation (VDOT) the ‘Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’ (DRPT) as an independent dedicated agency reporting directly to state’s secretary of transportation.
Most states supported their Section 209 Amtrak corridor services with annual legislative appropriations. Virginia decided on a different path becoming in 2011 the first state to create a secure and sustainable dedicated funding source for intercity passenger rail. The ‘Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund’ (IPROC) covers both the operating and capital costs of Virginia’s state supported passenger rail services. The IPROC fund receives a dedicated stream of revenue, approximately $55m annually, from a 40% share of a 0.125% increase in the general sales and use tax. Virginia then pools this money with additional funding from the state and local government, the freight railroads, and the federal government.
Virginia’s state-sponsored Amtrak services over the past decade have grown from one to four routes and include six daily round-trip trains, with average annual ridership in 2019 exceeding 971,415 with 15% annual growth, far above the 2.4% increase among all state-supported lines in the rest of the Amtrak system. Political support for rail in Virginia is broad with extensive media coverage of the planning and successes of the state’s program. Clearly doing the hard work in creating a sustainable managerial, planning, and funding structure for investing in passenger rail has paid big dividends to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Moving forward, New York State needs to increase the staffing and budgeting for the currently small state rail bureau at NYSDOT. And not just to plan the state’s future intercity rail system, but to manage the trains – the Empire Service, Maple Leaf, Adirondack, and with Vermont the Ethan Allen Express – that the state today pays Amtrak some $45 million annually under contract to run as required by the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA). Many states have complained about Amtrak’s unresponsive management and opaque financial accounting of its state-supported services, requiring that state governments to have the ability to ensure that Amtrak is delivering on what it is contracted to provide.
Currently Upstate NY’s rail service seems to be on autopilot, the overall service on the Empire Corridor has not changed in terms of speed, frequency, or capacity since the early 1990s. If New York State is going to have in the future a world class intercity rail passenger system – it will need to step up its game by building up a respectable staff corps of professional passenger rail managers, engineers, and other experts within NYSDOT, or perhaps create a new independent passenger rail authority to plan and manage the Empire Corridor, as other states have done.