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If you want to enhance mobility and greater capacity you’ve got to look at rail’

claims Stephen Gardner, VP, Amtrak at last week’s CILT Rail Lecture.

Stephen Gardner, Vice President, Northeast Corridor Infrastructure & Investment Development, AMTRAK delivered a fascinating and engaging lecture in London last week on what was coincidently AMTRAK’s 43rd Birthday (1st May). The CILT Rail Lecture was held in memory of Sir Robert Reid and was attended by over 80 leading rail professionals.

The majority of the US railway is not service provider owned and as Stephen noted ‘AMTRAK are merely tenants on most of the rail track’. AMTRAK began as a preservation strategy in an attempt to preserve the national rail service and achieve operator self-sufficiency. But it outplayed this original strategy and as Stephen claims ‘rail developed into a meaningful portion of transportation in the United States.’

With the introduction of the ACELA service, Boston – New Haven – New York – Philadelphia – Baltimore – Washington, DC, providing huge revenue for AMTRAK the United States now has a prototype railway demonstrating what is possible in the US. The Northeast Corridor contains 899 route miles, 546 of which are Amtrak-owned. There are over 260 million annual passengers travelling on this route. The NEC is incredibly important to the United States economy; it’s impressively the world’s 5th largest economy – just ahead of France. Astonishingly 1 of 3 jobs in the area is within 5 miles of an NEC station, highlighting the importance and centrality of the railway to the NEC economy.

There are over 2,200 daily trains on the NEC and as Stephen claims the railway ‘provides capacity that highways and air cannot’. The NEC rail network is important to both economic growth and the labour post with over 75% of journeys on the ACELA route for business. The ACELA route is running at an impressive 100% load factor 3 days a week.

However, the NEC is not without its challenges, some similar to ours here in the UK and others unique to the geography and politics of the US. Some of the challenges threatening the success;

· ever increasing demand – the Northeast megaregion is projected to grow 23% – adding 12 million people – by 2040; providing a challenge for the existing rail network

· age and condition – to quote Stephen ‘everything is ancient and getting worse’

· partnership and governance – a new planning paradigm is needed to rethink development and system collaboration

· funding and financing – with no regular funding source it’s difficult to plan major long term projects

· politics – rail and public transport are political topics that are lacking consensus

Though there is a long list of complex challenges threatening the success and development of the AMTRAK services in the Northeast Corridor Stephen did discuss the way forward. Even strategies as immediate as continuing to run the present service well will require additional funding as the infrastructure ages. Stephen also pointed out that one silver cloud following the impact of Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the tunnels under New York resulting in the suspension of all services, meant that AMTRAK was able to realise the true dependency of the Northeast Corridor’s workforce and economy on the vast passenger services they offer daily. In terms of capacity, Stephen stated that the only way to deal with this long term is to buy more property and invest in new routes. AMTRAK have already started work on two new tunnels into New York under Hudson Yards.

Stephen finished his lecture with a question and answers session in which he stated that the bottom line is that the potential Northeast Corridor total market is huge and AMTRAK needs to get it. As Stephen acknowledged the NEC is a ‘sting of pearls’ with high density cities in a row not replicated elsewhere.

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