Amtrak's top man on the power and problems of East Coast rail

Wilmington receded behind, Philadelphia lay ahead, and Amtrak’s chief executive, Charles Moorman IV, gazed out the rear window of the American View rail car at the Northeast Corridor's ribbons of steel converging toward the horizon.

“This corridor is unique in the United States,” Moorman, a New Orleans native who goes by “Wick,” said of the 457-mile stretch of rail between Washington  and Boston. “There is no other railroad that looks anything like this.”

The American View is a theater car, with stadium seating facing a transparent rear wall showcasing the Northeast Corridor’s assets and fundamental weaknesses. The tracks unspooling behind the car are four abreast in some places, allowing robust traffic from interstate passenger rail and regional commuter services such as SEPTA. About 700,000 people travel on some portion of the Northeast Corridor each workday. But the infrastructure on display is old.

The signaling systems and the catenary, the overhead wires that power electric trains, are, in places, about a century old and need an upgrade. This is not news to SEPTA passengers, who have experienced delays due to failures on Amtrak’s rail. Amtrak spends about $300 million a year on keeping the Northeast Corridor in good repair, but the need is between $700 million and $900 million.

Moorman, who took the chief executive job in September, toured the East Coast on Tuesday, offering reporters rides on the custom car to sell the possibilities of Amtrak’s future — more capacity, transit-oriented development, faster trains — and explain the need for funding to make that a reality, or just maintain its existing service.

Times have been tough for Amtrak. Its trains derailed in May 2015 in Philadelphia and about a year ago in Chester. Both led to deaths. The second derailment, still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, took place after a slew of safety protocols were ignored during routine maintenance work. On March 24 and April 3, trains derailed at Penn Station in New York City, an Amtrak-owned station, because of track defects. And when the White House unveiled its budget proposal in March, on the chopping block were all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes, except the Northeast Corridor, as well as funding critical for major work planned around New York.

The Chester crash on April 3, 2016, killed two workers when a train hit a piece of maintenance equipment, and NTSB documents released in January showed the accident followed miscommunications, planning deficiencies, and a failure to use safety equipment that would have prevented the crash. The accident points to a larger problem with safety at Amtrak, Moorman said.

 “We have to create a much stronger safety culture in Amtrak,” Moorman said.

Moorman’s previous job was as CEO of the freight rail Norfolk Southern, and he has brought to Amtrak retired Norfolk Southern personnel who helped him improve the safety culture there, he said. Training has been a major focus, he said, with operating supervisors getting trained now, and a plan to have training expand to all workers. It will take time to change Amtrak’s culture, he said, but he is seeking to instill the philosophy that safety protocols are mandatory.

“Working safely out there is a condition of employment,” he said.

Amtrak operates at a loss, but in 2015 it benefited from a $10 billion, five-year federal allocation for passenger rail and infrastructure spending. The money came after years of underfunding, remains inadequate to meet the maintenance needs of intercity rail service, and expires in 2020. Cutting long-distance routes, as the White House has proposed, won’t solve the problem. It would decimate a network that links disparate parts of the country, Moorman said, would eliminate a revenue source, and would do little to cut Amtrak’s manpower and operational expenses.

Penn Station’s travails are an example of what happens when track maintenance falls behind. Penn Station’s 21 tracks are shared by Amtrak, NJ Transit, and Long Island Railroad, and as a result there are small windows for maintenance and repair work at the busiest transportation terminal in the country, at best three to five hours a night during the workweek. It isn’t enough time to keep up with maintenance, Moorman said.

That problem isn’t likely to happen at 30th Street Station, where Amtrak and SEPTA don’t share tracks, making it much easier to close tracks for repairs without disrupting service, Moorman said. But Penn Station is the linchpin of the entire East Coast rail network, and the troubles there are a reason the railroad can’t provide faster, more frequent service.

The Gateway Program, which would replace tunnels under the Hudson River and increase track capacity at Penn Station, would be a major step forward. The funding isn’t there yet and the clock is ticking. Amtrak officials said the $23.9 billion project would need to begin by the end of the decade and be completed in the next, before a deteriorating tunnel becomes unusable. That would be disastrous, Moorman said, reducing capacity between New York City and New Jersey from 24 trains an hour to six.

In Philadelphia, Amtrak sees a vision of what the Northeast Corridor can be. Development has sprouted around 30th Street Station, with more planned for the station itself, and may do the same at North Philadelphia Station. Amtrak can leverage its land assets into revenue through development and create dense, transit-centered communities. The rail agency is also looking at ways to attract people who drive or take buses to Amtrak destinations. A ride from Philadelphia to New York City could cost $56, and Moorman said Amtrak is looking at reduced prices during off-peak hours to bring more people to trains. Development and increased ridership would help the budget woes, Moorman said, but wouldn’t be enough to cover the expense of running a railroad. That requires federal money, he said.

“What you really just need to have is some sustained funding,” Moorman said. “When you start cutting funding for track, you can’t catch up.”