bombing of London's transit system was no doubt a sobering sight
for American train and subway riders. Before the smoke had even
cleared, Amtrak's defenders in Washington were exploiting the
tragedy to argue for increased federal subsidies to the nearly
bankrupt railroad. For three decades Amtrak has failed to correct
serious fire-fighting and evacuation shortcomings in its Manhattan
tunnels, which are shared with New Jersey Transit and Long Island
Rail Road (LIRR) commuter trains and are the busiest in the
country. More generosity to Amtrak now will only perpetuate
Amtrak's incompetence and foolhardiness in ways that work against
passenger safety. A better idea is to dispense security-related
funding to other public agencies-any organization but Amtrak, which
has demonstrated a reckless disregard for public safety by long
ignoring the need to upgrade safety measures. Even better, Congress
should divest Amtrak of its Manhattan tunnels.
To be clear, any
harm resulting from a terrorist act must be blamed on the
terrorists themselves. However, Amtrak's persistent neglect of its
most important rail tunnels will only exacerbate dangerous
conditions in an attack and contribute to greater human losses.
In 2000, DOT
Inspector General Ken Mead warned that a major tragedy in Amtrak's
tunnels running in and out of Manhattan would be likely if Amtrak
continued to delay upgrades of essential safety infrastructure. In 2002, Mead determined that
$900 million in firefighting equipment and evacuation facilities
would be needed to bring the tunnels up to modern safety
outlined rather incredible inadequacies. Standpipes to bring water
to some tunnel locations do not exist. Several escape routes
consisted of only single spiral staircases that are only one person
wide. If passengers were fleeing upward, first responders would be
blocked from descending into the tunnels.
unacceptable, Mead concluded, for Amtrak to budget millions of
dollars to repair sleeper cars for long-distance trains while
under-investing in strategic fixed assets. He observed that
Amtrak's deferral of repairs and upgrades to its critical
infrastructure "brings Amtrak closer to a major point of
warnings made five years ago and despite the many terrorist attacks
on trains, Amtrak continues to waste money on upgrades to
long-distance trains, which are market irrelevancies, while
ignoring the need to invest in safety. Amtrak's failure to give
funding priority to safety on its busiest lines is inexcusable in
an age of terrorism.
Terrorism Against Trains
Between 1998 and
2005, about 183 attacks succeeded on rail targets, resulting in
about 630 deaths and several thousand injuries. Any train operator
should know that rail systems have become a popular target for
certainly is aware of the dangers in its New York tunnels.
Amtrak knows that last year a slow-moving Amtrak train rammed a
LIRR train, injuring about 130 commuters and highlighting the sorry
state of Amtrak's tunnel infrastructure. It took two hours to move
lightly injured commuters to hospitals and more than half a day to
restore normal service. "We didn't think we were going to get out,"
said one passenger. "We thought that was it." How long might the
tunnels be inaccessible after a major event? Jack Riley, director
of public safety and justice at the RAND Corporation, cautioned
Congress, "Little is known about how long it might take to restart
the passenger and freight rail systems in the aftermath of an
attack similar to those of September 11."
officials have known about threats to New York's rail facilities.
Last May, for example, government officials investigated at least
seven instances of suspected surveillance along rail lines.
Reported ABC News, "While authorities say they do not want to
unnecessarily scare commuters, they say the findings fit the
pattern of terrorists casing the rail lines for a possible
The Los Angeles Times was more specific, reporting that
"Some of the linked intelligence points to a major attack on a
choke point in the rail system somewhere along the Northeast
corridor, from New York to Washington, and perhaps Boston to the
At present, it is
easy to download diagrams of the tracks and location of Penn
Station's control center from rail fan websites. This information
about the biggest choke point on America's rail passenger system is
available to anyone, including terrorists.
Decades of Inappropriate
irresponsibility in maintaining and upgrading its New York
infrastructure is longstanding. For instance, in 1977 the LIRR
purchased standpipe equipment for installation in the East River
tunnels. Amtrak, responsible for installing the equipment, sat on
it for a year. As John J. Fogarty, the Manhattan Borough Commander
of the Fire Department, said at the time, "It seems to me ludicrous
that we have 90 percent of the equipment rotting in a warehouse and
each day we have the possibility of a tragedy that could be averted
by just putting the stuff together."
Amtrak's blind eye
to keeping its most important infrastructure in top shape is a
legacy from the long line of Amtrak board members who came from the
world of politics, and not from business. While well-managed
companies invest capital in the most critical components of their
business, the politicians running Amtrak directed funding to
pork-barrel projects. For example, Amtrak has wasted billions in
taxpayer subsidies to operate long-distance trains in states like
West Virginia, where fewer than 100 riders daily board Amtrak
trains in the entire state.
today. As Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said, "Running
long distance trains the way that Amtrak does is an expensive
luxury for a company that goes begging for tax dollars every year.
The [Orlando-Los Angeles] Sunset Limited, for example, lost
more than 44 million dollars last year, costing Amtrak an average
of $466 dollars per paying passenger." Amtrak has known for 30
years about the unacceptable conditions in its tunnels, but it
still commits funds to projects of little importance on lightly
used lines at the expense of investing in safety and security.
Finally Forced To Act
There has been
some movement of late to boost the safety of Amtrak's tunnels, but
it has come about in spite of Amtrak, not because of it. Amtrak has
known about the tunnels' safety problems since it assumed ownership
of them under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Act of
1976, but it took DOT Inspector General Ken Mead and the Bush
Administration, working 25 years later, to push Amtrak to address
Not trusting that
Amtrak officials would reorder their spending priorities after so
many years of mismanagement, Mead asked Congress to force Amtrak to
spend appropriated funds on tunnel work. "It is essential that
funds be specifically earmarked for fire-safety needs in the [New
York] tunnels," wrote Mead. "Earmarking the funds would ensure that
they could not be diverted for any other purpose."
Transportation Secretary Mineta issued a $76.4 million grant to
Amtrak to help rehabilitate the tunnels, modernize ventilation and
communications systems, and improve emergency exits.
One result of
these earmarks and grants is Amtrak's long-overdue $126.6 contract
with a Swedish construction firm to upgrade the tunnels by 2009.
Passengers on Amtrak's busiest line finally have someone to thank
for doing the right thing-the Bush Administration.
Transfer the Tunnels
any additional funds to Amtrak, Congress should mandate transfer of
the Amtrak's tunnels to a more responsible regional, state, or
local agency. The Bush Administration's proposals for Amtrak
include transferring Northeast Corridor capital assets to a new
regional agency. This is a long-overdue opportunity to put the New
York tunnels-the single most critical piece of passenger railroad
infrastructure anywhere in the nation-into more responsible hands.
The threat of terrorism only heightens the urgency of transferring
ownership of the New York tunnels to an agency, or agencies, that
will provide the competent stewardship that passengers have every
right to expect.
Transportation Authority (MTA), which is owned by New York State,
has earmarked $220 million for tunnel upgrades and believes it
ought to own the two tunnels leading to Penn Station from Queens
that are used exclusively by the LIRR. Amtrak has rebuffed
MTA's attempts to take over the tunnels. State officials said the
urgency of the situation might persuade federal officials to back a
tunnels used by New Jersey Transit trains could be given to the
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has upgraded the
PATH train tunnels under the Hudson River.
follow a simple rule with broken-down entitles like Amtrak:
Reforms first, money second. As more than 30 years of Amtrak
operations have shown, there is no other way to improve passenger
Vranich is the author of End of the Line:
The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger
Trains (AEI Press) and has served as an Amtrak public affairs
spokesman, president of the High Speed Rail Association, and U.S.
Senate appointee to the Amtrak Reform Council. Andrew M. Grossman
is Senior Writer at The Heritage Foundation.
M. Mead, inspector general, Department of Transportation, letter to
Rep. Frank Wolf, December 18, 2000, pp. 3-4.
Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, 2001
Assessment of Amtrak's Financial Performance and Requirements,
CR-2002-075 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Transportation,
January 24, 2002), p. 60.
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Passenger
and Freight Rail Security, 108th Cong., 2nd sess., March 23,
2004, p. 10.
Wedemeyer, "Amtrak Will Vote on $2 Million Allocation For Fire
Safeguards in L.I.R.R. Tunnels," New York Times, September
letter to Wolf, p. 3.
Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration,
"Transportation Secretary Announces Grant to Amtrak for New York
Rail Tunnel Improvements," press release FRA 06-02, July 2, 2002;
this document notes, "Funding for the grant was authorized through
a $100 million appropriation contained in the FY 2002 Department of
Defense and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Recovery From
and Response to Terrorist Acts on the United States Act."
E. Murphy, "State Faults Amtrak for Neglect of Tunnels," New
York Times, August 23, 2001.