Danger of London-Style Terrorist Bombings Justifies Ending Amtrak'sOwnership of Key Tunnels

Report Homeland Security

Danger of London-Style Terrorist Bombings Justifies Ending Amtrak'sOwnership of Key Tunnels

July 18, 2005 9 min read

Authors: Andrew Grossman and Joseph Vranich

The deadly 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.


Unjustifiable Tunnel Conditions

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.[1] In 2002, Mead determined that $900 million in firefighting equipment and evacuation facilities would be needed to bring the tunnels up to modern safety standards.[2]


Mead's report 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.


It is 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 failure."


Despite these 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.[3] Any train operator should know that rail systems have become a popular target for terrorism.


And Amtrak certainly is aware of the dangers in its New York tunnels.


For example, 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."[4] 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."[5]


And Amtrak 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 attack."[6] 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 north."[7]


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 Spending

Amtrak's 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."[8]


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.


This continues 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."[9] 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 safety.


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."[10] 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.[11]


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

Before granting 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.


The Metropolitan 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.[12] 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 state effort.[13]


Moreover, the 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.


Congress ought 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 safety.


Joseph 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.

[1] Kenneth M. Mead, inspector general, Department of Transportation, letter to Rep.  Frank Wolf, December 18, 2000, pp. 3-4.

[2] U.S. 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.

[3]Statistics from the 2005 and 2004 train bombings in London and Madrid were added to the data from 1998-2003 contained in testimony from Jack Riley, RAND Corporation, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Passenger and Freight Rail Security, 108th Cong., 2nd sess., March 23, 2004, p. 10.

[4]Dave Goldiner, "Eye motorman in Penn wreck," New York Daily News, April 20, 2004.

[5] Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Passenger and Freight Rail Security, 108th Cong., 2nd sess., March 23, 2004, p. 10.

[6]Pierre Thomas and Richard Esposito, "Raised Suspicions: Could Terrorists Be Casing New York-Philadelphia-D.C. Rail Corridor?," ABC News, May 21, 2004.

[7]Richard B. Schmitt and Josh Meyer, "Task Force Set Up to Ferret Out Plans for Terrorist Attack in U.S.," Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2004.

[8] Dee Wedemeyer, "Amtrak Will Vote on $2 Million Allocation For Fire Safeguards in L.I.R.R. Tunnels," New York Times, September 19, 1977.

[9]Norman Y. Mineta, Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation, remarks prepared for "Intercity Passenger Rail News Conference," Mobile, Alabama, May 18, 2005.

[10] Mead, letter to Wolf, p. 3.

[11] U.S. 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."

[12]Mead, letter to Wolf, p. 3.

[13] Dean E. Murphy, "State Faults Amtrak for Neglect of Tunnels," New York Times, August 23, 2001.


Andrew Grossman

Former Visiting Fellow

Joseph Vranich

Coordinator of The Heritage Foundation's Moscow Office