New York Passenger Rail Costs Set to Soar

The two main intercity rail services in New York are Amtrak's Empire Service and Adirondack.

As previously noted in MTR, New York State is facing a bleak revenue outlook for non-MTA bus operations and intercity passenger rail (Amtrak).  It’s soon to get bleaker. The State’s transportation capital program and rail plan both warn of ballooning operating needs from: 1) federal mandates that will require states to pay more to Amtrak starting this fall and 2) maintenance costs for new tracks, signals and equipment in implementing the State’s high-speed rail initiative.

In 2008, Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which doubled Amtrak funding and provided a foundation for major intercity rail capital improvements. But the bill also required that states begin paying for a portion of the operating losses on all Amtrak routes starting October 2010, according to NYSDOT’s capital program. This means the state, which currently subsidizes the Adirondack service to Montreal, will also have to pay for part of the Empire Service’s operating shortfall at the cost of $30-60 million, according to the 2009 New York State Rail Plan. Thus the state will be in a hole even before any new high-speed rail service begins.

Currently, the State pays Amtrak $20 million per year through the Passenger and Freight Rail Assistance Program, a multi-year funding program appropriated from general funds by the State Legislature every year.  This funding program and the Rebuild and Renew New York Transportation Bond Act of 2005, a $2.9 billion bond act approved by voters which has provided additional funding for rail construction, will both expire at the end of 2010.

Without new sources of revenue, the State rail network will be at the mercy of the annual appropriations process in Albany. Representatives from NYSDOT’s press office and high-speed/intercity passenger rail bureau did not respond to requests for comment. The NY State Transportation Equity Alliance (which includes TSTC) has argued that, since high-speed rail is a federal initiative, it would be logical for the federal government to provide operating assistance as well.

Another Unfunded Federal Mandate: Positive Train Control

Another federal mandate will cost the MTA nearly half a billion dollars. After a head-on collision of a passenger and freight train which killed 22 people in California, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which requires railroads to implement positive train control (PTC) systems on specific rail lines by the end of 2015.   Instead of relying on a human conductor, PTC-equipped trains can use GPS signals that track train location and speed to slow down automatically if they are in danger of crashing.

Unfortunately for transportation agencies, PTC is not off-the-shelf technology and implementing this new system will be costly.  According to the MTA’s 2010-14 capital program, installing PTC on LIRR and Metro-North will cost $265 million and $187 million, respectively.  In April 2010, Senator Schumer and MTA officials asked the federal government for an extension or exemption from the mandate, arguing that the additional cost could cripple the underfunded railroads and that the two railroads have clean safety records.

It is hard to argue against a federal initiative that promotes rail safety, but paying for the safety system may mean the railroads have to delay needed repair and maintenance. Almost $10 billion of the MTA’s five-year capital program is unfunded.

Image: Rail map via NYSDOT (view entire map here).

5 Comments on "New York Passenger Rail Costs Set to Soar"

  1. Interurbans | June 23, 2010 at 4:34 pm |

    Does the word boondoggle fit this mandate? Is this mandate a payoff to Congress and the FRA, or is it just a knee jerk CYA reaction to the terrible Chatsworth accident, or is it an intentional behind scenes ploy to cripple and discontinue commuter rail and make rail fright less competitive to highways and trucking?

  2. Perhaps Empire and Adirondak Service should be subsidized by two state programs, an intrastate air facility/ticket surcharge from all NYS passenger airports and a NYS Thruway toll supplement.

  3. Rail Advocate | June 24, 2010 at 10:15 pm |

    The idea of Thruway funding for intercity passenger rail is a good one. They already subsidize the mostly recreational activities of the Erie Canal. Lots of other states are stepping up to the plate to fund their intrastate and interstate passenger rail service. There is no reason why NYS should get a pass.

  4. The FRA has been pushing for PTC implementation for decades. Previously the RR industry has always been able to slow it down with various test projects and complaints (justified) about cost. GPS makes it a lot cheaper than it used to be so it finally passed. For unsignaled track it makes sense.

    What’s not clear to me is why MN & LIRR, which have complex signal systems (including cab signaling and automatic train stop) plus centralized control would need anything additional. There’s no danger there. Seems like the law is poorly written, which implies it was more of a reaction to the accident than anything else.

  5. @bob Federal safety regulations have only ever been reactive rather than preemptive. The problem lies in how poor the reactions have been. In this case, I’d have to agree it’s not only poorly written, but also blind to the current financial crisis these agencies are dealing with, a crisis that has been brought on by decades of federal disinvestment. Unlike the airline industry, which has been hit repeatedly with reactive federal safety regulation over the years, railroads and transit agencies have not been seeing an increasing amount of federal subsidies.

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