Yesterday, House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster proposed a bill to privatize Northeast Corridor operations. This will be done more like European rather than Japanese privatization: Amtrak will not be privatized directly, but instead the Amtrak-owned trackage and rolling stock in the Northeast will be transferred to a separate government-owned company, which will award a design-build-operate-maintain contract based on competitive bidding and lease the infrastructure to the winning bidder for 99 years.
Amtrak President Joseph Boardman replied, “This is broader than the northeast at this point. This is the Privatize Passenger Rail for America Act. The overall impact is this takes Amtrak apart, from an infrastructure standpoint, and replaces it with a government entity.”
The bill can be read here, with summary in plain English here. It does not include any regulatory component, and at this stage appears to leave the FRA in place. It also explicitly states that only the Amtrak-owned portions of the NEC will be transferred to the new government authority; if the private bidder wishes to use any infrastructure owned by Metro-North or the MBTA, the federal government will not help. With both of these hurdles still in place, the bill demands that private bidders meet the following requirements:
1. All current commuter rail services on NEC continued at current levels
2. All current freight rail services on NEC continued at current levels
3. 2 hours or less express high-speed rail service between Washington, DC and New York, and 2.5 hours or less between New York and Boston
4. Double the number of intercity trains on the NEC (both high-speed and Northeast Regional)
5. Complete the entire proposed project within 10 years
It is not clarified what the first two points mean. For example, one way to permit higher speeds in MBTA and Metro-North’s territories is to speed up the commuter trains, buying higher-performance trains and running them with more schedule discipline. Although by passenger standards this means the commuter rail service will have higher levels, from the perspective of the agencies this involves conceding turf and changing operating practices. In addition, increasing superelevation requires setting a minimum speed or running vehicles at cant excess (negative cant deficiency); while this is not a technical problem for commuter trains, traditional regulations are against it even outside the US, and it is a problem for freight trains. Speeding up freight trains is a solution, but could increase their operating costs, especially if they remain diesel-powered; this may or may not satisfy the second point in the bill.
In the absence of FRA reform, it would be difficult and expensive to achieve significant improvements; together with commuter rail agency turf, it bears some responsibility to the $117 billion cost of Amtrak’s Next-Generation High-Speed Rail plan, which has drawn criticism from many good transit activists.
In the presence of FRA reform and a rule requiring the commuter railroads to give access if required, the standards set in the bill are not very ambitious. The advertised timetable calls for an average speed of 180 km/h between New York and Washington, at the lower end of high-speed rail, and 145 km/h between New York and Boston, at the upper end of upgraded legacy rail. Existing high-acceleration or high-cant deficiency trains could achieve this on legacy tracks, with some upgrades. With small curve modifications (including an increase in superelevation, which could complicate matters for freight trains) an off-the-shelf Pendolino could run at 160-200 km/h even on the curvy Shore Line in Connecticut; south of New York, few curves would limit speeds to less than 200 km/h, and those are either relatively easy to fix or located near urban stations where speed would be low anyway.
Another issue with the bill is that it seems to want to maximize private spending in addition to minimizing public spending. It directs the Secretary of Transportation (who currently opposes privatization) to choose the expression of interest that,
(A) indicates that the project will successfully meet or exceed the performance standards.
(B) incorporates the greatest amount of private sector financing.
(C) incorporates the least amount of Federal support.
(D) is based on a public-private partnership structure that closely aligns with the structure selected by the Secretary.
In other words, there are no points awarded for exceeding the standards; however, there are points awarded for spending more money than necessary, as long as it’s all in the private sector. This despite the fact that at the speeds of the express trains running on the Sanyo Shinkansen (currently the fastest in Japan) and the TGV from Paris to Marseille, average speed would be about 220-230 km/h, for a total travel time of about 1:35-1:40 on both the New York-Boston and New York-Washington segments.
The glossy PDF that Mica and Shuster use to argue for the importance of privatization, noting increases in ridership in Britain and Japan, leaves out similar increases that came in Europe after the introduction of better regulations or more modern rolling stock. For example, the German rail reforms in the 1990s and the introduction of high-speed ICE trains helped raise ICE ridership from 6 million in 1991 to 36 million in 1999. France has seen large increases in TGV ridership and intercity ridership in general from the 1980s onward.
Despite this, good transit activists should not dismiss Mica’s effort the way they should dismiss openly dishonest anti-transit politicians, such as Governor Rick Scott. Achieving improvements in ten years is much better than Amtrak’s competing unambitious Master Plan. I believe the bill is reformable, and have already called Rep. Mica’s office and urge everyone else to do the same, demanding regulatory reform in addition to or instead of privatization.
Update: as Bruce McF notes in comments both here and on CAHSR Blog, 99 years is normal for a land concession but extraordinarily long for a transport concession. Under European-style privatization there’s a new auction once every few years, I think 10 at most.