AIRNet-21: Amtrak’s Last Chance?

Watching Amtrak struggle against the odds year after year, it’s been hard not to become pessimistic about the railroad’s long term viability. They’ve managed to stay afloat thanks to a miserly annual subsidy from Congress, despite an alarming number of members being uninformed and hostile.
Then there’s Amtrak’s management team, divided into two camps: one wanting to keep the national network, the other advocating Northeast Corridor service only. Meanwhile, Amtrak staggers along from one year to the next, passengers filling equipment that continues to age with no replacements in sight.
And all the while, people in the know are nervously eying the elephant in the room: a long list of deferred infrastructure projects, including two new tunnels under the Hudson River, and a balky obsolete swing bridge. Those two have received the most publicity, but there are lots of others. One estimate for the total of repair or replacement is $150 billion and, as things stand today, it’s all Amtrak’s responsibility.
All in all, not a rosy picture. But it is the reason why AIRNet-21 is an idea whose time may very well have come.
In the simplest possible terms, AIRNet-21 would be a public-private partnership—private investors joining with federal, state and municipal governments to take over the operation and maintenance of the Northeast Corridor. Among other entities, the concept has recently been endorsed by the Rail Passengers Association.
A new company created by AIRNet-21 would maintain the catenary, provide the electricity, do all the track work as necessary, replace the 100-year-old tunnels, build new bridges and be responsible for all maintenance and repair.
Amtrak and the two commuter rail companies—New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Railroad—would become, in effect, paying tenants and do what they do best: run trains.
Over the last ten years or so, it’s become clear that what we have now isn’t working.
A lot of smart people say AIRNet-21will work. I hope so, because as far as I know, there is no Plan B.