In President Obama's first term, the talk of the future of the Northeast Corridor was of state-of-the-art bullet trains zipping between Washington, D.C., and Boston in a luxurious three hours, half the time it takes today.
Today, Amtrak president Joe Boardman would settle for something a little smaller: one working bridge and two new tunnels.
It's far from Amtrak's only problem, but Boardman's focused on repairing the 104-year-old Portal Bridge, which crosses New Jersey's Hackensack River on the way to Penn Station. It's been called the Achilles heel of the rail system's Northeast Corridor, a stretch that accommodates some 750,000 passengers a day. Paired with two outdated tunnels leading into Penn Station that were flooded during Hurricane Sandy, it's a treacherous stretch where delays are frequent.
"We're in trouble right now," he said in an interview with National Journal. "What I'm talking about is a failure in the capacity needed to maintain our existing service into New York City."
The Portal Bridge is a swing bridge that has to move out of the way of ships passing below on the Hackensack River, but its age and disrepair means it doesn't always lock back into place. When that happens, trains can pile up for hours and send ripples all the way up to Pennsylvania. About 450 trains go over the bridge every day.
"It was a great design at the time … but it's been well used for over 100 years and everyone agrees, every engineer and most people that use it, understand that we need a fixed bridge," Boardman said. "This just isn't reliable anymore."
Under current plans, that bridge would be replaced with a taller two-track bridge, but that's a $900 million project that Amtrak and state partners don't have the money for.
Once trains are across the bridge heading into New York, however, they have to move through the tunnels heading into Penn Station under the Hudson River. Amtrak has said they're so decrepit that one or two may have to be shut down within 20 years, thanks to Hurricane Sandy filling them with corrosive salt water.
The tunnels handle 24 trains an hour, but would go down to six when the tunnels are down. It's a problem operators already had to contend with -- during the brutal winter, icicles kept forming in the tunnels, forcing them to be shut down while crews manually chipped out enough room.
The focus on repair is perhaps telling, given the overall political lethargy on high-speed rail. The Obama administration was bullish in the first term, putting $8 billion towards high-speed lines across the country in the stimulus package and spending another $2.5 billion in 2010. But dedicated money for high-speed rail has gone dry with no significant lines to speak of (a stretch in California broke ground earlier this year), with the White House instead focusing on a broader rail effort that would involve increasing speeds across the country.
The Northeast Corridor has always taken up a bulk of Amtrak's attention and planning. And that's for good reason -- the 457-mile Washington D.C.-New York City-Boston stretch carried 11.6 million riders in fiscal year 2014 and trains are regularly full, compared to the less popular and unprofitable routes around the rest of the country.
Passengers are prone to griping about the delays and slow service along the route (not to mention the food, the seats, the wireless…), problems that should be fixed first, said Dan Schned, a senior planner at the Regional Plan Association.
"The needs of the Northeast Corridor are enormous and those repairs need to be made period," said Schned, who heads the Northeast Alliance for Rail. "The vision for high-speed rail and expanded service is all well and good, but it doesn't mean much if what we have now isn't fixed."
A 2012 document laying out a $151 billion blueprint through 2040 for the Northeast Corridor acknowledged that "significant investments in the existing NEC are required to bring it to a" state of good repair. The plan said $52 billion would be needed to cover system repair and enhancements just to handle a projected 60 percent increase in trips by 2030.
Most of that is focused on the Gateway Project, Amtrak's proposal to release the bottleneck between Newark and New York City. The project -- proposed in 2011 after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed the similar Access to the Region's Core project -- would be shared between Amtrak and local transit agencies, which share the tracks.
Congress may be ready to help Amtrak as well. Profits from the Acela and Northeast trains have to be shared around the system, leaving it short of dealing with its upkeep, but that would change under the passenger rail bill that passed the House last month. The bill from Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., doesn't give Amtrak appreciably more money (just $7.2 billion over four years), but a bookkeeping reform would segment off the Northeast Corridor, allowing its profits to be re-invested there rather than shared with other unprofitable routes in, say, Missouri.
"We should focus and make sure the Northeast Corridor is a first-rate system, and the learn from that around the country," Shuster said in an interview. "We've underfunded it for years. Part of the problem, and I think what this bill gets at, they only make money in one place."
Republicans have long pushed for the Northeast Corridor to be privatized to move it more quickly towards high-speed service — the new bill is a step towards that direction, but one that's more palatable to people who still see a role for Amtrak's government ties. The Senate hasn't yet picked up the Amtrak bill, but Commerce Committee chairman John Thune of North Dakota appears likely to wrap it in with work on freight rail.
As for Boardman, he's heard the complaints about delays and is ready to fix them — just as soon as he gets the money to do so.
"Who's going to make that call to action, the Amtrak CEO?," Boardman said. "I doubt it. It's the lawmakers and the leaders we have in this nation that have to make the decisions. They have to listen to the hue and cry and all the complaints people have, and if they know this is the right thing to do they'll do it."