The only civilized and environmentally sound way to travel long distances is by rail. The roads are either clogged or dangerous. The airline operators treat their customers as self-loading freight. Cars and planes are wasteful emitters of global warming CO2. Amtrak wants to provide its customers with an enhanced high-speed service along its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington. It’s a great idea, and the company has been promoting it for the past ten years — so far without success.
The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor – 2012 Update Report, outlines the company’s dream for the high speed rail service. It calls for a 25-30 year investment program to cut travel times by half, using ‘next generation’ trains capable of 220 mph speeds. Estimated capital cost: $150 Billion ( 2011 dollars).
So what’s holding things up? Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation. Although it operates as a for-profit company, it remains dependent on federal subsidies. Getting politicians to commit funds for necessary upgrades, let alone for ‘next generation’ infrastructure, is not easy. There are priorities, like debt-ballooning tax cuts, military hardware, boarder walls, etc.
The project now faces a more serious problem. It concerns a multi-year study undertaken by Amtrak on the likely impact of climate change on the company’s operations along the Northeast Corridor. The study concludes that by mid century, rising seas and flooding associated with climate change will subject rail assets including portions of track to “continual inundation” thus rendering them unusable. Reportedly Amtrak completed the study by April 2017, but kept quiet about it until November 2018 when Bloomberg News obtained a redacted copy following a Freedom of Information request. Why the secrecy? Well, that’s easy to understand. Amtrak had said it could provide a finished product for $150 Billion. How can it now explain the need for many more billions to move its stuff out of harms way? It’s embarrassing.
According to Bloomberg, while the study provides details about the parts of the corridor at risk, it focuses on a ten mile stretch running through Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located close to where the Christian River joins the Delaware River (actually a tidal estuary), and much of the city is low lying. It is home to a training center for Amtrak engineers, a maintenance yard for the repair of electric locomotives, and a rail traffic control center, all of them situated in flood-prone parts of the city, as is the track itself. For example, a three mile stretch of the track northeast of the city, lies within feet of the Delaware River shore line (see map below).
You can see the problem for yourself next time you travel between New York and Washington by train. Take a window seat looking east, and watch for the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington. If the tide is in as you pass the three mile section, you may be shocked at how close the water is to the base of the tracks.
Alternatively, watch the following YouTube video (credit: Jersey Mike’s Rail Videos) showing the view from the back of an Amtrak train on route from Wilmington to Philadelphia. If you start the video at the 4.50 mark, you’ll see a substation to your left and the I-495 to your right. The track leaves the shore line at about the 7.15 mark.
Amtrak management knew about the potential for climate change to impact its rail assets when it released its ‘Vision for High Speed Rail’ in 2012, but made no mention of it in the proposal. A report for Amtrak dated September 2014 by Booz/Allen/Hamilton on the vulnerability of the Northeast Corridor to climate change, says (section 3.3.3) “Climate Change will directly and indirectly affect rail service in several different ways.” Sea level rise causing long-term/permanent track flooding, is one of the ways listed in the report. Amtrak could have updated its ‘Vision’ proposal at that time, but did not do so. Now, more than four years later, the climate cat is out of the bag and as far as High-Speed Rail is concerned, Amtrak has no place to go but back to square one. Pity.