Amtrak was briefly in the news over the weekend when Chris Christie made a stir in the Quiet Car. Rushing for an Acela from D.C. to the Garden State, the New Jersey Governor either didn’t realize he was in the Quiet Car or didn’t care. One story has him huffing his way out of the Quiet Car after complaints of loud phone calls while another has him apologetically leaving once he realized his mistake. He’s no stranger to Amtrak, and I’m inclined to believe he simply didn’t notice at first that he was in the Quiet Car. The way the story went viral on Sunday though is indicative of the way the Quiet Car has been a success story. If only the rest of Amtrak were this successful.
Meanwhile, the long-range plans for Amtrak’s Hudson River tubes were in the news last week as Crain’s New York took a look at ways the region can increase trans-Hudson capacity before Gateway comes to fruition. Noting that the current condition of the North River Tunnels is “a daily threat to transport and commerce,” Veronica Vanterpool, head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, argued that we could and should act now. Generally, she argued for ferries (…) and prioritizing buses through current crossings. I’ll come back to her ideas later this week as they’re worth revisiting on their own.
Let’s look though at the argument surrounding the condition of the North River Tunnels. As now, it’s not exactly clear what the risks are to Amtrak’s tunnels. Seemingly in order to spur political action, the company has warned of potential defects and urged timely action. They’ve been pursuing this line of argument since Hurricane Sandy swept through the 100-year-old North River Tunnels, and in doing so, they’ve obscured the debate to their benefit.
There are essentially three different but intertwined arguments. The first is that trans-Hudson capacity is a problem because it limits the number of people who can enter into and pass through Manhattan in a timely fashion. This is a hinderance to rail expansion and a high-speed rail network running along the Northeast Corridor. The second is that a lack of redundancy makes the Hudson River chokepoint particularly vulnerable to disruptions both now and in the future. The third is that the aging infrastructure needs to be updated but can’t if there isn’t enough redundancy to weather the traffic. By conflating the three, Amtrak can argue that it needs more tunnels because the old ones are in danger of damage, and the system doesn’t have the redundancy required to pick up the load.
That’s all well and good (and perhaps, in a sense, true), but if Amtrak is truly worried that its tunnel is going to collapse, why is it running trains through it on a daily basis? Is this some sort of Russian roulette with rail passengers or a ploy? If the tunnels are going to fail in the future, the argument for investment can focus on needs; if the tunnels are at risk of failing tomorrow, then the time to act was yesterday. One way or another, Amtrak should be clear on these risks. Support for a multi-billion-dollar tunnel hinges on it.