- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

Even if it spent $7 billion on track upgrades, Amtrak couldn’t reduce the travel time between Washington and New York to less than 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is only 25 minutes less than the trip now takes, the company’s president told Congress yesterday.

The statement by Alex Kummant came during a presentation on the federally funded railroad’s capital needs. During the hearing, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee expressed frustration about the lack of truly high-speed rail service in the United States.

The closest thing Amtrak has to high-speed service is the Acela Express, its premier Washington-Boston train, which travels an average of 82 miles per hour and reaches 150 mph in parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut. In other parts of the country, where Amtrak runs trains on congested tracks owned by the freight railroads, speeds can be far slower and delays are frequent.

But even on the Northeast corridor, it would be impossible to maintain speeds of 125 to 150 mph on the entire route using the current infrastructure, which Amtrak shares with numerous commuter lines and some freight carriers, Mr. Kummant has said. Such speeds, which could cut the trip from Washington to New York down to about an hour and a half, would require a dedicated line, he reiterated yesterday.

“We’d be very enthusiastic about a major high-speed corridor,” Mr. Kummant told the rail subcommittee. “Our reality is the system we run today.”

The Washington-New York segment currently takes 2 hours and 45 minutes on the Acela. Investing $625 million in upgrades would allow Amtrak to reduce that time to 2½ hours. A full overhaul, including several new tunnels and bridges, would cost $7 billion, but even that would only achieve a trip time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, with an average speed of 97 mph, Mr. Kummant said.

Building a dedicated line for high-speed service like France’s TGV would cost $10 billion, and that doesn’t include the amount that would have to be spent on real estate acquisition in some of the most urbanized parts of the country, Mr. Kummant said.

Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, the ranking Republican on the transportation panel, has long advocated creating European-style high-speed rail in the Northeast with private capital. He estimated yesterday that such a project would cost $32 billion.

Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, said that while there was no consensus on how high-speed service should be achieved, “that we get there is something that I think no one can dispute anymore.”

But Mr. Kummant said that overseeing a $32 billion project would be a serious challenge for Amtrak without significant changes in the organization.

The railroad is better equipped to handle projects in the vicinity of $200 million.

“If you wrote us a check today, if I were you, I would be very wary of the execution.”

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