AmeriStar eyes Amtrak’s Northeast Hall

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Good afternoon everyone,

A start-up with Delaware roots wants to take on the daunting task of privatizing Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

AmeriStar Rail was co-founded by transportation activist Scott Spencer, Wilmington corporate attorney Neil Glassman, one of Amtrak’s early presidents, and a long-time commuter rail manager

Its low-tech plan calls for the federally-owned passenger carrier to lease the line that runs from Washington-D.C. to Boston. That’s quite a contrast from Tesla founder Elon Musk’s hyperloop tunnel strategy, which based on one map. largely bypassed Delaware.

AmeriStar would add 30 additional stops and reduce big city bottlenecks.

Spencer recently outlined AmeriStar Rail’s vision at a meeting of the Delmarva Rail Passengers Association.

According to Spencer, northern Delaware, already a hub for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor operations, would play a bigger role, thanks to centralized maintenance in the state.

The expanded service would include several stops a day at Newark’s new rail station and add neighboring Elkton, MD. Other stops would be made in suburban Philadelphia and near JFK airport in New York.

The plan could save billions of dollars in upgrades at Amtrak’s congested hubs in Washington, DC, and New York.

AmeriStar Rail would seek private financing for billions in improvements and then pay Amtrak to operate on the corridor.

How AmeriStar’s proposal will fare before the Biden-Harris Administration remains unclear.

Until the pandemic, the Northeast Corridor was coming close to breaking even on an operating basis. It still needs billions of dollars from taxpayers to upgrade century-old bridges and tunnels. Recent presidents of Amtrak have been less sentimental about rail traditions and cut costs.

Upgrades can be costly. The recently completed third-rail expansion in the Newark area will better accommodate SEPTA commuter service and Amtrak but ended up costing $72 million, due to a bridge replacement, electrification and other costs. Both the feds and the State of Delaware kicked in funds.

For reasons like the one listed above, passenger rail service nearly always operates at a loss once capital costs are included.

It is unlikely that “Amtrak Joe,” who took the train back and forth from D.C. for decades as the state’s U.S. Senator, is a fan of privatization.

The proposal might get a warmer reception from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Based on his presidential campaign’s focus, “Mayor Pete” is receptive to new ideas.

While still in survival mode, Amtrak still has big plans of its own. It’s equally clear that Delaware will remain a focal point of its operations. Not long ago the railroad acquired a downtown Wilmington office building.

The AmeriStar Rail proposal comes with some good ideas that deserve consideration in Biden’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure plans.

Whether new thinking can percolate into a railroad that for nearly a half-century has led a hand-to-mouth existence at the hands of Congress and often reluctant White House occupants remains to be seen.

Here’s to a peaceful weekend. We’ll see you on Monday. – Doug and Sharon Rainey

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