The audit blames weaknesses in Amtrak’s oversight of the $2.5-billion project as contributing to the delays and urges the company to come up with contingency plans and an assessment of operational and financial impacts.
“Project delays have eliminated any cushion in the schedule, and multiple indicators point to further delays beyond the planned service launch” in 2021, Jim Morrison, assistant inspector general for audits, said in the report sent to Amtrak this week.
Amtrak officials acknowledge an on-time launch next year would require all aspects of the program to proceed “nearly flawlessly,” the report said.
Any hiccups in the delivery of the trains and the supported infrastructure would result in delaying implementation of the highly anticipated program, costing Amtrak plans to sell more seats on its finest services and eventually millions of dollars in potential revenue.
Amtrak this week unveiled a video of the first new train, featuring a sleek modern exterior. The train is one of 28 trainsets the manufacturer, Alstom, is contracted to deliver by 2022. The first nine new trains were expected to begin replacing the current trains next year, but that number has already been reduced following delays in production, according to the report.
Alstom was behind schedule in delivering the first train, delaying inspection and testing. Amtrak in a release Wednesday said the train will be moved to a Federal Railroad Administration testing site in Colorado next month.
It is unclear, given the delays in production, testing and training, if the new trains will still debut January 2021, as originally scheduled. The IG report indicates that is unlikely.
The new trains for Amtrak’s premier service are a major overhaul for the passenger railroad’s service in the Northeast, the busiest rail corridor in the United States. The trains are expected to improve reliability, service, safety and capacity. Additionally, they will travel at top speeds of 160 miles an hour, up from 150 miles per hour, and will accommodate up to 386 passengers, an increase of 25 percent, according to Amtrak.
Amtrak received a $1.6 billion federal loan to purchase the new trains and another $850 million for maintenance of the trains and infrastructure projects that will allow the company to run the trains at higher speeds when they debut.
One of the projects included is the modification of maintenance facilities in Washington, New York and Boston. As of this month, the audit found, Amtrak has not set a construction start date or awarded a construction contract for the work. The contractor was expected to be in place last August. After a six-month delay in finalizing the design, the report said, Amtrak is now expediting the bidding process.
“Because of these delays, the company now has limited time to accommodate any unforeseen setbacks once construction begins,” the report said.
The inspector general cited failures within the organization to provide oversight of critical pieces of the program, including filling key positions that remained vacant for months and that were responsible for overseeing infrastructure projects. The project’s top leader was overburdened with multiple competing responsibilities, including handling all Northeast operations.
Amtrak officials said they disagreed with the report’s assumption that “managerial weaknesses” contributed to delays, instead blaming the manufacturer for any delays.
Earlier in the process, Alstom reported it was behind schedule because of redesign work to meet safety standards.
Before the new trains go in service, Amtrak is also required to create multiple IT systems, some of which are new and will need to be tested, the inspector general said, and may present additional challenges. The company also must allow significant time to train nearly 1,000 workers, including conductors and engineers, who will be working with the new trains.
“To date, the company has not finalized this training program but is working with Alstom to receive a train set in time to use for training,” the audit said.
Amtrak last week received a permit from the FRA to move the prototype train to the agency’s test track in Pueblo, Colo. The permit followed a letter from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), urging the federal agency to approve Amtrak’s request to move the train to the FRA facility to commence the federal inspection and testing of the train, which is critical for the project to stay on schedule and to kick off production of the rest of the fleet.
“I’m calling on FRA to fast-track Amtrak’s application, get testing underway and do everything possible to put these sorely-needed trains into service,” Schumer said in the letter. “These new trains will be a true win-win that will improve rail safety and maintain good-paying jobs in the Southern Tier.”
The Acela program is creating 750 jobs, including 400 at Alstom’s facility in Hornell, N.Y., where the trains are being built.
The report found that Amtrak has not “developed a full range of contingency plans, such as selectively reducing service on lower-demand Acela trains, and has not assessed their potential impacts. As a result, the company cannot make fully informed decisions about how to mitigate the impacts of delays, or whether to increase resources now to try to avoid some delays in the first place,” the report said.
To avoid potential overbooking, the report said, Amtrak has already decided not to sell additional tickets until it has the confidence that the trains will be ready.
“The company has concluded, however, that before it can sell tickets for the additional seats, it must have enough train sets to guarantee with 99 percent confidence that a new train set will be available for a particular timeslot in the Acela schedule,” the report said.
The investments in the Acela aim to grow one of Amtrak’s strongest lines. Ridership on the Acela grew by 4.3 percent in fiscal year 2019, compared with the previous year, and higher than the 2.9 percent growth on the Northeast Corridor and 2.4 percent growth on the company’s state-funded routes. Acela’s revenue also grew by about 5.4 percent, according to Amtrak.
In response to customer demand, Amtrak expanded Acela service last year with the addition of nonstop trips between Washington and New York and an additional Washington — New York — Boston round trip on Saturdays. The new nonstop Acela service between Washington and New York was billed as the start of an era of faster passenger service in the Northeast. The trip connects the nation’s two most powerful cities in two hours and 35 minutes, saving passengers about 15 minutes’ travel time. That time is expected to go down when the new trains are in place.
Roger Harris, Amtrak executive vice president and chief marketing and revenue officer, acknowledged that the program faces significant risks and delays, but challenged the report’s views about management failures.
Delivery and launch schedule are largely unchanged, Harris said in an letter addressed to the IG in response to the report. He said plans remain to get the first new train in service next year. Modifications to maintenance facilities are also on schedule, and the project’s leadership is “organized to achieve highest levels of transparency and effectiveness,” he said.
According to Amtrak, the first train has been successfully tested at the Alstom facility, and a second train will undergo testing in the Northeast Corridor this summer or fall.
“There remains an extraordinary amount of work ahead, and Amtrak management is confident that the proper resources are aligned to deliver this ambitious program on scope, schedule and budget,” he said.