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A commission has a $117 billion plan to modernize the Northeast Corridor. Here’s how it improves passenger rail.

Northeast Corridor Commission Executive Director Mitch Warren talks to The Post about the proposal.

A train makes its way out of Baltimore's Gilmore Street tunnel, part of the Baltimore & Potomac tunnel system. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
6 min

A federally appointed panel is urging ambitious, costly steps to modernize the passenger rail network between Washington and Boston to reduce chronic delays and improve travel times.

In a report released this summer, the Northeast Corridor Commission proposes a path for rebuilding the nation’s busiest rail corridor with a $117 billion investment that would cover more than 150 projects, including fixing the biggest chokepoints along the route. Officials say the 15-year vision, dubbed Connect NEC 2035, or C35, would bring travel times between Washington and New York, and New York and Boston, that are about 30 minutes faster.

Commission Executive Director Mitch Warren said the plan would get its biggest boost of funding from the infrastructure package that passed the Senate last month.

The bipartisan $1.2 trillion plan — which includes a record $66 billion for rail — would put passenger rail leaders in a position to move forward with major projects that lack funding. Among those would be replacement of the 148-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel in Maryland and the 111-year-old Hudson River Tunnel in the New York area.

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The NEC Commission, created by Congress about a decade ago, brings together officials from Amtrak, commuter railroads, and state and federal agencies to discuss strategies to improve the corridor. Warren spoke to The Washington Post about the plan and how the infrastructure package funding could shape it in the next decade.

The Washington Post: The commission has been around for just over 10 years. Why was it created?

Mitch Warren: Congress saw that the corridor wasn’t on a sustainable path. The demand for the commuter and intercity services was growing. At the same time, the infrastructure was aging and deteriorating, and of course, it is of great importance to the region and the nation. Pre-pandemic, it carried over 800,000 passengers a day on over 2,000 trains that were operated by nine different entities on track that had four different owners. So it’s an extremely complex system that had deteriorating infrastructure. Congress created the commission to bring some of the key stakeholders on the corridor together.

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The Post: What’s the state of the Northeast Corridor now?

Warren: I would say it’s challenged. It has aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced and modernized. It has capacity constraints that need to be addressed to be able to provide faster trip times. Amtrak and the other agencies have done an incredible job in maintaining very high levels of service despite the challenges they face. It’s critically important to make the investments needed to rebuild and modernize the Northeast Corridor.

The Post: What is the C35 plan and what are the most critical problems it addresses?

Warren: The corridor has seen disinvestment for many, many decades, since well before Amtrak took it over in the 1970s. We want to address the state-of-good-repair backlog. There are 15 major bridges and tunnels that are over 100 years old that fall into that state-of-disrepair backlog. And then there’s also the basic infrastructure: the track, signal systems, electric catenary systems that also are beyond their useful life in many cases. They need to be repaired or replaced.

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The Post: The priority is to repair the system?

Warren: That’s job one, to make sure that we save the service on the corridor. If these bridges and tunnels aren’t replaced, we may have to take one of them out of service, which would have massive disruptions on the corridor. So we want to get things replaced. We want to upgrade that basic infrastructure so we have much more reliable service.

Amtrak's Northeast Corridor stretches between D.C. and Boston. It's a busy stretch of railroad, with parts that date back almost 150 years. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

We also are addressing capacity constraints. There are many parts of the corridor that are at or near capacity, particularly in the New York region and south of Baltimore, between Baltimore and D.C. We’re looking to address some of those capacity needs, so we can have more reliable service and more frequent service.

The Post: How big of a problem are train delays in the corridor?

Warren: If you talk to riders, it’s a great source of frustration. The railroads, Amtrak and the commuter railroads, really do a great job in providing service that is mostly on-time — not as on-time as they would like or their passengers would like given the challenges. But they do a very good job of that. But year after year, infrastructure continues to be the number one cause of delays on the corridor.

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The Post: A central piece of C35 is addressing the passenger rail’s repair backlog. How big is the backlog?

Warren: It’s $40 billion-plus to replace [the aging infrastructure]. That includes the 15 bridges and tunnels. And it also includes the basic infrastructure. We’ve been starting to move away from having a number just because it’s a lot of complexities to putting a number on all these backlog needs. But that’s a broad estimate.

The Post: The 15-year C35 plan has a price tag of $117 billion. Where is the funding coming from?

Warren: This bipartisan infrastructure package, if it passes, it’ll be a game-changer for the corridor. That would be the biggest investment in the corridor in anyone’s memory. And that will get us off to a great start in moving these projects forward and implementing the C35 plan. It’s $66 billion for rail nationwide and a portion of that is for the Northeast Corridor — approximately $30 billion. When you look at the history of investment in the corridor over the past number of decades, nothing has come close to that.

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The Post: You mentioned one of the things this plan tackles is capacity. How is it going to expand capacity?

Warren: One important example is the Gateway project in New York-New Jersey. That’s going to build two new tunnels under the Hudson River. The expansion of Penn Station [in Manhattan] is part of that, as is replacing the Portal Bridge and building a new Portal South Bridge. There’s a number of projects in the New York region that will allow significant growth in both the Amtrak and commuter services between New Jersey and New York.

Another example is the Union Station project in D.C., which will add some capacity to the station.

The Post: Is there progress on some other of the 150 projects that are part of the C35?

Warren: Some are about to get started. There’s the Portal Bridge North in New Jersey. The B&P tunnel [in Baltimore]. That’s not ready to move to construction yet, but there’s a lot of ongoing work in planning and design.

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The basic infrastructure, that’s work that’s done every year. Replacement of track infrastructure, and the electric catenary poles and wires and the signal systems, is work that goes on every year. With C35 and with the funding that may be provided [from Congress], we’ll be able to ramp up and move forward in ways that get a lot more done each year.

If this infrastructure plan passes, [it] will provide the certainty needed for the agencies to make these investments.

The Post: What’s the risk if these investments are not made soon?

Warren: Certainly the reliability of services is very much at stake when you have an aging infrastructure — bridges and tunnels that are over 100 years old. The longer you go without replacing them, the more at risk you are of significant service disruptions, of train performance diminishing and potentially of a major failure. If the inspectors find problems and decided that a bridge or tunnel needed to be shut down for a significant repair for a long period of time, that would have major disruptions in the corridor.

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The Post: You have unveiled this big plan. What happens next?

Warren: Implementation certainly is one major endeavor that would be a major challenge for all of our members. If this infrastructure funding comes through, we’re going to see a need for a big ramp up in workforce and equipment and we’re going to have to make sure that we’ve carefully sequenced projects to maximize the productivity of track outages.

It’s important that we make these investments to rebuild and modernize the corridor so that we can continue to provide the service and significantly improve the service that we’re now providing.