Friday, June 01, 2012

The Turbo Trains To Nowhere

Back when I was going to college in Albany, I had occasion to take Amtrak and from New York City. More than a few times, I was on a Turbo Train, which was faster than the standard service by about 10-15 minutes.

When Governor George Pataki was in office, he touted a proposal to upgrade the New York to Albany line for high speed rail and even had a deal in place with Amtrak to upgrade service, including refurbishing several of the Turbo trains for high speed service.

Well, needless to say, the project went off the rails. New York still lacks the high speed rail corridor, but the state is still on the hook for the costs of storing the four Turbo trains that it had obtained from Amtrak.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now dealing with the residual mess - and is going to be selling off the trains for scrap because they've been allowed to rust in place.
But the necessary track improvements never happened. Trains that the state paid $70 million to refurbish did not work. Then the state accused Amtrak of stealing several of them by towing them to Delaware and never bringing them back.

Four trains remain as monuments to the disastrous project. For years, the state paid more than $150,000 annually to rent a space to house the trains in Glenville, as well as a warehouse for spare parts in a Rotterdam industrial park.

“This is New York State’s $70 million train to nowhere,” said Howard B. Glaser, the director of state operations, who called the abandoned trains a glaring example of “waste and incompetence.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has made a priority of consolidating government offices and trying to sell surplus state property, from automobiles to state prisons. His administration says it has already netted more than $1 million via an eBay store.

On Thursday, his aides said they would now try to sell the unused trains and their spare parts, probably for scrap.

Even by Albany standards, the high-speed line offers a reminder of how a much-heralded government project can fall apart — literally, in the case of the boarded-up, weed-infested trains. The state is still paying off bonds that financed a portion of the train project, even though it never succeeded, said Robert L. Megna, the state’s budget director.
The track improvements never happened and that meant that the locomotives couldn't ever get up to speed. New York was forced to cover storage costs at more than $150,000 a year.

The fact is that had the tracks been upgraded, it would have represented a clear opportunity for high speed rail. The line was uniquely suited for the purpose - it's a high traffic route that feeds into the NEC at New York Penn Station, and could have served as a demonstrator route for upgrades elsewhere in the country. But the project was starved of funding and Amtrak botched its end of the project almost as badly as the state botched its side.

But at least I can say that I took one of those Turbo trains before they went off the rails.

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