GAO Criticizes Amtrak Management

Amtrak (search) didn't meet its goal of three-hour train service between Boston and New York because neither the railroad nor the government managed or oversaw the project effectively, congressional auditors said on Monday.

Congress in 1992 ordered the Transportation Department (search) to come up with a plan for reducing the train trip between the two cities from four hours to three hours or less.

A total of $3.2 billion was spent by Amtrak, state governments and other railroads for the project through March 2003. The trip now takes three hours, 24 minutes.

Congress' General Accounting Office (search) said in a report that Amtrak didn't develop a long-term plan, anticipate problems or coordinate with state governments and commuter railroads that use the same tracks.

"Amtrak's management was not comprehensive, and it was focused primarily on the short term," the report said.

Amtrak President David Gunn said in a letter that the report identified problems he's wrestled with since he took over in May 2002. He said he'd already adopted many of the management practices recommended in the report.

The report said the Federal Railroad Administration (search) didn't provide much oversight of the project, but that it didn't have the legal authority to do so. The GAO said the Railroad Administration should try to get a law passed that would give it such authority.

The agency said the Bush administration's proposed reforms of Amtrak - which would restructure the railroad to make it less dependent on federal money - would create an oversight program similar to that recommended by the GAO.

Amtrak had to do three things to cut the travel time between Boston and New York: electrify the railroad north of New Haven, buy high-speed trains and make such infrastructure improvements as straightening curves and replacing movable bridges.

The report said Amtrak focused on buying the trains and electrifying the line between Boston and New Haven. It has yet to make all the infrastructure improvements.

Gunn said the report ignored Amtrak's problems with contractors. For example, he said, the Justice Department is investigating a contractor for possible civil and criminal fraud violations arising from its work electrifying the Boston-to-New Haven line.

Gunn also said it is generally acknowledged that the only way to cut the travel time between New York and Boston is to offer nonstop service. Amtrak is now aiming to offer regular three-hour, 10-minute train service with stops between the two cities. Gunn said it isn't clear that shaving another 10 minutes off the trip would attract enough new riders to justify the cost of making the improvements required.