Do We Really Want Amtrak Running Trains in MN?

Amtrak North Star line, Duluth, 1981.

MnDOT continues to move forward on plans to bring back passenger train service between the Twin Cities and Duluth-Superior. It’s an idea that’s already come and gone years ago. The government tried and failed at operating the North Star passenger line to Duluth-Superior in the late 1970s. But North Star shut down after seven short years in business back in 1985.

Now state planners want not only to revive the rebranded Northern Lights Express line but bring back its original operator, Amtrak. The government railroad corporation’s unblemished record of incompetence across the U.S. has only been further embellished in the decades since North Star went south on its watch.

But the controversy surrounding Amtrak’s most recent accident and the circumstances leading up to it raise a key question for MnDOT:  Do we really want Amtrak running trains in Minnesota?

Amtrak is coming under fire for its stewardship of the busy Northeast corridor after the railroad admitted Thursday that weakened crossties on one of its tracks at New York Penn Station resulted in the train derailment earlier in the week.

Amtrak Chief Executive Charles “Wick” Moorman apologized Thursday and promised to work with federal agencies and independent experts to improve maintenance at Penn Station, which the railroad owns and maintains.

Railroad officials, who inspect Penn Station’s rails every several days, had noted that the ties—the wooden supports beneath the tracks—were weakened, Mr. Moorman said at a news conference, but didn’t realize it would cause an “imminent” derailment.

“Clearly that was something that we got wrong,” he said.

To be clear, Amtrak knew about the structural problem in the rail line but failed to act on it. The derailment led to only minor injuries but knocked 8 of 21 tracks out of commission, creating chaos for hundreds of thousands of commuters this week. As a result, New Jersey Gov. Chris Chistie ordered the withholding millions of dollars in government payments to Amtrak pending a complete safety inspection of the system.

In his letter to Amtrak, Mr. Christie, a Republican, wrote that the derailments “indicate Amtrak does not take its obligations seriously and has not effectively applied NJ Transit’s considerable payments to the proper maintenance of these assets.”

Mr. Christie said NJ Transit pays Amtrak between $2.5 million and $5 million a month to help cover operating expenses on the Northeast corridor. He asked New Jersey’s attorney general to consider legal action to recover money paid by NJ Transit to Amtrak, including a $62 million payment the governor said was made last week to cover capital investments. Mr. Christie also encouraged members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation to hold hearings on Amtrak.

Amtrak’s Mr. Moorman said Thursday that he understands the governor’s frustration, but “withholding funds is not going to solve any problems.”

Actually, “withholding funds” would solve all conceivable problems before they even begin in the case of Northern Lights Express.