Amtrak IG: Gateway project needs better management planning

Report questions railway's ability to implement $30 billion plan

Amtrak passengers walk through Union Station in Washington on June 1, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Amtrak passengers walk through Union Station in Washington on June 1, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 8, 2022 at 3:28pm

Amtrak’s Gateway Program to speed Northeast Corridor trains through an aging Hudson River bottleneck is poised for huge progress, but a report by the government-owned passenger railroad’s internal watchdog calls into question its ability to efficiently and effectively implement the $30 billion plan.

The report, released Tuesday, finds that while the company has begun hiring staff and building a schedule to manage the project, it hasn’t “fully developed a thorough program management framework that describes the processes its departments will follow and the tools they will use to manage the program now and in the years ahead.”

“Given the enormity of the company’s commitments over the next decade and the fact that major projects are already underway, the company has an opportunity now to build this framework to better prepare itself to succeed with the program,” Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General wrote in the report. 

In a statement, an Amtrak spokesman said the company is ” accelerating process improvements and will continue to incorporate best practices into the Gateway Program – efforts that had been underway prior to the OIG’s audit.”

As the project moves forward, the statement said, “Amtrak is also evolving and dedicating the resources necessary to meet our commitments to the Program, our partners and the nation.”

When completed, Gateway’s centerpiece, the Hudson Tunnel Project, will deliver an improved and expanded connection for 450 trains and 200,000 passengers every weekday between Newark, N.J., and Penn Station in New York City on commuter lines and Amtrak’s heavily used Northeast Corridor service.

That portion of the project will cost nearly $12 billion, including a $9.5 billion new tunnel under the Hudson River and a $1.8 billion overhaul of an existing 111-year-old tunnel. That portion of the project got a boost last month when the Biden administration gave it a “medium-high” rating, making it eligible for federal dollars.

The recent bipartisan infrastructure law includes money for the overall project, which is hoped to be completed by 2035.

In taking on Gateway, the IG found “the company is pivoting from primarily running a national passenger railroad for the past fifty years to also executing and managing its participation in an infrastructure program of this scale.”

“Successful transition into this dual role will take considerable forethought and planning, require new skill sets and expertise, and demand an enhanced level of program management,” the report found.  

Details missing

The report found that the current program management plan doesn’t contain details that the company and industry standards call for, including how the company plans to manage, monitor and control the program. Instead, the IG found, the management plan included “generic” descriptions of participating departments, rather than detailed plans identifying how the company will perform its work. 

Such a vague approach, the report found, puts the company at risk of managing the project in an “ad hoc way” that is reactive rather than proactive. The inspector general said prior work on other Amtrak projects identified planning deficiencies that later caused schedule delays, cost overruns and strains on partner relationships. 

The report specifically found three problems: First, Amtrak has not fully determined what sort of staffing is required to implement the program, nor has it developed plans to do so. The report found that the core Gateway team is understaffed and is being asked to do too much. 

Second, the IG reported, Amtrak has not determined how it will collect and communicate information on the program’s status to internal company stakeholders with responsibilities for the project. The inspector general, for example, identified instances when employees with responsibilities for the program and other decision-makers were unaware of the status of programs or particular projects in it. 

Finally, Amtrak has not assessed broader program risks that it faces as a result of the project, such as potential impacts to other company projects. While Amtrak has assessed risk to individual projects, its focus has been granular, but less global than it should be.

The report recommends that Amtrak build out its program management framework and assess current and future resource needs. It also recommended implementing communication protocols to manage how it will collect and distribute information about the program.