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MBTA, Amtrak close to settling Northeast Corridor dispute that threatened to end Acela service to Boston

The two rail operators are telling a federal judge they're maybe a month away from resolving a $29-million dispute over the cost of Northeast Corridor service in Massachusetts.

US District Court Judge Mark Wolf today gave the two sides until next Thursday to either file a formal request to have him dismiss the case or explain why he shouldn't.

The MBTA sued Amtrak in January after an interstate commission voted to begin charging the T fees for service on the Northeast Corridor between Rhode Island and South Station, a similar arrangement to how Amtrak operates in other states along the Northeast Corridor.

The difference, though, is that, unlike in other states, Massachusetts owns the tracks rather than Amtrak.

The ruling would have superseded a cost-sharing agreement between the T and Amtrak, in which the T agreed to let Amtrak use its tracks at no charge and to control train dispatching - which gives Amtrak trains priority over MBTA commuter trains - in exchange for the T picking up maintenance costs for tracks and signals.

At one point, the court dispute grew heated enough that Amtrak said it would have to consider ending Acela service in Providence if the MBTA didn't start paying up.

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The ruling would have superseded a cost-sharing agreement between the T and Amtrak, in which the T agreed to let Amtrak use its tracks at no charge and to control train dispatching - which gives Amtrak trains priority over MBTA commuter trains - in exchange for the T picking up maintenance costs for tracks and signals.

So the T gives free track use and picks up the maintenance costs? Or does Amtrak pay for the maintenance/signals? It's hard to see what the T got out of the original arrangement.

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I'm assuming this was a typo and Amtrak is picking up the costs?

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I believe the arrangement is that Amtrak pays all maintenance costs above-and-beyond what the T would pay, since it runs trains twice as fast. Thus, for example, Amtrak pays for all of the electrical infrastructure, and a prorated amount for track (to account for the more intensive maintenance required for Class 8 track (160 mph) vs Class 4 (80 mph)).

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Refuses to run trains over 80 despite the track being good for 125+

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Most of the T's fleet isn't capable of going more than 80. And there's really no reason to. Stations are close enough together that on most trains it's a pretty constant start-stop anyway. It's not worth the extra cost to obtain higher speed equipment (which is also much more expensive to maintain) just to shave <5 minutes off the schedule.

Even once the T finally breaks down and buys electric stock for the Providence line, it's still probably not going to go faster than 80 or 90. No US commuter railroad other than MARC has ever been interested in going faster than that, even when the infrastructure is in place. And even MARC is replacing it's high-speed electrics with slow diesels because it isn't worth the hassle. NJT is the only other road I can think of that might go faster than that, on its Trenton expresses.

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Most of the T's fleet isn't capable of going.

(All snark directed at the MBTA, not your honorable self)

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It's not worth the extra cost to obtain higher speed equipment (which is also much more expensive to maintain) just to shave <5 minutes off the schedule.

It would be nice to have the ability to juice the trains over 80mph to make up time when behind schedule. That's "nice" in a vacuum -- without knowing (a) how much time you could really make up, and (b) what the incremental capital and operating costs would be.

Still, for commuter rail and for bus, being able to make up time to get closer to on-schedule is a really great thing.

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Higher-speed equipment would mean electric engines. Which are WAY cheaper to maintain and operate than diesels.

Electric engines don't just have a higher top speed. They have much better acceleration, which is important when there are a lot of stops.

Not to mention electrics are more reliable. The T's diesel locomotives break down an average of once a month.

In most countries, any rail line with even a moderate amount of ridership gets electrified, because it makes so much sense. The only downside is the cost of installing the wires. But that's already done on the Providence line.

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Correct on most points, which is why the T really needs to be moving towards electrics on the Providence line at the very least - acceleration. There are 125-mph-capable diesels though, and even Amtrak's Genesis diesels are capable of 110, so it doesn't necessarily need to be electric to be faster.

My comment about cost also wasn't referring to electric vs diesel, it was referring to the higher maintenance and inspection requirements to certify equipment and infrastructure for higher speeds.

However, electrics are NOT cheaper to maintain OR operate. Operation cost would be the big factor, and as MARC has shown us, usually come out in favor of diesels, so long as Amtrak owns the catenary. Their electric rates are pretty steep.

I'd also be hesitant to say they're more reliable. Look at Amtrak and MARC's HHP-8's, and Amtrak's now-retired AEM-7's. The T's equipment is just unreliable in general, and I doubt maintenance (and thus reliability) would be any better with electrics.

I agree completely that the Providence line needs to be electrified. I just want to point out that electrifying it likely wouldn't increase the speed at all for the T.

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The taxpayers will be paying the bill especially for the high priced lawyers on both sides.

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I'd rather all Americas pay the costs than just Massholes, and since we Massholes own the track, it seems worth the fight.

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