Intercity Passenger Rail:

Amtrak's Management of Northeast Corridor Improvements Demonstrates Need for Applying Best Practices

GAO-04-94: Published: Feb 27, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 8, 2004.

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In the 1990s, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) undertook the Northeast High-Speed Rail Improvement Project to make infrastructure improvements that would enable Amtrak to meet a statutory goal of providing 3-hour intercity passenger rail service between Boston and New York City. Amtrak shared responsibility for implementing the project with commuter rail authorities and state governments, and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) developed a master plan for the project and provided federal funds to Amtrak. GAO reviewed (1) the status of the project, (2) Amtrak's management of the project, (3) FRA's oversight of the project, and (4) best practices for managing future large-scale rail infrastructure projects.

Amtrak has not yet met the 3-hour trip-time goal established by the 1992 Amtrak Authorization and Development Act although electrified service between Boston and New York City was initiated in January 2000 and Amtrak began limited high-speed rail service in December 2000. Currently, this trip is scheduled to take 3 hours 24 minutes. Furthermore, 51 of 72 work elements that FRA identified in its 1994 master plan as necessary to reduce trip times (e.g., electrify tracks and acquire high-speed trains), enhance capacity (e.g., construct sidings), rebuild or extend the life of physical assets (e.g., replace bridges), or make other improvements are incomplete or their status is unknown. Fifteen of these work elements are on non-Amtrak owned sections of track and are important for achieving and maintaining 3- hour service as rail traffic increases over time. Through March 2003, Amtrak and others had spent about $3.2 billion on the project. Neither Amtrak nor FRA exercised effective management or oversight of the Northeast High-Speed Rail Improvement Project. Amtrak's management was not comprehensive, and it was focused primarily on the short term. Amtrak focused on managing the electrification and acquisition of new high-speed trains, and did not sufficiently address major infrastructure improvements needed to attain the trip-time goal. In addition, Amtrak did not fully integrate the interests of stakeholders (commuter rail authorities and state governments) into the project, even though work that involved them was critical to achieving 3-hour service. FRA served as a conduit for federal appropriations to the project but did not have the resources or the authority to oversee Amtrak's management of the project. Best practices--including comprehensive planning, risk assessment and mitigation, comprehensive financial management, accountability and oversight, and incorporation of diverse stakeholders' interests--provide a framework for effectively managing future large-scale intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects. These best practices have proved effective in managing large-scale infrastructure projects and could assist in managing future projects like the Northeast High-Speed Rail Improvement Project.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Over the past two years (fiscal years 2007 and 2008) the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has included a section in the Amtrak grant agreement that requires Amtrak to train program managers to use best practices in managing major projects. FRA has also required Amtrak to provide monthly project status reports which allow FRA to monitor progress in project management practices. According to FRA officials, they meet at least quarterly with Amtrak officials to discuss project status, problems, and potential actions to correct problems. Finally, applications under the Capital Assistance to States-Intercity Passenger Rail Service Program (a capital grant program initiated by FRA in March 2008) must include a federal Form SF-424 in which applicants must commit to provide institutional, managerial, and financial resources necessary to properly plan, manage, and complete a project funded under the program.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federally funded major intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects are implemented as effectively as possible and to better ensure the protection of federal investments in such projects, the Secretary of Transportation should, subsequent to a clarification of the oversight authority of the Federal Railroad Administration, direct the Federal Railroad Administrator to require managers of major intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects to monitor the projects' implementation and, where appropriate, to develop project-level recovery plans once problems arise that threaten the projects' costs, schedules, or implementation or completion. Each plan should identify, at a minimum, the actions to be taken, the individuals or organizations responsible for the actions, the expected outcomes, and an implementation time frame.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Railroad Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Over the past two years (fiscal years 2007 and 2008) the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has included a section in the Amtrak grant agreement that requires Amtrak to train program managers to use best practices in managing major projects. FRA has also required Amtrak to provide monthly project status reports which allow FRA to monitor progress in project management practices. Finally, applications under the Capital Assistance to States-Intercity Passenger Rail Service Program (a capital grant program initiated by FRA in March 2008) must include a federal Form SF-424 in which applicants must commit to provide institutional, managerial, and financial resources necessary to properly plan, manage, and complete a project funded under the program.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federally funded major intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects are implemented as effectively as possible and to better ensure the protection of federal investments in such projects, the Secretary of Transportation should, subsequent to a clarification of the oversight authority of the Federal Railroad Administration, direct the Federal Railroad Administrator to require managers of major intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects to adopt elements of the best practices framework, including the development of project management plans and financial plans and the assessment of risks to such things as the projects' costs, schedules, and implementation and completion. The risk assessment should identify measures, as appropriate, to mitigate the risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2005, the Administration proposed to Congress the Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act. This act, which was not enacted by Congress, included provisions that specified the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) responsibilities for oversight of major intercity passenger rail projects and would have created a program management oversight program modeled after that used by the Federal Transit Administration. The act would also have provided for a specified take-down of annual appropriations to fund this program management oversight program. The Department of Transportation Appropriations Act, 2008, Division K, currently permits FRA to take one-quarter of 1 percent of Amtrak's capital and debt service appropriation for the purpose of oversight of the design and implementation of capital projects funded by FRA in fiscal year 2008. Although a formal program management oversight program was not authorized by Congress, the Department of Transportation did seek such authority in 2005 as called for in the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the future oversight of federally financed, large-scale intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects, the Secretary of Transportation seek legislation authorizing it to establish a project management oversight-like program to oversee these types of projects in the future. The legislation should establish a funding mechanism to finance the program established by the Federal Railroad Administration. Among the mechanisms available is direct appropriation or a statutorily limited set-aside of funds appropriated for designated Federal Railroad Administration programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2005, the Administration proposed to Congress the Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act. This act, which was not enacted by Congress, included provisions that specified the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) responsibilities for oversight of major intercity passenger rail projects and would have created a program management oversight program modeled after that used by the Federal Transit Administration. The act would also have provided for a specified take-down of annual appropriations to fund this program management oversight program. The Department of Transportation Appropriations Act, 2008, Division K, currently permits FRA to take one-quarter of 1 percent of Amtrak's capital and debt service appropriation for the purpose of oversight of the design and implementation of capital projects funded by FRA in fiscal year 2008. Although a formal program management oversight program was not authorized by Congress, the Department of Transportation did seek such authority in 2005 as called for in the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the future oversight of federally financed, large-scale intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects, the Secretary of Transportation seek legislation authorizing it to establish a project management oversight-like program to oversee these types of projects in the future. The legislation should require the Federal Railroad Administrator to develop regulations for administering the project management oversight-like program and to specify the requirements for complying with such a program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Railroad Administration

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2005, the Administration proposed to Congress the Passenger Rail Investment Reform Act. This act, which was not enacted by Congress, included provisions that specified the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) responsibilities for oversight of major intercity passenger rail projects and would have created a program management oversight program modeled after that used by the Federal Transit Administration. The act would also have provided for a specified take-down of annual appropriations to fund this program management oversight program. The Department of Transportation Appropriations Act, 2008, Division K, currently permits FRA to take one-quarter of 1 percent of Amtrak's capital and debt service appropriation for the purpose of oversight of the design and implementation of capital projects funded by FRA in fiscal year 2008. Although a formal program management oversight program was not authorized by Congress, the Department of Transportation did seek such authority in 2005 as called for in the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the future oversight of federally financed, large-scale intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects, the Secretary of Transportation seek legislation authorizing it to establish a project management oversight-like program to oversee these types of projects in the future. The legislation should specify the Federal Railroad Administration's responsibilities for the oversight of federal expenditures on major intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects and permit as necessary, to oversee such projects, the establishment and implementation of a project management oversight-like program at the Federal Railroad Administration similar to that authorized by the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Act of 1987.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Railroad Administration

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In October 2004, Amtrak developed construction management procedures related to its fire and life safety infrastructure project. This is an on-going infrastructure project to improve ingress and egress in the rail tunnels into and out of New York City. The procedures address project initiation, planning, execution, change control, financial management, and issues management, among other things. According to the procedures, they are applicable to all fire and life safety projects valued at $3 million or more. Although these procedures should help Amtrak more efficiently and effectively manage major infrastructure projects, they do not address stakeholder issues. The procedures are geared more for project execution and management, not whether all stakeholders have been consulted, whether stakeholder concerns and interests have been incorporated into project plans, or whether stakeholders have approved project plans.

    Recommendation: To ensure that any future federally funded major intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects that might be undertaken by Amtrak are implemented as efficiently and effectively as possible, the President of Amtrak should work with Amtrak's Board of Directors to adopt policies and procedures to help ensure that appropriate stakeholders, especially those external to Amtrak, are included in project planning, decision making, implementation, and, where appropriate, mechanisms to indicate stakeholders' agreement with or approval of project management and financial plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Railroad Administration

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In October 2004, Amtrak developed construction management procedures related to its fire and life safety infrastructure project. This is an on-going infrastructure project to improve ingress and egress in the rail tunnels into and out of New York City. The procedures address project initiation, planning, execution, change control, financial management, and issues management, among other things. According to the procedures, they are applicable to all fire and life safety projects valued at $3 million or more. Amtrak has created a Fire and Life Safety/Capital Construction Planning and Integration Group to audit compliance with the procedures and resolve problems with non-compliance. Amtrak is also in the process of developing a computer-based training program based on the fire and life safety procedures that will be required of all Amtrak and third-party construction project managers. Once deployed, all Amtrak employees involved with construction management will be required to take this course and show proficiency in the subject matter. Concerns about these procedures are whether they will be applied to all major infrastructure projects undertaken by Amtrak, whether program-level recovery plans are required by the procedures, and the extent of accountability mechanisms incorporated into the procedures.

    Recommendation: To ensure that any future federally funded major intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects that might be undertaken by Amtrak are implemented as efficiently and effectively as possible, the President of Amtrak should work with Amtrak's Board of Directors to adopt policies and procedures for managing infrastructure projects that are based on best practices for managing large-scale infrastructure projects, and require adherence to such policies and procedures before approving or initiating significant changes to such projects. These policies and procedures should include preparation of comprehensive project management plans that are updated as needed; preparation of comprehensive project financial plans that are updated at least annually; and requirements for assessing a project's risks and the methodologies for performing such assessments. The assessments should be comprehensive and include those risks that can be reasonably foreseen before construction begins. When warranted, a risk assessment should be prepared before a project is approved and updated as conditions indicate, and it should include measures to mitigate the potential identified risks. The risk assessment should clearly indicate the potential effects of the different types of risks that could be encountered, and especially how those risks could affect a project's costs and schedules. These policies and procedures should also include preparation of program-level recovery plans. The policies and procedures should establish the conditions under which these plans would be prepared and the elements they would include. Finally, these policies and procedures should include mechanisms to ensure accountability for a project's success. Such mechanisms should clearly indicate the individuals responsible for implementing the project, the expectations for their performance and the ways their performance will be measured, and the potential consequences for failing to meet expectations.

    Agency Affected: National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK)

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Federal Railroad Administration has taken action related to Amtrak by requiring Amtrak manager to receive training in capital project management best practices and is monitoring actions on a monthly and quarterly basis regarding implementation of these best practices. Under the Capital Assistance to States-Intercity Passenger Rail Service Program FRA is placing heavy emphasis on project management elements, including developing detailed project scope, schedule, and risk management practices. FRA indicated it will develop more detailed guidance on project management should Congress enact a program for major intercity infrastructure capital projects. Such a program does not currently exist.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federally funded major intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects are implemented as effectively as possible and to better ensure the protection of federal investments in such projects, the Secretary of Transportation should, subsequent to a clarification of the oversight authority of the Federal Railroad Administration, direct the Federal Railroad Administrator to develop guidance, based on best practices, and make it available to states, railroads, and others to assist in managing large-scale intercity passenger rail infrastructure projects. The guidance could cover the preparation of such things as project management and finance plans, risk assessments, and recovery plans that address issues that threaten projects' costs, schedules, or implementation or completion.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Railroad Administration

 

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