N.Y. express rail plan hits end of line

(The following article by Cathy Woodruff was posted on the Albany Times-Union website on May 28.)

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The state has abandoned any chance of finishing a fleet of seven Turboliner trains that were supposed to become the workhorses of a high-speed rail corridor envisioned by Gov. George Pataki between New York City and the Capital Region.

In a settlement reached last month, the state Department of Transportation agreed to pay Super Steel Schenectady $5,525,000 to end the project, cover any remaining costs and move four unfinished trains into storage at a nearby industrial park.

The payment is to supplement nearly $64.8 million already spent on Super Steel's work on rebuilding the 1970s-era Turboliners, including three completed trains, which Amtrak has mothballed in Delaware and claims are not suitable for service. The full settlement payment also is contingent on an extensive independent audit of the full project by DOT, which DOT officials said started about two weeks ago.

State Comptroller Alan Hevesi's office, which has issued two audits critical of the project, approved the settlement.

"We saw that it would have cost tens of millions of dollars more to complete the Turboliner project, and we were not sure that the state would get what was originally expected," said Hevesi spokesman Dan Weiler.

Weiler also cited the potential for protracted litigation with Super Steel over the failed project and Amtrak's decision to pull out of its deal with DOT.

Any remaining hopes that the $185 million high-speed rail program announced by Pataki in 1998 would come to fruition crumbled last year as Amtrak sidelined the only two reconditioned trains to be put into service -- citing problems with air conditioning and other issues -- and later moved all three completed trains in its possession to Delaware for storage.

In August, DOT sued Amtrak in federal court, claiming the railroad had failed to deliver on its promises to run the trains and complete track work necessary to allow the trains to reach their top speeds. The project was supposed to shave 20 minutes from the two hour and 20 minute travel time between Rensselaer and New York City.

DOT spokesman Peter Graves said Friday that the decision to settle was made to avoid racking up even more costs for storage or other reasons as the trains remained in Super Steel's possession and to minimize the potential for more litigation related to the Turboliner project.

He noted that Super Steel recently secured a new contract to build shells for light-rail passenger cars for Siemens Transportation Systems. The state's Empire State Development Corp. has approved a $500,000 grant to help Super Steel buy machinery and make any necessary changes to its plant to do the work.

"We knew that Super Steel was in line to get additional work," Graves said. "They had gotten another contract, and the train sets were taking up space. That would have ended up costing the state more money to keep them there when nothing was being done with them."

Under the settlement agreement, three trains in various stages of rehabilitation and a fourth train on which no work has been done are to be moved to Galesi Group property at Scotia Industrial Park, which is near Super Steel Schenectady's plant in Glenville.

As of Friday, the trains had been moved off of Super Steel property, Graves said, but he could not say whether they had yet reached the Galesi property. He also was unable to immediately say how much the state now will pay for storage of the trains.

The settlement divides possession of the disputed trains between the state and Amtrak.

Former state Transportation Commissioner Joseph Boardman furiously accused Amtrak of "stealing" the three completed trains when the railroad took them to Delaware.

On Friday, Amtrak officials did not respond to a request for comment on the state's move to take possession of the other four trains, which last were used as a part of Amtrak's fleet.

"We've taken responsibility for the train sets that were on Super Steel property to ensure that they are kept in good condition," said DOT's Graves, virtually echoing Amtrak's explanation in September that it had taken the three trains to Delaware "to maintain the safe keeping of the Turboliner train sets."

Officials at Super Steel's Wisconsin headquarters also did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005


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