Amtrak wasted millions on Delaware relocation plan: watchdog

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Amtrak wasted millions on Delaware relocation plan: watchdog

It’s a train wreck.

Amtrak shelled out tens of millions of dollars on a bungled scheme to relocate hundreds of workers to a building it bought for $41 million in Joe Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Del., the rail company’s official watchdog said in a report Friday.

The plan, billed in 2018 as the railroad’s Unified Operations Center (UOC), would have relocated hundreds of employees from across the country to a single downtown office building bought by the company in 2020.

Some 250 train dispatchers from Washington, New York, Chicago and Boston, as well as Amtrak Police officers, IT personnel and social media staffers were all supposed to make the building their home office, the report from Amtrak’s inspector general states.

Amtrak projected savings of up to $50 million that would have otherwise gone on leasing office space.

But the plan veered off track almost immediately, according to the report.

Dispatchers from Chicago, New York and Boston work hand-in-hand with local transportation authorities – including the Long Island Railroad – and weren’t able to relocate to Wilmington because of those partnerships.

The Joseph R. Biden, Jr. railroad station in Wilmington, Delaware.
The Joseph R. Biden, Jr. railroad station is in Wilmington, Delaware.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Just 40 dispatchers from outside Wilmington are now expected to relocate to the building.

The relocation plan also called for a “police communications theater” that would have required combining two floors to allow for large overhead display screens and tiered seating, the report says.

Just one problem, the watchdog says: Amtrak “did not confirm the structural feasibility of combining two floors of the building prior to purchasing the building” — and still does not know if the “communications theater” plan is even possible.

The railroad also planned to relocate or replace some 400 IT jobs, but that was put on hold because of the “significant operational disruption that would result from losing so many people with company-specific technology knowledge,” the report states.

Travelers, some with protective masks and others without, board an Amtrak train at Joseph R Biden Jr Railroad Station in Wilmington, Delaware, on April 22, 2022.
Approximately 35 dispatchers will work at the Wilmington Amtrak headquarters.
STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Now, no more than 35 IT positions are now expected to be headquartered in Delaware.

Amtrak, which now only requires a fraction of the building space, is working to retrofit the Wilmington tower at a cost of $37 million.

Biden, who was not involved in the disastrous program, has long advocated for Amtrak funding since he began riding the rails between Washington and Wilmington daily as a US senator.

As part of last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Biden’s signature policy achievement as president, Amtrak was to receive $66 billion in funding.

President Joe Biden
President Biden previously approved more than $60 billion in additional funding for Amtrak.
EPA/SHAWN THEW

Partly because of the Wilmington debacle, Amtrak has created a new group in its finance department to review proposed projects.

“These actions will likely be a positive contribution to the company’s aggressive capital planning goals, which are now made possible through the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” the inspector general’s report states.

In an emailed statement, an Amtrak spokesperson says the company “plans to update the program scope to reflect changes to its workplace due to the pandemic and has tasked the program sponsor with ensuring the UOC program follows the latest guidance for developing a sound business case as it considers making future funding requests.”

“Amtrak is currently waiting for the design firm to complete their assessment to determine how best to modify and retrofit the building and what costs are involved as well as determining what other valued engineered options may be viable before making any further determinations,” they added. 

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