Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor—the rail line that unifies the D.C.-to-Boston megalopolis, running through the downtowns of the great port cities and skimming through the coastal marshes between them—is going to get very wet, fairly soon. Bloomberg got a copy of a study on the effects of global warming, which the railway was reluctant to release, which described “the severe threat facing one 10-mile section of the 457 miles of track.”
That stretch, running through downtown Wilmington, Delaware, contains a cluster of vital railroad facilities, with water already creeping up on them, as Bloomberg’s reporting describes:
On a recent afternoon near Wilmington, Del., the danger already seemed imminent. North of the city, the distance between the tracks and the Delaware River was alarmingly narrow, even at low tide. Closer to downtown, puddles dotted the West Yard Substation, which powers this section of rail, as well as the Wilmington maintenance yard, one of the few in the country that can repair electric locomotives. Only a slender cobblestone footpath separated Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operations Center, which monitors and controls traffic along the corridor, from the edge of the Christina River. The single access road leading to Amtrak’s only training center for engineers was underwater on a day with no rain.
This is all very alarming, made even more alarming by the fact that Amtrak’s consultants were only studying the vulnerabilities of a tiny part of the system, and by the fact that Amtrak apparently felt compelled to have “de-emphasized the threat of climate change in its public documents, even scrubbing the phrase entirely from its most recent five-year strategic plan.”
But worrying about whether we can do enough planning to protect the integrity of Wilmington-area rail infrastructure is almost pointless. It amounts to another layer of denial, above the Amtrak official telling Bloomberg “We don’t see any fundamental risks to the integrity of the corridor” but far, far below the genuine extent of the problem.
“Elevation or relocation of the infrastructure is likely to be expensive, disruptive, or impractical,” an Amtrak spokesperson told Bloomberg. Expensive, yes; disruptive, yes. As for the practicality, though—
According to Bloomberg, the analysts who studied the Delaware flooding risk were working from “the premise that water levels around Wilmington would rise 2 feet by 2050,” which “reflects the median of possible warming scenarios.” There is no reason to expect 2050 to be anything but an early flood stage in the unchecked rise of the seas. Carbon emissions and global temperatures are still rising; sooner or later the Thwaites Glacier is going to collapse. To plan out the minimum plausible local intervention around the median warming scenario on a three-decade time scale is to ignore every meaningful practical dimension of the unfolding disasters.
Moving a section of railroad up and inland is not going to be the drastic logistical challenge of the 21st century. It is going to be an ordinary baseline necessity, one minor component in a comprehensive retooling of life and infrastructure. Whole cities will have to move up and in. Rail and transit, water and sewer, power and industry—none of it can stay put on the low ground. Nor, if there’s any hope of getting emissions under control, is the feeble, endangered Amtrak line more than a fraction of the transportation systems the country will need for its survival. The issue isn’t whether we can mobilize to keep rail service running through Wilmington without interruption. It’s whether there’s going to be a Wilmington at all.