Archive for High-Speed Rail

One proposal for the Northeast Corridor involves spurs from Long Island to Connecticut.

One proposal for the Northeast Corridor involves spurs from Long Island to Connecticut.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve analyzed and debated the future of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, but we haven’t focused much on the ties that bind them together. If the city wants to rebuild a grand Penn Station by moving Madison Square Garden and expanding rail capacity under the Hudson River, we cannot ignore the implications for intercity rail. Whatever happens at Penn Station must involve some expansion of intercity rail.

As the Northeast Corridor remains the country’s hot spot for jobs and Amtrak’s most profitable route, the feds have their eyes on it. Over a year ago, the Federal Railroad Administration launched the NEC Future initiative. It’s comprehensive planning attempt to “define, evaluate and prioritize future investments in the Northeast Corridor.” It’s designed to promote growth in intercity, commuter, and freight rail services. I’d be a little wary of the feds handling such a project, but ultimately they hold the keys to the NEC future.

Earlier this week, NEC Future released its preliminary report [pdf], and at the least, it contains some interesting proposals and discussion points. Presenting 15 alternatives in four different buckets, the plan essentially asks which, if any, approach we should take to improving upon NEC rail, but ultimately I think a combination of all four would be best for the region.

From the start, some of NEC Future’s findings aren’t a big surprise. The spine of the Northeast Corridor runs from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and the vast majority of rides focus around those four cities. Here’s the key fact: Only 9 percent of all trips begin either north or south of New York and end on the other side of New York. We are the choke point, the bottleneck and the destination at the same time. But with auto traffic and congestion unsustainable and air travel plagued with problems, we need rail expansion.

With Amtrak focused on the Gateway Tunnel and high-speed rail, the FRA has its eye on some local routes. It is proposing “off-spine” connections that would bridge current service gaps. For example, one plan has trains running from New York City to Nassau County and under the Long Island Sound to Stamford while a comparable plan involves running through to Suffolk and north to New Haven. Such a route may not be the most direct connection, though, and that’s a real concern. If we’re building out Northeast Corridor connections, they have to make sense.

Ultimately, the FRA would love to realize an ambitious regional plan that involves all four of the buckets it proposes in this week’s document. Infrastructure along the NEC spine should reach that ever-elusive state of good repair while regional service should increase. Meanwhile, a second high-speed rail spine should emerge while additional spurs should be built out as well. Washington-New York-Boston routes could traverse multiple cities across multiple routes.

Now, it might not make sense to pursue such a route. Trains running, for example, from New York to New Haven via Long Island won’t have long-distance travelers, but regional rail could pick up the slack. As it stands now, Long Island travelers heading to Connecticut have no choice but to pass through New York, and a direct tunnel would be a huge time-saver. The other connections — through Delmarva or beyond D.C. — may be beneficial but not to the same extent.

The next steps here involve EIS analyses, but the key discussions are still premature. That is, of course, one focusing around costs. Does it make sense to dig a few tunnels under the Long Island Sound? Should we spend the money instead on high-speed rail with only a few stops between Washington and Boston? How can we pay for all of this anyway? For now, the FRA doesn’t have to pretend to entertain these questions, but it always looms. Today, we dream; tomorrow, we have to pay for it all.

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As Amtrak pushes forward on its absurdly expensive high-speed rail plan, the rail carrier is enjoying some record high ridership. Amtrak announced yesterday 11 consecutive months of record ridership, and they anticipate that, when September ends, the national rail carrier will top its previous fiscal year record of 30.2 million passengers, set in 2011. “All across America the demand to travel by Amtrak is strong, growing and undeniable,” President and CEO Joe Boardman said in a statement. “Amtrak continues to deliver on its mission to fulfill a vital national transportation need and does so with improved management and financial health.”

Since the early part of the 2000s, Amtrak has seen its usage soar. Ridership has increased by 44 percent over 2002 with a lot of growth centering around the Northeast Corridor. Still, the agency is in a political fight for funding and an economic fight for high-speed rail dollars. On the one hand, I don’t blame politicians for eying Amtrak’s finances as they’ve never been too robust or cost-effective. On the other, Amtrak has suffered from years of underinvestment, and the nation’s rail network lags far behind those of our economic competitors.

A serious discussion on rail investment has so far eluded federal politicians. Some states have given up high-speed rail dollars and plans while others are clamoring for them. Without a comprehensive plan with costs that make sense, we’ll be left spinning our proverbial wheels. Meanwhile, the demand for Amtrak is there and growing. It’s time to capitalize.

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Nice map.

In the Executive Summary to its most recent report on high speed rail along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak admits that it may be grasping at straws. For the small cost of $151 billion, the rail giant says it could deliver a 37-minute trip between Philly and New York or a 94-minute trip between Boston and the Big Apple by 2040. Maybe.

“While it is likely infeasible for the full program to be realized by 2040,” the report says, “these elements of the program that have the biggest impacts on improving reliability, increased capacity and reduced trip-time should be strategically advanced as quickly as funding and program management resources will allow, to strengthen revenue and financial performance, thereby creating additional available capital for further program improvements.”

That’s a mouthful of jargon, but it basically says that Amtrak is reaching for the sky here. They have a proposal with costs that are both literally and figuratively insane; they have an aggressive timeline; and they have no clear fiscal path between today’s Point A and 2040′s Point B. I guess if you don’t ask, you can’t get anywhere, but sometimes, it may make sense to step back and assess the request first.

Amtrak’s report hit the Internet early last week, and I hadn’t had much time to digest it. For those who care to read the whole thing, you can download the pdf right here. It’s not quite the most compelling work of fiction I’ve read this summer, but it does get some points for creativity. It is essentially a combination of Amtrak’s 2010 proposal and its Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan. By combining two projects into one, Amtrak has ostensibly cut costs by nearly $20 billion while the overall pricetag remains high.

As a top-line summary, the costs breakdown like so: Amtrak is proposing nearly $19 billion for infrastructure upgrades; $14.7 billion for Gateway; $51.4 billion for high-speed rail between New York and D.C.; $58 billion for HSR between New York and Boston; and another $7.6 billion in rolling stock and maintenance facilities. These costs include six new stations, a few new water crossings, Moynihan Station, some right-of-way reconfigurations and some right-of-way acquisition costs. It’s a phased project that is moving forward as we speak, but it’s also designed to deliver incremental improvements. That 37-minute trip to Philadelphia should be 62 minutes by 2020, but it could also stay at 62 minutes for the foreseeable future.

Already, politicians are lining up behind the project. In a statement, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey voiced his support. He will soon begin pushing legislation forward that is designed to deliver dollars for Amtrak. “Investing in our railways will create jobs, bolster businesses, and take cars off of our congested roads,” he said in a statement. “Amtrak will continue to have my full support as we move forward to revolutionize passenger rail travel in the Northeast.”

But should we embrace this proposal? We’re looking at a pricetag of over $200 million per kilometer of construction or $320 million per mile. Considering much of the right-of-way is already in place, those costs are, as I mentioned, insane. While bringing HSR to the Northeast Corridor is a goal that should be supported, at some point, we as a country have to step back and examine why these things costs so much more than anywhere else in the developed world.

Last week, Alon Levy looked at this proposal and tried to find a cheaper solution. He issued a full set of affordable recommendations for 90 percent less. This includes a focus on rolling stock and straightening out existing deficiencies. He also called the cost savings from the combined HSR/Master Plan proposal spurious at best. As many have speculated, Amtrak’s proposal may very well be an attempt to avoid a turf war with regional rail carriers, but it’s still a pie-in-the-sky idea that likely won’t and probably shouldn’t become a reality.

Transportation Nation called Amtrak’s bluff. Alex Goldmark wrote: “The document is an argument for why there should be and it is a detailed plan for how it could come to be — a transportation straw horse for political times hostile to megaprojects.” Maybe it could be a starting point for a serious discussion on high-speed rail, but maybe it’s a sign that we can’t have nice things on a grand scale in the Northeast.

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Amtrak released its 2012 agenda today. You can read the press release in all of its PDF glory right here. One of the key initiatives concerns its profitable Northeast Corridor service, and I wanted to highlight it for a brief moment. Says the press release:

160 MPH HSR UPGRADES IN NEW JERSEY In 2012, Amtrak will advance design, engineering and other pre-construction activities for a $450 million project funded by the federal high-speed rail program that will boost top train speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph along a 24-mile section of the NEC between Trenton and New Brunswick, New Jersey. The project supports the goals of the Gateway Program and includes upgrading track, electrical power (frequency converter capacity and additional substations), signal systems and overhead catenary wires to permit the faster speeds and also reconfigures track switches at the western entrance to New York Penn Station to mitigate congestion issues. Major construction work will begin in 2013 with project completion expected in 2017.

So let me get this straight. Amtrak is going to spend nearly half a billion to improve their trains’ top speeds by 25 miles per hour along a 24-mile-long section of track. And it’s going to take another five years for this project to finish. No wonder an American high-speed rail line — let alone an entire network — can’t get off the ground.

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When Florida decided to eschew $2 billion in federal funds for high-speed rail, many in the northeast wanted to claim that money. After all, to some, it made more sense to focus the money in one profitable location instead of spreading small grants all over. The federal government seems to be on board with that idea as well as earlier this week, the US DOT awarded $745 million to the northeast for its high-speed rail plans.

Of those dollars, nearly $450 million will go toward electrical systems and track upgrades between Trenton and New York City which will allow for operating speeds of 160 mph and top speeds of 186. The remaining $294 million will go toward the Harold Interlocking project which according to DOT will “alleviate major delays for trains coming in and out of Manhattan with new routes that allow Amtrak trains to bypass the busiest passenger rail junction in the nation.”

Work on both projects will start next year. “These grants are a win for our economy and a win for commuters all along the Northeast Corridor,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “We are creating new construction jobs, ordering American-made supplies and improving transportation opportunities across a region where 50 million Americans live and work.” Now about the rest of the $125 billion it’s going to take to bring true high-speed rail to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor…

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Florida’s loss has become New York’s gains. When the Sunshine State’s Governor Rick Scott declined $2 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail, northern leaders leapt at the opportunity to secure the money, and today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that $785 million of Florida’s spoils will be distributed to Northeast Corridor projects and another $150 million will fund non-Northeast Corridor improvements. This funding will help lay the groundwork for high-speed rail through the region.

“President Obama and Vice President Biden’s vision for a national rail system will help ensure America is equipped to win the future with the fastest, safest and most efficient transportation network in the world,” LaHood said at a presser this morning. “The investments we’re making today will help states across the country create jobs, spur economic development and boost manufacturing in their communities.”

As part of the morning’s announcement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined what New York plans to do with its $354.4 million. As part of the Northeast Corridor upgrades, $295 million to fund a project to replace the Harold Interlocking in Queens. Doing so will alleviate major delays as LIRR and Amtrak trains coming into and out of Manhattan compete for space. A new interlocking system will allow Amtrak trains to bypass what the feds called “the busiest passenger rail junction in the nation.” The $295 million represents the entire amount requested by the MTA for this project.

The remaining $59.4 million will go toward Empire Corridor Capacity improvements and a new intermodal station in Rochester. The state planes to construct a fourth station track at Albany/Rensselaer and replace the Schenctady station as well. By eliminating these bottlenecks, the state can set the stage for high-speed rail.

“New York stands ready to use this federal money to rebuild our transportation infrastructure, expand high speed rail, and put New Yorkers back to work. In April I applied for federal grant money to fund promising projects that would push New York’s high-speed rail plans forward and create jobs,” the governor said in a statement. “Today, the US Department of Transportation awarded New York $354.4 million for three projects. These initiatives have tremendous potential and will be a significant factor in ushering our economy and transportation system into the 21st century.”

Of course, despite these grant awards, one key aspect of the northeast high-speed rail plan is lacking. None of these awards will go toward constructing a new trans-Hudson tunnel, and the fact was not lost upon New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Prior to the press event this morning, he was caught on tape saying how Xanadu dollars should have gone to the ARC Tunnel but was thrilled by the federal grants anyway. “If you want to award hundreds of millions of dollars for high-speed rail,” said New York’s senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, “you need not ask New York twice.”

For more on the grants, check out the following: Gateway Gab breaks down how the remaining Northeast Corridor dollars will be spent while the DOT press release lists the other grant awards California and the Midwest will gain the bulk of the remainder of the federal funds that Florida gave up earlier this year. Ever so slowly, high-speed rail is coming into view.

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In a letter Senator Frank Lautenberg sent earlier this week, Ray LaHood, President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, announced that the popular Northeast Corridor has been designated as the 11th and final High-Speed Rail corridor. As Transportation Nation noted, this designation means that Amtrak can now apply directly for high-speed rail funds, and the states do not have to go through the process of applying for funding for individual segments. As Senator Robert Menendez said on Twitter, the NEC is now eligible to apply for the $2.4 billion in federal funding Florida is in the process of sacrificing.

It always made sense to designate the Northeast Corridor as one eligible for high-speed rail, and it’s kind of surprising it’s taken this long. Amtrak’s Acela service is the most popular and profitable in the nation, and improving that service would reduce auto traffic between Washington, D.C, and Boston as well as air traffic. That the feds are coming together around such a plan is a positive sign indeed.

Of course, plenty of challenges remain though. Amtrak would have to fast-track the Gateway Tunnel and could do so with federal funds. But acquisition costs for land around the corridor will be high. In fact, when Amtrak unveiled its high-speed rail plans for the Northeast Corridor in the fall, the pricetag was a stunning $4.7 billion a year for 25 years. This designation is a great first step, but it’s only that. High-speed rail through New York City remains just a good idea on paper.

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Some politicians believe the federal government should invest heavily in high-speed rail in the northeast.

When Amtrak unveiled its $117 billion plan to bring high-speed rail to the Northeast Corridor, I was highly skeptical of the project’s ever seeing the light of day. To build this corridor, nearly 500 miles long, would take 25 years and a ridiculous amount of commitment and cooperation from forces too skeptical of widespread rail expansion. It is, however, an idea that won’t and shouldn’t die.

When Mayor Bloomberg spoke of the region’s transportation crisis last week, he did single out only airports. “The Northeast is approaching a transportation crisis,” the mayor said at a House hearing in Grand Central. “Our airports are among the most clogged, our highways are among the most congested, and our train corridor is the most heavily used in the country. And all of that is just going to get worse, as the region’s population is expected to grow by 40 percent by 2050.”

Bloomberg isn’t the only one pushing for transportation expansion in the area, and many politicians representing both sides of the aisle up and down the corridor have begun to urge the Obama Administration to focus its high-speed rail investments in the northeast and along the Northeast Corridor. This is, after all, the densest region of the nation and the one that stands to benefit the most from high-speed rail.

During his testimony last week, the mayor criticized the government’s current investment plan. With projects in Florida, California and the Midwest garnering headlines, the Northeast Corridor has taken a backseat in Washington with only one percent of federal HSR funds coming our way. “That simply just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “What we need is a new approach to spending transportation money — one that is not dictated by politics, but based on economics.”

This area is in fact the biggest economic hub in the country, and without a solution to the congestion and transportation crisis, the U.S. economy could begin to feel a strain. As Crain’s New York noted, “The northeast corridor is an ideal place to invest in high-speed rail because its 50 million residents produce 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product.”

Others at the hearing, as Transportation Nation reported, took up Bloomberg’s calls. Kate Hinds wrote:

[Transportation Committee Chair John] Mica Mica had harsh words for Amtrak, saying that federally-funded rail provider is not the entity that will bring America to the promised land of a fast train that will bring passengers from New York to Washington in under two hours.

“Let me tell you — this is my 19th year of following Amtrak — (it will) never be capable of developing the corridor to its true high-speed potential,” he said. “The task is too complex and too large-scale, and can only be addressed with the help of private sector expertise…and also (Amtrak) will never get the funding for it with the plan they’ve currently proposed.”

…It seemed like everyone was on board with prioritizing Boston-to-Washington. As Governor Rendell said: “Making significant investments in the Northeast Corridor to achieve true high speed rail must be our number one priority. No other corridor in the country has the population density and ridership as well as the economic wherewithal to result in successful and likely profitable, high speed rail line….The Northeast Corridor will demonstrate the value of these investments to our entire nation.”

If anything is going to get this project off the ground, it must be a concerted effort from D.C., Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island too. High-speed rail requires immense space; for instance, it needs 16 miles of straight, flat track to reach 200 miles per hour, and routes must be as straight as possible. Considering the density in the areas, it’s a tall order indeed.

Again I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for this route to materialize, but much like addressing the airport problem should be a regional concern, so too should high-speed rail. It’s a part of the package of upgrades that must be made to keep the northeast running smoothly and to keep our economy competitive with nations currently investing heavily in this technology. It would be stimulus spending at its best, but does the political will exist to fund something of this magnitude?

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By 2040, travel along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor could be among the pleasures of rail in this country. According to a report released by Amtrak today, if the agency has its druthers, high-speed travel between New York and Washington would take just 96 minutes, and the trip to Boston from New York would last just 84 minutes. It is the dream of rail planners throughout the region.

There is, of course, just one teeny tiny catch: This initiative would involve at least $4.7 billion in annual investments over the next 25 years for a price tag of over $117 billion. The project would involve new tunnels into and out of New York City, Baltimore and Philadelphia as well as extensive rights of way expansions in Connecticut and new station complexes from Washington to Boston. This Next-Generation High Speed Rail would improve speeds of commuter trains from today’s average of 75 miles per hour to 140 with a top velocity of 220 miles per hour, but the project remains unfunded. It’s future cannot be a bright one.

In an extensive planning document (linked above), Amtrak talks about the various routings and infrastructure that would be into such a plan. The rail company would have to build out various rights of ways to ensure that the train route from Washington to Boston is as straight as possible. The trains, says Amtrak, require approximately 5 miles of acceleration over 16 miles of straight, flat track to reach speeds of 200 miles per hour, and the alignment constraints are tremendous.

Despite the price tag, the economics, says Amtrak, would make a Next-Generation High Speed rail line profitable. The agency anticipates an annual operating surplus of $900 million as rail would overtake air travel as the fatest and most convenient form of travel between Washington and Boston. Construction over 25 years could generate 44,000 jobs and $33 billion in wages, and the line would see ridership increase from 12 million annually to 38 million. It would also help Amtrak meet capacity demands. Without a significant investment in rail in the northeast, Amtrak’s entire Northeast Corridor will be at 100 percent capacity by 2035. The routes from New York to Trenton and Baltimore to Washington, D.C., already are.

What next then for this ambitious plan? As this is just a “possible concept” for high-speed rail, much work needs to be done. Myriad environmental studies await, and planning meetings loom. The biggest concern, though, says Amtrak, involves identifying the funding sources. At a time when the public is wary of government investment, financial mechanisms must be identified that will lead to the funding of this integral project.

Over at The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark is realistic about this project’s future as anything more than just a snazzy PDF. He writes:

But it is worth being skeptical of the political chances for the project’s implementation. The timing of the plan’s release could not be much worse. With anti-rail and austerity-focused Republicans likely to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives in this fall’s elections and little serious talk of increasing funds for fast train projects in the immediate term at the national level, a vast increase in capital financing for Amtrak is hard to imagine…

The fact that the Congress has thus far only committed $10.5 billion total to high-speed rail projects across the country does not seem to have phased anyone in Amtrak management, though it may have resulted in the decision to propose spreading out spending over a 25-year period, rather than, for instance, building it all in ten years. Under the plan, the sections from Baltimore to Wilmington and from Philadelphia to New Rochelle would be completed by 2030, with the rest done by 2040.

Amtrak will need a massive and long-term commitment from the federal government to make this project possible. It will have to find a way to build a coalition between Republicans and Democrats on the matter, since each party will inevitably be in power at some point over the next thirty years. It will have to make a strong case for why investing in the system fulfills national objectives. In the report, it is clear that the agency hopes to portray the Northeast’s strong contribution to the overall U.S. GDP as one of the primary reasons to invest in infrastructure there.

Amtrak, Freemark says, has “basically no choice but to commit to the construction of an entirely new corridor…This will not be a simple project, either from a funding or construction standpoint. But for the nation’s densest and most economically productive region, it may be the best way forward.”

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