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.”