Home High-Speed Rail Amtrak unveils pie-in-the-sky plans for Northeast Corridor high-speed rail route

Amtrak unveils pie-in-the-sky plans for Northeast Corridor high-speed rail route

by Benjamin Kabak

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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Marc Shepherd September 28, 2010 - 3:57 pm

It’s an understatement to say this is unlikely to happen. At the same time, it’s gratifying to see transit leaders thinking boldly.

The biggest problem, besides its overall cost, is that it requires 25 years of appropriations. Has there ever been a transit project that managed to remain a legislative priority for 25 consecutive years?

It’s not merely that power will shift back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. Even from one leader to another of the same party, priorities are likely to change.

Boris September 28, 2010 - 9:51 pm

The Big Dig came close. Or at least it took that long to get built. Plus, it might be something like 15 years of studies and 10 years of actual construction, so major appropriations will occur over only a small number of years.

Erik September 28, 2010 - 4:14 pm

I love how plans like this are DOA. I don’t disagree that this is the case, but we have to think about the alternatives.

Commuter rail lines in NJ, NY, CT, and MA are already straining and near capacity. They share their tracks with Amtrak for more of the Northeast corridor.

Truly high speed trains cannot operate on those tracks both because they are neither straight nor properly banked, and because they share the routes with trains that must stop every few miles. Acela is not high speed rail, and rail will never have enough ridership to be competitive with air in this region until travel times are halved.

So, it seems to me that the most sensible thing to do is build the new HSR corridor and let the local rails and stations have all of the capacity that Amtrak currently utilizes. That’s a two-birds / one-stone solution!

Of course, the thing that gets me more than anything (well, besides the eye-popping price tag, which is crazy) is the failure of cooperative planning between the various agencies. MTA is going ahead with East Side access to Grand Central for the LIRR, but NJ looks like it is going to kill its new access tunnels, and then you have Amtrak issuing this report in a total vacuum.

It’s ONE SYSTEM and the overlapping pieces are starting to really constrain each other. There needs to be some Port-Authority-esque solution that makes sure efforts are combined, plans align, and that politics are removed as much as possible.

Heck, let’s make it a private company and pump it full of stimulus dollars. At least that will take away half of the GOP’s hatred for rail.

Gary September 28, 2010 - 4:23 pm

A project like this is in my view a necessity, and the first step to making it a reality is Amtrak starting the conversation.

If Amtrak doesn’t demand it, it will definitely never happen. Someone needs to be driving the conversation, and I’m glad to see them stepping up to the plate.

That said, I’d like to see this on a ten year plan, not thirty.

oscar September 28, 2010 - 4:38 pm

one day in the future, pictures like this will be in history textbooks (e-textbooks of course) under the chapter titled “When America Realized – Too Late”

Colin September 28, 2010 - 4:53 pm

And whats the price gonna be? Its ridiculous already that prices for a regular 3.5-4 hour Amtrak train from NY to Boston midday Sunday can cost over 100 bucks, on a holiday forget it. Even if this is faster than flying, prices for flights are probably gonna be lower or about the same.

I have no faith in Amtrak to run anything smoothly or properly.

Chris G September 28, 2010 - 5:41 pm

This is a very valid point.

Right now it really is cheaper to drive. Especially if its more than just a solo traveler.

And if you consider you can almost always find a bus with wifi for $20 from NYC to any NE city, Amtrak doesn’t have a chance with the nonbusiness traveler.

Major changes have to happen.

As a point though, ICE trains and the like in Europe are also insanely priced.

Marcus September 28, 2010 - 6:10 pm

That’s not true at all.

Plenty of leisure travelers take Amtrak. I take BOS – NYC on a regular basis and at least on the weekends most of the other riders are leisure travelers. Furthermore, if you’re not going from a big city to a big city, forget about the bus or flying, both will be very expensive and take a long time.

I agree with you about Acela though. Much more expensive for only slightly faster service. I don’t understand why people take it. On the other hand, it does operate at a profit.

As to the ICE, when I was in Germany three years ago it seemed a little bit expensive, but certainly within reason given the speed and level of service. In general, you seem to be assuming that all travelers are only concerned with price and not other factors such as comfort and convenience.

Alon Levy September 28, 2010 - 10:43 pm

The TGV and ICE aren’t that expensive. Their cost range is competitive with low-cost airlines, and they’re much more convenient. The buses are not real competition, because of the large speed difference. The TGV’s average speed between Paris and Lyon is more than twice that of the Acela between New York and Boston.

Al D September 29, 2010 - 9:02 am

Megabus is fast, cheap and efficient. It is far cheaper than Amtrak, and does not stop in between cities. On a recent trip to Boston, just over 4 hours on the Mega for about $20 and more than 5 hours back on Acela, price north of $100.

John September 29, 2010 - 9:16 am

Yeah, but you’re on a bus. I take buses sometimes, and trains blow them away in terms of comfort and convenience. And you could just as easily find someone else’s trip and cite that example where they got stuck in a major traffic jam, or the bus broke down, but the train was right on time.

Dave September 29, 2010 - 11:45 am

You’re absolutely right. Many times I took the Greyhound from NYC to New Britain, CT. Rarely was it on time. Once, the bus driver decided to take a rural route and stop the bus at a Roy Rogers. What should have been a two and a half hour ride was an extra hour long. Another time the bus was packed to the gills and standing room only (which I think is illegal), got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic and took well over four hours. Not to mention the smell from the bathroom when someone decides to go number 2.

I came to the realization that taking the train while slightly more expensive, will arrive on time, not take a different route, not smell of feces, and has better leg room.

Maximus September 30, 2010 - 9:58 pm

It sounds like you’ve never traveled on one of the newer bus lines like Bolt or Megabus. They are a different proposition from the downmarket Greyhound of old. Typically they don’t stop at the bus terminal, but a few blocks away — I suspect so that they can avoid the kind of clientele that typically hang around bus terminals. (In NYC, some of these newer lines stop on the south side of Madison Square Garden.) They cater to a young crowd; many of the buses have wi-fi, and some are double-decker. I’ve traveled between NYC, Philly and Baltimore via these lines, and had very good experiences.

Alon Levy September 30, 2010 - 11:11 pm

They stop on the sidewalk, with no shelter from the elements. And they sometimes make you wait in line for an hour. They have wi-fi and the on-board service is nice, but let’s not conflate them with coming to the city like kings.

Alon Levy September 29, 2010 - 7:53 pm

The Acela is scheduled at a little over 3:30 between Boston and New York. It’s vintage 1930s speed, but it beats the bus.

Matt September 28, 2010 - 4:55 pm

This alignment really gives it to Providence where the sun don’t shine! That said, I think what’s more likely is a steady upgrade to the speeds Acela can run in some key corridors (NY->DC in particular) that could get the trip to 2 hours. That will kill any advantage NYC airports have over Penn Station.

Alon Levy September 28, 2010 - 10:44 pm

Amtrak isn’t planning to steadily upgrade the speeds to get it down to 2:00; it plans to do 2:15, at higher cost than it would take a French or Spanish operator get down to 1:30.

abe September 28, 2010 - 6:17 pm

ah yes…blame republicans….typical of ny liberals and rino’s

Bolwerk September 29, 2010 - 1:50 pm

It’s typical of anybody who can think, really. Republikans are very competent at being evil.

petey September 29, 2010 - 2:04 pm

it must be nice to be a republican, because being republican means never having to take responsibility.

Pea-Jay September 28, 2010 - 7:57 pm

4.7billion per year?? 110b for it all? And we are contemplating this as pie in the sky? Pathetic. How much did we blow on that middle eastern adventure of ours? Tax cuts for the rich? What do we have to show for this? Nada.
If we don’t get off our duff and build and rebuild or infrastructure, China is going to hand our @sses to us in the coming decades.
It’s too early for defeatism to set in. Otherwise we really are spent as

Boris September 28, 2010 - 9:59 pm

I agree. $117 billion is one-sixth of the Pentagon’s annual budget. It’s a drop in the bucket for the Northeast’s half-trillion dollar economy. Of course if we had reasonable wage and labor laws, we could’ve built HSR all over the country for that much, and have a lower unemployment rate as well. One can dream…

As it happens we also need another $120 billion to bring regional rapid transit systems up to world standards. So for a mere $237 billion over 25 years, the Northeast can have a transit system that rivals France’s or China’s. That’s huge. And that’s still only one twelth of the cost of the Iraq War.

JP September 28, 2010 - 8:16 pm

Show me the money!

Alon Levy September 28, 2010 - 10:40 pm

This is not bold thinking. It’s a pie in the sky plan that Amtrak put up specifically in order to try to shut up people who complain that the Acela is too slow. If true HSR costs $100 billion, then surely Amtrak’s plan to provide incremental improvements for $10 billion is not that bad. It’s the equivalent of nominating a really offputting candidate from the party’s other wing in order to argue that only your wing of the party is electable.

Al D September 29, 2010 - 9:05 am

Ture high-speed rail, on a dedicated ROW would be a huge win for the northeast. It is needed, and would spur additional investment in he region as well. Many people would leave the airlines and buses for high speed rail, if he travel times stated can be realized.

Thanks to somebody finally, in this case Amtrak, for having a big, positive vision of our future.

Peter September 29, 2010 - 9:16 am

Now, WHERE did I put those NY, Westchester & Boston RR Stock Certicficates…?

Eric F. September 29, 2010 - 9:25 am

I very much like the idea of getting the CT leg off the Long Island Sound alignment. There’s effectively no way to make the existing shore alignment HSR compatible. If I had my druthers, the way I’d do this, would kill a couple of problems in one fell swoop. I’d put a new HSR line on a median on a new, tolled limited access highway alignment. You can get tons of trucks and NY-Boston traffic off I-95 and reduce widening pressure that way, leaving I-95 in CT as a local route, which is all it can handle anyway. The shorter route also knocks miles off the drive for trucks and cars. Tolls, especially truck tolls, can defray some of teh cost of the HSR. If you had 2 lanes in each direction with shoulders, it’s maybe a 100 foot alignment in total with the rail and road from the Mass border to Danbury. The traffic at Danbury should shift to completed Super 7 (US 7) down to exiting 95, and to 684 across the NY border. If you did that you could train it or drive it across CT in perpetuit without risking a coronary, as you do now.

John September 29, 2010 - 11:27 am

Obtaining HSR easements and the logistics of getting in and around New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore would be the killer here, since all three cities would still have to have stations in or close to the major business districts, or the entire plan loses its reason for being (yes you can merge a high-speed line into the existing network on either side of Penn Station or 30th Street in Philly, but then you’re putting the system’s reliability at the mercy of bottlenecks in both regular Amtrak low-speed rail and commuter lines. And any idea to save acquistion/construction costs via bypassing the major metro downtown/midtowns by building a new Hudson crossing upriver and sticking the “New York City” station somewhere around the Meadowlands would kill the plan’s attractiveness to the business class riders it would need to ever make a profit, even if the station was closer to midtown Manhattan than LaGuardia, JFK or Newark airports).

Alon Levy September 29, 2010 - 6:15 pm

The Shinkansen uses Tokyo Station. The TGV uses Paris’s existing stations. The ICE uses existing city center stations. The KTX uses Seoul Station. I could go on, but I’d be repeating myself.

John September 30, 2010 - 4:24 pm

As I said, you can use the existing inner-city infrastructure, but merging the HSR with the existing system on either side of Penn Station lines you up for bottlnecks when regular Amtrak train, NJT or the LIRR is having problems, while running a dedicated HSR line through the city, including its own Hudson and East River or Harlem River tunnels would add a nickle or two onto the project (and the fact that New York is a city surrounded by deep, wide waterways presents similar cost problems in the 21st Century that the Pennsylvania Railroad ran into at the start of the 19th Century).

Alon Levy September 30, 2010 - 10:17 pm

John, compare the cost of a) building brand new tunnels under Manhattan, and b) maintaining NJT and LIRR trains to reasonable standards, installing moving-block signaling on the approaches to allow 30 tph, and training the drivers and dispatchers to be on time.

Rob September 29, 2010 - 11:41 am

This would still be a very ambitious plan and would require some eminent domain, but how about increasing the capacity of the current alignment? Specifically for sections with current commuter rail service – how about adding 2 new tracks to the existing ROW. While modifying the New Haven alignment, they could also increase the gap between tracks, which I believe is another speed restraint because it prevents Acela trains from tilting.

This is obviously another pie-in-the-sky idea, especially considering the disruptions that would occur on the New Haven line during construction, but imagine all the NIMBYism that would be avoided by modifying an existing ROW as opposed to building a new line through quiet suburbs.

Eric F. September 29, 2010 - 12:17 pm

My little personal plan was to make the second avenue subway a double decker all the way through to the northern tip of the Bronx. The lower level would be an Amtrak through route. That would cut a huge amount of time off the twisting journey through Queens and over the Hellsgate bridge. I have no idea how you’d widen the alignment in Westchester. I-95 doesn’t even have shoulders there. You’d basically have to reroute it, maybe under Westchester and up the median of I-684.

Alon Levy September 29, 2010 - 6:27 pm

Eric, you’re spending too much money. The existing route from Penn Station to the city line is perfectly fine. Amtrak has dedicated track, the speed is limited mainly by noise emissions, and it hooks okay to the New Haven Line. The curves on the route cost the train a few seconds of travel time relative to a cruise at 125 mph. A double-decked SAS would save some time, but it would be less than a minute, for several billion dollars. There are better ways to spend the money: there are multiple curves in New Jersey and Connecticut that cost a full minute each.

Alon Levy September 29, 2010 - 6:18 pm

There’s exactly one place on the NEC that might plausibly need two extra tracks: the Baltimore-Washington segment – and even that is only if Amtrak gets more than 6 tph. I believe it could if its plans were less stupid, but Amtrak’s own plan calls for 3-4 tph. All of the existing traffic plus the projected increase in Amtrak traffic could be fit onto the existing tracks plus some extra passing sidings at key stations. The same is true on the New Haven Line, which has four tracks (except one short three-track segment, which needs to be four-tracked) and carries the traffic of two.

Alas, timed overtakes require mild competence. This means Amtrak won’t try them.

boblothrope September 29, 2010 - 12:42 pm

“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.”

Um, wasn’t that what the Acela was supposed to do?

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Louis E. November 21, 2010 - 3:53 pm

I’d love to see Acela upgraded,but if the corridor is moved as proposed I hope there’s a station allowing transfer from the Harlem line as already exists for the Hudson and New Haven.

But even if they get everything they ask for,a passenger from Petersburg (Virginia) to Portland(Maine) would still change trains at least twice and probably wouldn’t even make a faster connection.

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