Home High-Speed Rail Should high-speed rail focus on the northeast?

Should high-speed rail focus on the northeast?

by Benjamin Kabak

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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al February 2, 2011 - 1:28 am

Amtrak should seriously consider getting some revenue through TOD (from land leases to outright land development) to fund HSR capital costs. The Sunnyside Yards developed with the office/residential density similar to Grand Central Terminal or Atlantic Yards could yield tens of billions in one shot or in high hundreds of million per yr in perpetuity.

David in NYC February 2, 2011 - 5:15 pm

Billions to expand multiple NE airports? High speed rail can cut the hundreds of short flights between NE cities negating new runways and huge legal battles.
New rail lines through urban areas can’t work anymore due to cost and opposition. The better option is run lines AROUND the cities with a single spur line into each city using existing right-of-ways – trains will have to slow down anyway. Central CA cities are fighting 200mph trains through their downtowns.
Forget stations every few miles for smaller cities since speed is too slow and populations too small. High speed trains function more like airplanes.
The rural lines should be mostly elevated (like in Taiwan) to reduce accidents and the walls of fencing.
Sooner or later rail will be our only option but how we do it matters the most.

Alon Levy February 3, 2011 - 2:21 am

I generally like your comments, but this one is almost completely wrong. Namely:

1. Very little air traffic in the NYC area goes to other NEC cities. It’s about 5% by passenger volume, and (I believe) around 10% by plane movements. The air markets from Boston and Providence to the rest of the Northeast are pretty big, but that’s not where the air congestion is.

2. New rail lines through urban areas do work. Trains don’t need to run at 200 mph everywhere. The Shinkansen trains serve downtown, and even in Taiwan and France, where the lines go around small cities, the major cities get downtown stations. New spurs to access small cities are just not used – the preference is for existing tracks.

3. It’s perfectly normal to build some local stations at key locations along the line. Those stations have bypass tracks allowing trains to skip them while another train is stopped. It’s done everywhere, even in Taiwan.

4. High-speed trains are high-speed trains. They should be thought of as extensions of transit, with a small airplane surrogate role. The stations should be designed like modern train stations and not like airport terminals; California is doing this part wrong and, judging by the proposed station schematics, so is Amtrak.

5. Elevated lines are very expensive. In most of Europe the high-speed lines are at-grade, in fenced ROWs, resulting in lower construction costs than in Taiwan.

Bolwerk February 3, 2011 - 8:12 am

Doesn’t 10% by plane movements strike you as kind of huge? These are to/from places like Syracuse or perhaps even Cleveland, where a rail trip should take only a few hours. Cutting out just a few of those slots at least goes a long way towards solving the airport congestion problem.

Alon Levy February 3, 2011 - 4:20 pm

It’s not tiny, but no, it’s not huge. It’s not like in California, where around 15% of LA’s air passengers go to cities that would be served by California HSR.

I did not count Syracuse and Cleveland – they’d be on separate lines. But if I remember correctly, passenger numbers from New York to any city within easy HSR range are low. You can check me by going here; bear in mind the numbers are one-way per day, so you need to multiply them by 730 to get annual two-way numbers.

David in NYC February 3, 2011 - 3:29 pm

One hour between downtown Boston or DC to Midtown would reduce airport and road traffic no matter what. Both roads and airports are already at capacity so the choice is where to spend the money most effectively and rail moves the most per dollar spent.

High speed rail requires new, very straight dedicated rail lines and where do you add those in densely built up urban or suburban areas? Mr Nimby will fight it all along the way.

The spur would be a terminus in each major city along the way with express trains bypassing urban cores. Just like with airplanes, you choose the train and time for your particular destination.
Existing local transit can provide access from smaller cities to urban core spur terminals. Express train bypass tracks should allow full speed but that’s a problem next to a downtown station.

Building tracks on the ground involves extensive earth moving, hundreds of over/underpass bridge building, and an absolute wall to wildlife and people. Snow also builds up a lot more on the ground. If you’ve ever been below an elevated freeway or rail line, you know it’s also much quieter. It’s worth the minimal added cost from an environmental standpoint to elevate the line.

Alon Levy February 3, 2011 - 4:38 pm

First, one hour is a pipedream; 1:30 is what’s achievable. But my point is that there isn’t that much HSR-range air traffic to New York to divert. New York’s single biggest air market is to South Florida.

Second, the spur-and-terminus approach is used only in cities whose train stations are terminals. Italy tried to use it more extensively, leading to high costs of bypasses. Everyone else goes through central cities when possible, even the French.

Third, it’s actually easier to serve certain urban areas than to bypass them. To go around Philadelphia, you’ll need a very long greenfield detour, which will still require takings. To go through Philadelphia and make a station stop there, the existing lines are good for a fairly high speed – the worst curve north of Philly allows about 300 km/h, the worst curve south allows about 270. HSR lines need to be straight, but not monolith-straight. Obviously, trains wouldn’t go this fast in the central city, but with noise barriers they could go quite fast in the suburbs.

And fourth, it’s hard to overstate the importance of avoiding tunnels and viaducts, in this order. Viaducts can double the cost, and are the main reason China’s HSR is much more expensive to build than France’s. And they actually add to the noise: the elevated line radiates noise over a greater distance (which is also true of earthworks), and the concrete structures act as an amplifier (which is not). See the train noise calculator, which uses standard FRA computations of noise.

Sharon February 2, 2011 - 10:18 pm

Agreed. High speed rail can be built for and paid for 100% through private dollars. If it means more taxes that kill jobs it is a no go.

Remember Las Vegas was a stop over on a rail line. You could build a casino in the middle of nowhere as a stop on a high speed line. A resort, a convention center etc.

Government has no business in High Speed rail to compete with a fully paid for air travel system. In order for high speed rail to be a reality all the union special interest, real estate special interests etc have to come to the table and take a financial stake in the project. Only then could you build this thing under budget and operate it with fair labor rates. You can not operate trains profitably under the current 1920’s railroad laws that require heavy trains, un needed crew members etc

Forget about trade union reducing their rates, they need to set aside the practices for which they drive up costs by refusing to work while another union is working in an area. Google the Mike Francessa interview with labor leaders when they took down Yankee stadium and you will hear what I mean in their own words

VLM February 2, 2011 - 11:21 pm

If taxes were raised for high-speed rail, the net job growth would be positive. The construction would create far more jobs than taxes would destroy — if taxes even destroy those jobs. And when construction is finished, the region will be better off job-wise as well.

Without government, you won’t get high-speed rail. It crosses too many jurisdictions and involves too great a use of eminent domain for the private market to work. Rail is the exact case for government. Take that to the bank.

Chris February 3, 2011 - 1:30 pm

There’s a difference between a government role in organizing (i.e. dealing with jurisdictional issue and eminent domain) and a government role in providing the bulk of the financing.

Woody February 6, 2011 - 12:30 am

“High speed rail can be built for and paid for 100% through private dollars.”

Sharron, in the real world, not the cult novels you apparently have been reading, there are no good examples of HSR built and paid for 100% through private dollars. The Chunnel was built with some billions of private dollar — or pounds, francs or Euros — and the private investors lost all or most of their hard-earned money in bankruptcy reorganizations. Likewise the Taiwanese government had to take over from a bankrupt private builder of its HSR line.

All the successful HSR lines, like those in France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, have been built with taxpayers’ money, as a public investment for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

(I think Japanese companies are trying to do a private line now. But you should know, Japanese companies often appear to act as risk-protected agents for their government, not like the corporations here that are more independent of, or perhaps more in control of, the US government.)

Another howler is the phrase, “a fully paid for air travel system” — unless by “paid for” you mean hugely subsidized by taxpayers every year since the airlines began. Consider the “Essential Air Service” program, which the AP says boasts “a subsidy per airline passenger … as high as $5,223 in Ely, Nevada.” The program amounts to about $200 million a year for the favored few who fly to the likes of Johnstown, PA, Dodge City, KS, or Hot Springs, AR. Then add in the government’s air traffic control system and you’ve got a beginning of the fully SUBSIDIZED air travel system.

You do make me feel young again, because I have not heard anyone complaining about unneeded railroad employees, not even at Amtrak or the Long Island Rail Road, for like 20 or 30 years. Obviously, all the freight railroads are operating very profitably nowadays under their current labor contracts and the existing federal regulations.

As you suggested, I tried to google the sports broadcaster’s interview about Yankee Stadium, but my skills were lacking and I didn’t find it. However, the problems in the construction industry in NYC have much to do with mob infiltration of both unions and contractors. And those problems have nothing to do with the unions that Amtrak and the freight railroads deal with. Nothing

Aside from that, your post was … ideological and not fact-based.

StationStops February 2, 2011 - 1:38 am

I have this theory that certain projects will never find the qualified leadership they need to succeed, because the only candidates qualified enough to execute them correctly would never undertake them.

Al D February 2, 2011 - 10:05 am

Not only that, but the truly qualified candidates would not run for office in the first place.

John-2 February 2, 2011 - 9:21 am

The Catch 22 here is the problem in matching the population with the land. Two years ago, the big talk in Washington was the high-speed rail project that would connect Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It naturally got a push because Harry Reid is Senate Majority Leader, but the advantage there was that once you got the line through the Cajon Pass and into the high desert, there was little in the way of population or existing buildings/communities to impede a relatively straight high-speed rail line for the next 150-plus miles into Vegas.

The problem instead was whether or not there were enough people in the corridor to justify a line between two big metro areas, with nothing in-between. In the Northeast, you’ve got the opposite dilemma — there’s too much in-between the metro areas to make it easy to designate and build a high-speed line that would eliminate the problems with the existing curves and competing commuter/local services that limit speeds on the current northeast corridor run.

The Hudson crossing is one of the biggest questions, and while the ARC would help, you still have to figure out a way to get dedicated HSR trackage into and out of the NYC area on both sides. And the same holds true for Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington (they’re not skipping a stop in the VP’s home state), Philadelphia and even Newark and New Haven on the way to Boston (along with a likely battle on whether or not to run the route through Hartford or Providence). So right-of-way options and acquisition should be the very first thing discussed before any serious HSR effort begins, because it’s likely to cause the biggest fight and create the longest delays.

Al D February 2, 2011 - 10:09 am

In NY at least, and some of the other cities, the answer is probably ARC-like. That is, there would be the need to build deeper, dedicated tunnels and stations with high speed escalators to the street or to the ‘regular’ train station above.

Woody February 3, 2011 - 3:10 pm

Isn’t this ‘Harry Reid’s HSR to Vegas’ thing a total fabrication? Something from someone’s fevered imagination and repeated ad nauseum by the paid propagandists on the hate radio circuit?

Because in fact, no money was allocated to Los Angeles-Las Vegas. I would welcome any evidence you have that Harry Reid was doing any big talk in favor of a Las Vegas route. (Blatherings by Oxycontin addicts alleging as much does not count as evidence.)

Look at a recent report that applies considerable statistical analysis to the likely corridors for HSR. The L.A.-Vegas route scores quite well, just behind L.A.-San Francisco in the Southwest. The Vegas route’s high score was apparently due in large part to the 1,850,000 annual air passengers between the city pairs (exceeded only by L.A.-San Francisco) and to the great importance of tourism in those cities.


The big empty desert also makes the Vegas route compelling: It takes a train 19 miles of straight flat track to reach 200 mph. Finding 19 miles and more, much more, of straight flat right of way is easy to do between the L.A. Basin and The Strip, but very difficult to do in the Northeast at any cost.

So maybe the paid propagandists’ commotion about Harry Reid trying to get a line to his home town wasn’t entirely fabricated, despite the lack of other evidence. Maybe Sen. Reid knew what he was talking about!

Nathan H. February 2, 2011 - 9:31 am

Any improvements to the NEC would make more sense than a 200+ mph train from Tampa to Disney World. Not that any of the consultants who came up with that plan bothered to calculate it, but I would still like to know the planned subsidy in dollars per projected passenger hour saved for those routes, versus any NEC upgrade.

Amtrak is awful and like pretty much everyone else I don’t want them in charge of anything new, but I also don’t think it makes much sense to keep subsidizing them as-is while assigning “high-speed” service to some newly created national railroad failure.

The smart thing is to split Amtrak back into its regional parts; let senators from money burning lines defend their sweetheart subsidy from their fellow Republicans. As it is, passengers of profitable lines are stuck having to beg for a subsidy for Arizona tourism just so it will not drag down our own service any further. With a separate profitable entity, there would be no begging and no justification for government meddling in NEC operations. The railroad itself might event start to treat passengers as customers instead of charity cases.

Marc Shepherd February 2, 2011 - 11:37 am

Splitting Amtrak is the world’s dumbest idea. All you’d do is encourage the creation of duplicate management and administrative structures, thereby amplifying the railroad’s already tenuous finances.

Nathan H. February 2, 2011 - 2:28 pm

Really, Mark? Is it dumber than the Sunset Limited?

Woody February 6, 2011 - 12:52 am

Mark, Amtrak came up with a plan to improve the Sunset Limited. As any fool could see, running the train three days a week was not as efficient as running it daily would be. One little example: Private coach operators were ready to carry passengers to/from Phoenix and Amtrak’s Maricopa stop some miles away from the city. The private businesses expected to make a profit doing that, but couldn’t see a profit doing it only three days a week.

So Amtrak worked with the Union Pacific to make plans for a new train combining the Texas Eagle from Chicago with the Sunset route San Antonio to L.A. Tweaking the starting and arrival times was going to bring connecting passengers from the Coast Starlight onto the Sunset replacement and get L.A. passengers into the Phoenix area during daylight, to boost revenue.

Combining the trains was going to free up some equipment that would be used to make the three-days-a-week Cardinal Chicago-Cincinnati-DC-NYC a daily train as well. That would slash staff costs on the Cardinal because currently crews have dead time in NYC and have to be accommodated until the next departure a day later. These and other improvements were going to boost revenue, cut costs, and slash losses on these long distance trains.

We might have had a daily train running from L.A. to Texas to Chicago by now in fact — but the Union Pacific presented a bill for about half a billion in track improvements that it said would be necessary to handle daily trains instead of three-day-a-week trains, new passing zones and whatever else you could imagine. So it has not happened.

Sad, because Amtrak’s plan would have dramatically improved the operating returns of the two worst trains in its stable, the loss-per-passenger figure and other measures.

Someone like me could be suspicious that the UP actually sabotaged the new plan because it’s well known to want to see the end of Amtrak.

Anyway, I don’t see how the continuing problems of the Sunset Limited at this point are altogether the fault of Amtrak, but rather appear to be more the fault of the freight road that carries the unhappy train. And breaking the national system into regions would not help that problem at all whatsoever.

Nathan H. February 2, 2011 - 3:01 pm

To be clear, I don’t expect that the subsidies for the least used lines would maintained. Routes that are underused and perform poorly would be finally eliminated. It’s only through a national shell game that those lines are propped up as it is. What I am talking about with a split Amtrak is not the same (awful) thing with even more redundancy, but perhaps 3 companies: west coast, midwest, and north east. These would be evaluated and subsidized (if at all) based on their on merits.

No more b.s. about how much each “Amtrak passenger” costs the poor beleaguered American taxpayer. Our national government (the Senate particularly) has proven itself structurally incapable of managing a national railroad. We can’t change that, but we can break the problem into smaller pieces so they can manage it a little less terribly. If you think that Amtrak is ever going to ever improve as one big piece of worm infested pork debated by the US legislature, I’ve got a beautiful train line passing through Tucson, AZ to sell you.

Bolwerk February 3, 2011 - 3:47 pm

What are these lines, precisely? Amtrak has reasonably high farebox recovery. They recently claimed they’d be up to around 80% this year.

Alon Levy February 3, 2011 - 4:42 pm

80% without depreciation, maybe. But to put things in perspective, the intercity divisions throughout Europe are profitable.

Lines that should be cut include all or nearly all long-distance services, which bleed money. The Auto Train should be kept, but not the rest. The rolling stock and crew should be reassigned to more useful services. For examples, the Empire Builder should be replaced with Chicago-MSP corridor trains, and the Lake Shore Limited should be replaced with Chicago-Cleveland trains.

Woody February 6, 2011 - 1:07 am

Come on, Alon. You think the long distance trains bleed money? Want to see bleeding money? Look where the blood is: The long distance trains cost $1 billion or so. How much blood will that get you in Afghanistan? Or in the undeclared war in Yemen that we aren’t even supposed to talk about, much less how much it costs?

O.K, keep it domestic. Want to watch the budget bleed? Check out the agricultural subsidies that go largely to corporate agri-businesses and multimillionaire farm owners — not to small family farms, don’t make us laugh. The total Amtrak subsidy comes to what, 2% of that rural boondoggle?

Bleed like the vast system of dams and canals that supplies water to farmers for irrigation at far below the cost to do so? No, that money bleeds measured by thousands of acre-feet. Bleed like the giveaways of offshore drilling permits gifted to Big Oil? And I’m just getting warmed up.

When rail supporters appear to buy in to the rightwingers B.S. about Amtrak and long distance trains, it just gives them cover and support to attack all rail projects, which they hate on grounds both ideological and geographic.

Nathan H. February 6, 2011 - 6:07 pm

Woody, you don’t have to convince most SAS readers that it would be better to spend the public’s money on national train service than on unnecessary foreign wars. You have to convince 25 US states of that, and for decades now they have failed to “see the light”. When will they change their minds, and why? I don’t see a way out of this stalemate until global oil production peaks, and at that point we won’t have the leverage to build any national railroads.

So, yes I am ready to hang the long distance southern train lines out to dry. The vast majority of southerns hate or aren’t-aware of them. I believe that NE trains would be better off both politically and administratively by being disassociated with half-assed nostalgia train lines, and I don’t care if that half-meshes with certain right-wing arguments.

And finally, if you’re going to lecture rail advocates for giving cover to Amtrak opponents, you need to start with practically all of them who years ago decided that of course Amtrak should not run California’s or Florida’s or any other HSR service. On what planet does it make obvious sense to split off and regionalize new high-speed rail services while keeping this national retiree novelty train company in charge of the most heavily used train corridor in the country?

AlexB February 2, 2011 - 10:04 am

I think with the strain on the current Northeast Corridor, and the region’s airports, this is starting to look more like a necessity than a luxury. I just wish it didn’t cost so much. The debate is more about how to pay for it than whether it should be built.

pete February 2, 2011 - 10:25 am

Investing in NEC is a waste of money. The north east has been dropping in population, percentage wise, for 80 years. California, Texas, and Florida have been growing from internal immigration for 80 years and its not going to stop. There are no unions or NIMBY lawsuits in Texas. California and Florida is undeveloped land. Since the east coast politically and socially can’t get their act together, let a region more competent grow (anywhere else).

John-2 February 2, 2011 - 11:03 am

Land acquistion is going to be a battle royale anyplace in the country. In Texas, you had Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor plan for toll roads and high-speed rail lines that ran into a buzzsaw when the first steps were taken towards a Dallas-to-San Antonio corridor land acquisition was attempted (the Austin-SA toll section will be built, but no equivalent rail option is yet on the boards).

So even down there, you’ve got the same problem as in the Northeast — the places where you could build (in the lightly populated western half of the state) doesn’t have the people to justify the work. The places where they should be building (in the eastern half, sections of which are starting to approach population densities in the Northeast and Midwest), you’ve already got the NIMBY fights, which may or may not be justified depending on the individual situation(s) of the landowners and what the state is willing to pay in compensation (and the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision really ramped up the mistrust of landowners everywhere towards government eminent domain seizures).

petey February 2, 2011 - 11:16 am

“Since the east coast politically and socially can’t get their act together…”

i wouldn’t exactly say that texas has its act together socially.

BBnet3000 February 2, 2011 - 11:26 am

Percentage wise, but in total numbers its still on top, its still the most densely developed, and its still growing. The train from Boston to DC isnt affected by how many people live in Dallas.

Woody February 2, 2011 - 12:15 pm

When you’re leaving New York, you ain’t going nowhere.

As an internal immigrant from small town Texas — “North Toward Home”, Willie Morris called the trek — I can tell you that Dallas and Houston ain’t bean hills compared to the Big Apple.

tacony palmyra February 2, 2011 - 1:22 pm

The Northeast is a ready-built captive audience of guaranteed riders for HSR. The rest of the country is growing faster, sure, but it’s growing in auto-centric sprawl that makes HSR a lot less useful. Who cares if you can get from Orlando to Tampa on HSR? You’ll probably have to rent a car when you get there anyway, because the vast majority of economic and social activity in the region is predicated on everyone having one. If cities were making major efforts to reform zoning and slash parking requirements, sure, go for HSR, but they’re not.

al February 3, 2011 - 1:23 am

There are ~50 million residents along a linear stretch from New England to Virginia. No other US region is going to surpass it in the next 50 yrs. No region has air traffic as dense either. This lends itself to have HSR to take short range flights and leave long range inter-regional and international travel to jets.

Bolwerk February 3, 2011 - 10:41 am

It’s just not that simple. Indeed the northeast has its incompetencies, but external factors are also at play. Northeastern money is invested by the billions in other places courtesy of the feds. Don’t ignore that.

Eric F. February 2, 2011 - 11:07 am

That map you posted depicts 7 states. That’s 14 senators. Every single one of them is a Democrat. They really managed to waste the last two years when their party had total control, with a house transport committee chair and a president expressly dedicated to rail, with a nearly $1 trillion pot of “stimulus money”. We got, basically, zilch out of that. What a shame.

Joe Steindam February 2, 2011 - 12:25 pm

Considering only 5% of that trillion dollars went to Transportation nationwide (and only 1% going specifically to rail), we weren’t the only ones who got nothing from the Stimulus package. Sadly, the stimulus wasn’t enough to offset state cuts to budgets everywhere, it was hardly a burst of real state spending.

It does suck a lot that the Northeast Corridor couldn’t get more money from the time the Democrats took control of the government. That is very true.

Eric F. February 2, 2011 - 12:45 pm

But no one said anything! Did Schumer or Lautenberg or Dodd say “hey, so long as we are focusing on rail anyway, can we put 20 billion out of 900 billion to fully fund a few projects of regional significance in the most heavily traveled corridor in the country?” Portal is already permitted, ARC was permitted, Amtrak’s regional rolling stock looks like it was bought from a clearance sale in Bulgaria in 1972, bridges in CT need replacing. It’s not like there aren’t obvious current uses of the funds. They were focusing ona lot of other matters, and not this. Huge wasted opportunity.

Chris February 2, 2011 - 1:09 pm

Why don’t these states just attempt to form an interstate compact and get the federal government out of the loop? Ultimately the states have the tax powers needed to fund these projects, if they want to undertake them. Having the feds do the taxing/borrowing is a nice political shield for state lawmakers, but ultimately not necessary.

Alon Levy February 3, 2011 - 2:07 am

Politically, the issue is that the stimulus was about quick spending on shovel-ready projects, and this was not shovel-ready. Amtrak didn’t even present its pitiful plans for incremental upgrades until later in 2009, and didn’t present the Master Plan until 2010.

The question you should be asking yourself is why the local political honchos didn’t push for state funding for it, like in California. The answer is that most of those honchos either consider the NEC mostly a commuter line (Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland) or have in-state intercity corridors to worry about (New York, Pennsylvania). The riders would want more NEC service, but due to Amtrak’s general suckiness, there aren’t many of them.

The main constituency for NEC upgrades has been DC. Congressional staffers who shuttle back and forth between begging for money in New York and then spending it in Washington use Amtrak a lot, and would really like for it to be faster. It’s one of the reasons (some technical, some political) that until very recently, Mica completely ignored the NY-Boston half of the corridor.

Louis February 2, 2011 - 11:28 am

I agree with Nathan H. Get rid of Amtrak, and create regional transportation districts that can collect revenue (through fees on train/plane travel, and tolls on roads) and manage regional travel. That way, regions will have the revenue necessary to undertake big projects (see Robert Moses), and make travel more efficient.

For example, instead of relying on air shuttles to cart people from Boston and D.C., to New York, the airports can take a fee on those flights that make them competitive with train travel (right now, due to air travel subsidies, flying is often cheaper than taking the train). With those fees, the system can invest more heavily in rail operations, and eventually eliminate air travel from one city in the NEC to another, freeing up air space for region-to-region and international travel. Likewise, an increase in bridge/tunnel tolls in and out of New York would reduce traffic and generate significant revenue that could be invested in rail service.

Woody February 2, 2011 - 12:11 pm

Throw Obama into the briar patch — and Biden and LaHood too, dammit.

Push them into a corner and force them — FORCE THEM, I tell you –to spend big federal bucks on the Democratic big cities full of elitists, pointy-headed intellectuals, Kneegroes, Jews, gays, immigrants, unions, and worst of all libruls?

If the Repubs think it all Obama’s fault for messing up HSR and that, led by Chairman Mica, they can force the right way to do HSR down his throat, that is the ONLY way you’ll see $15 billion, much less $115 billion, spent on bringing the NEC up to speed.

jj February 2, 2011 - 3:59 pm

racist pig !!!!

Bolwerk February 3, 2011 - 8:20 am

Not sure, but I got the impression he was ironically pointing out how Republikans are happy to take northeastern money to spend in their own districts, but not so happy to spend it in the northeast on all those demographics he listed…that mostly aren’t dumb enough to vote Republikan.

Woody February 3, 2011 - 3:13 pm

Bolwerk, you have a subtle mind. It looks like you know who your enemies are, and how they think — if ‘think’ is the word for what often seems like hate.

Woody February 2, 2011 - 12:23 pm

Scott Brown, Senator, Massachusetts, Republican, elected 2009

Patrick Toomey, Senator, Pennsylvania, Republican, elected 2010

If we are counting on these guys to get the job done, forgetaboutit.

Joe Steindam February 2, 2011 - 12:27 pm

Also, Arlen Specter wasn’t a Democrat until April 2009, but then again, he was pretty centrist and did support Amtrak, seeing as he was Joe Biden’s travel buddy.

Eric F. February 2, 2011 - 12:48 pm

Please read my comment above. You can blame 2 Repubs if you want, but it’s really lame. It’s a grasping argument that ignores reality. The Democrats could have used the Stimulus plan to build an Amtrak station out of Twizzlers and Gingerbread if they wanted to during 2009-2010 and they did nothing. Sure, blame Toomey.

John-2 February 2, 2011 - 2:31 pm

The problem was while you had an all-Democrat/Democrat-leaning Senate line-up in 2009-10 (after Spector’s switch and depending on how you classified Liebermann, who caucused with the Democrats), they all pretty much deferred to Harry Reid, who pushed the No. 1 high speed rail initiative as the Los Angeles-Las Vegas route. Which from a land acquisition position made sense, but not from a maximum utilization position, where a HSR line in the Northeast would likely get the most use, but run into the toughest logistical problems for the ROW.

The fact that Schumer and the other NE Democrats barely uttered a peep about it is either due to the fact they didn’t want to stand up to their Majority Leader, or the party felt the had to “spread the wealth” around when it came to telling everyone where the stimulus package funds would be spent, so they could get House and Senate votes from all across the country (and you can then argue the first option was gutless and the second was pork project wasteful, since a Washington-Boston high-speed line with stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York is going to be more useful than an L.A.-Vegas route with stops in Barstow, San Bernadino and Rancho Cucamonga).

Bolwerk February 3, 2011 - 8:26 am

Expecting sense from the Dems is hopeless. The GOP exists for ideological reasons – they may be evil, but they have an agenda. The only agenda the Dems have is to win elections, which is why the party has this strange habit of pandering to the interests of Republikans rather than people who might actually vote for Dems. They think they’ll make gains among right-wingers by doing them political favors. As 2010’s elections show you, they get repaid with scorn.

Hell, Schumer is from New York, and barely does jack for our transportation.

Frank B. February 2, 2011 - 12:34 pm

As much as I would like to see high-speed rail corridors throughout the country, I am a realist, and I know that the Republican Party is at least going to cut funding to all but the most vital lines, if not funding altogether.

So, if they’ll actually focus on improving the Northeast Corridor, and such improvements will help to convince other states of the prospects of high-speed rail in the future, then at least we accomplished something during a Republican House. I’m actually thankful that at least the head of the transportation committee is not someone who believes in merely funding roads instead of rails. John Mica could’ve easily been someone much, much worse.

Donald February 2, 2011 - 1:35 pm

You can’t have high speed trains in the northeast corridor without the ARC tunnel.

Alon Levy February 3, 2011 - 1:56 am

Yes, you can. ARC is a capacity booster, not a speed booster; the speed boost project in the same area, the Portal Bridge replacement, is still on. At zero infrastructure in and around the existing tunnels, trains could travel at very high speed away from Penn Station, but then slow down for the Penn Station access tunnels – just like high-speed trains do all over the world.

Woody February 3, 2011 - 3:52 pm

Alon knows his stuff, and he says we don’t need another Hudson River tunnel to speed up Acelas or their replacements.

Others say we can’t get big capacity increases on the NEC without a second — or third — Hudson tunnel.

I’m sure ARC was NOT going to help much for Acelas or Regionals. Jersey Transit expected to fill the ARC with their growing passenger traffic, but ARC was not going to help Amtrak at all.

Maybe Alon could get Next Gen Acelas to average 100 or 125 mph or more on NYC-DC using the existing tunnel. But without a second tunnel for Amtrak itself, I don’t see how we could expect to run Acelas every half hour plus twice as many Regionals as now. And I’d want to add still more conventional-but-faster Amtrak trains (like to Harrisburg, with a second or third run to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, several trains to Norfolk, daily NYC-Cincinnati-Chicago, or a new route NYC-DC-Charlottesville-Lynchburg-Greensboro-Charlotte NC or beyond, etc.)

We’ll need a new Hudson tunnel unless our vision for HSR on NYC-DC is priced at what the traffic will bear — a high price — and us commoners are left in the dust.

Alon Levy February 3, 2011 - 4:59 pm

Woody, despite all of my criticism of ARC, I think it would actually be useful for the Acela – it would get commuter trains out of its hair. Though, Alt G would allow the Harlem Line to connect to it, which would make it better for users…

Anyway, at zero investment in the tunnels, it’s still possible to average very high speeds on NY-DC. But the capacity will be limited to what Amtrak runs today, which is 4 tph at the peak, of which 1 is a Keystone train. And without at least new signaling, trains will be limited to low speeds in the tunnels, which costs them a full minute, more than could be gained from straightening Elizabeth.

Alon Levy February 3, 2011 - 5:15 pm

Two more things, Woody:

1. I completely agree that either a new tunnel or extensive resignaling of the existing tunnel is required if NY-DC is priced for regular people.

2. When I said the time savings would be a minute, I should clarify that my assumption is that everything outside the tunnel would be upgraded to 100 mph anyway. (The current Portal Bridge plans call for 90, but 100 and even more should be achievable with much lighter trains.) Current NY-Newark schedule is slower by 7-8 minutes, not 1 minute.

jj February 2, 2011 - 3:58 pm

I don’t think that Schumer has the political will and/or strength to push this through the legislative process

News & Notes — Greater City: Providence February 4, 2011 - 3:11 pm

[…] Should high-speed rail focus on the northeast? [2nd Ave. Sagas] During [New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's] testimony last week, the mayor criticized the […]


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