Home Asides Northeast Corridor receives HSR designation

Northeast Corridor receives HSR designation

by Benjamin Kabak

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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Donald March 16, 2011 - 3:27 pm

And I would like to take this time to thank the fine Republican governors of America. Thank you Rick Scott. Thank you Scott Walker. Thank you John Kasich. Now NY and NJ will have the money needed to have high speed rail service since you don’t want it. I hope everyone in those states enjoy low speed Greyhound buses.

Bolwerk March 16, 2011 - 3:38 pm

It’s nice that this is being spent in the region paying for it, but I don’t know if the NEC is necessarily the best candidate for new HSR spending; Acela Express works pretty well and billions has already been poured in. It would be better spent on something like the water level route (and maybe BostonBuffalo) – preferably things that feed the NEC.

Joe Steindam March 16, 2011 - 4:38 pm

If you’re looking for a feed in route to the NEC to speed up, the best are probably (in no particular order)
Pittsburgh-Philadelphia (the whole Keystone Corridor)
Springfield-New Haven
Richmond/Hampton Roads-Washington DC.

Obviously many of these routes already have HSR designation, but these are probably the best routes that would maximize the NEC’s value. But it’s been noted that the NEC is nearly it’s capacity, which is why Amtrak proposed a true HSR line with higher speeds for the NEC.

Bolwerk March 16, 2011 - 7:31 pm

The NEC is not at capacity. For Amtrak, it’s running maybe 2-3 trains/hour. Of course, there are some dumb bottlenecks to clear up, the most notable possibly being the North River Tunnels.

I think many of those routes are suitable, though the best are probably the Empire Corridor or Keystone Corridor. The others should just see reliable rail – then HSR, if it pans out that way.

Donald March 16, 2011 - 6:46 pm

Acela is not real high speed rail. It costs twice what regular trains cost, but only gets you to D.C. from NYC a measley 20 minutes faster.

Bolwerk March 16, 2011 - 7:37 pm

I know the Acela isn’t true HSR, but that’s besides the point. Pouring billions more to make it true HSR will cost as much as it will cost anywhere else, and return very little incremental benefit over what we have today. They had that opportunity in the 1990s, and squandered it on FRA equipment. Now it’s time to focus on some corridor that similarly demands that level of improvement.

The cost is stupid. I’m not really sure what to do about it, since the equipment is business and first class, except perhaps let the equipment be replaced by attrition by more sensible ICE- or TGV-style trainsets. That’s quite a ways off, given that they’re ordering new FRA compliant moving bunkers.

Donald March 16, 2011 - 7:47 pm

Where do you propose building HSR? GOP governors don’t want it. And most other corridors won’t bring in enough passengers to justify the cost.

Bolwerk March 17, 2011 - 3:42 pm

Look for anything that actually adds value to what we already have. The most logical choice in the country after the NEC has long been the Empire Corridor. Why? High potential ridership and it actually can integrate into the NEC. I’m guessing Demokrats and especially Republikans are too set against spending money on New York (New York’s money, BTW) to let that happen – plus it doesn’t help that it’s as long as the Acela portion of the NEC but entirely intrastate.

I can think of other things that could make sense, like Buffalo or Albany to to Boston (let NYS fill in the blank between NYC and Albany to achieve NYC-to-Albany-or-Buffalo HSR). CAHSR probably has merit. I think Joe (above) makes a fair point that the Keystone Corridor makes a lot of sense. Many corridors in the Great Lakes region probably are workable, if not ideal – plus you end up dealing with Neanderthals like Kasisch then.

Alon Levy March 18, 2011 - 11:13 am

I thought so too, but then I started drawing alignment maps and realized that Empire has a huge problem in Westchester County, where it would have to run mostly in tunnel. The line looks good because Empire South is fairly straight – just not anywhere near straight enough for HSR, and impossible to straighten because of the mountains – and Empire West is in flat terrain.

Keystone is in the exact opposite situation – the inner segment of the corridor is easy, while the outer one is hard.

Bolwerk March 18, 2011 - 12:58 pm

Any reason it couldn’t average 100mph or so to Albany? That makes an hour and a half trip possible.

Alon Levy March 20, 2011 - 3:35 am

The curve radii are too low at places to sustain high average speeds. It’s not much better than the Shore Line in Connecticut, and is hillier.

Nathanael March 20, 2011 - 8:15 pm

If all the problem areas are in Westchester, how about an outright inland bypass route — tie into the Harlem Line. Or is it too twisty too? It would provide better floodproofing anyway.

More generically, the key question is which sections have the tight curves, and how many of those are wedged between cliffs and river. Then one can start to plan bypasses.

Hopefully the trouble section *is* limited to Westchester. If you could get consistently fast running from Albany to Beacon-Newburgh, eventually someone will come up with a scheme to speed up the remaining section.

Bolwerk March 21, 2011 - 5:10 pm

I’m not quite sure what or where he’s talking about either. There are a few obvious things that can be done:

* lighter, euro or Japanese-style should improve performance on curves – if it becomes available.

* get a higher average speed north of Westchester, where it’s cheaper to condemn – HSR often has to slow down as urban centers are approached.

* curve straightening or simply building over the water shouldn’t be impossible in Westchester.

Alon Levy March 16, 2011 - 8:24 pm

Acela Express works pretty well

Cool. I’ve always wanted to meet someone from an alternate reality.

Bolwerk March 17, 2011 - 2:11 am

Huh? I think it’s a rip-off, but come on. It’s reliable and pretty convenient.

Alon Levy March 17, 2011 - 11:56 am

The NEC trains are comfortable, no doubt. And they’re more reliable than airlines. But they’re not reliable by HSR standards, or fast. The average speed of the Acela is about the same as that of legacy lines around the world with top speeds ranging from 90 to 100 mph.

Bolwerk March 17, 2011 - 3:25 pm

I know that. It sucks next to TGV, ICE, or Shinkansen, but keep things in perspective. If another U.S. corridor worked as well as Acela, it would be considered wildly successful. Is Acela a paragon of rail technology or planning? No. Does it work pretty well? Yeah.

Alon Levy March 17, 2011 - 6:57 pm

If another US corridor had Acela service levels, it would lose money and get pitiful ridership. The NEC barely scratches the double digits, and that’s only because it connects gigantic cities. Far more people drive than take the train, and even the wait-outside-in-the-rain Megabus manages to compete.

Bolwerk March 18, 2011 - 5:09 pm

Then why would any corridor call for Acela levels of service? I wasn’t suggesting that. A fraction of the service along with all the reliability would connect many medium-sized cities beautifully.

I get what you’re saying, but I’d be cautious about drawing conclusions based on the NEC’s status quo. What’s unusual about the NEC is the train is the premium option in the medium-distance intra-city market. Elsewhere in the country, planes would be the preferred option at those distances (thanks largely to Amtrak’s reliability).

Scott E March 16, 2011 - 5:24 pm

What is exactly involved in the Portal Bridge Replacement part of Gateway? Is it just structural and capacity enhancements, or would it no longer be a lift/drawbridge? Having high-speed rail stop abruptly for a bridge opening, or having it climb a steep incline to cross the Hackensack River on a fixed span would be interesting.

Alon Levy March 16, 2011 - 8:25 pm

Both. That it’s a drawbridge is the main issue, but it’s also a speed limit. It’s unclear to me how much leeway can be gotten out of cutting axle loads from 22.5 tons (Acela levels) to 17 (European HSR limit) or 11.5 (Shinkansen).

Alon Levy March 16, 2011 - 8:29 pm

Best use of the money right now would be gutting FRA regulations and replacing them with ready-made EU/TSI or Japanese rules, and buying new rolling stock. The Acelas are museum trains that shouldn’t be allowed on high-speed tracks; at best, they may be useful on Keystone. The money should be enough to cut NY-Boston and NY-DC to a little more than 2 hours each, given rolling stock based on the operating practices of 2011 rather than those of 1950.

Alon Levy March 16, 2011 - 8:31 pm

On second thought… make it NY-DC in 2:00, NY-Boston in about 2:30-3:00.

Alex C March 16, 2011 - 8:54 pm

Amtrak cannot be the agency to build out real high-speed rail in the Northeast. Their plans for high speed rail are a complete joke. I’m sorry, but 175 miles per hour in 2035 as a premiere high speed rail line on the Northeast Corridor is downright horrible.

John-2 March 16, 2011 - 9:32 pm

Such Is the dilemma of high-speed rail that the final corridor picked would be the corridor where HSR would be the mostly likely to find a market, but the land acquisition costs make it the most expensive of the 11 options selected. The easier/less expensive it is to build a dedicated HSR line, the less likely there are to be enough passengers along that line to mitigate the expenditure.

For the northeast corridor, the Feds might be better off seeing what the cost would be to build another low speed line that would siphon virtually all freight rail traffic off the main corridor tracks (and wouldn’t require the cost-increasing straightaways and gradual curves an HSR route demands). Like double-tracking lines in rural areas to improve long-distance service, you’d probably end up getting both more bang for your buck and more political support from non-passenger rail friendly venues that way, even if you couldn’t get the speeds a real HSR line would allow.

al March 16, 2011 - 11:01 pm

It might be time to look at short sea service and towboat barge operations along the stretch from Virginia Beach/Hampton Roads up to Bangor, Maine. Short Sea freighter/towboat barge service with RORO and container haulage capability would pull freight off the congested I-95, and improve connectivity between NYC and Coastal New England with the rest of the country.

The vessels would need to be small and maneuverable enough to rapidly enter and exit harbors without a tugboat, make the Hells Gate passage, and dock with minimal fuss.

Donald March 17, 2011 - 12:23 am

Maine has a crazy Tea Party governor who would never allow high speed rail. Cross Maine off your list.

Joe Steindam March 17, 2011 - 6:55 am

Can you read? al’s post is talking about using more boats for moving freight on the Eastern Seaboard. It says nothing about bringing HSR to Maine. Aside from the governor problem, Maine’s bigger problem is the lack of a good connection to the NEC.

As to your previous comments about which Republican governor’s want HSR, they are indeed few and far between, but Bob McDonnell of VA was happy to get his stimulus award for the Richmond-DC corridor, and Tom Corbett of PA has been decent so far when it comes to the Keystone corridor. So there is support for improving two corridors that can will into the NEC.

Eric F. March 17, 2011 - 9:41 am

Is freight actually run on the NEC? I’ve never seen a freight train on NEC tracks in CT, NJ, PA or MD. If there are freight movements, they must be very sparse.

Joe Steindam March 17, 2011 - 11:56 am

Norfolk Southern, Conrail and CSX have trackage rights to move freight on different parts of the NEC, but I don’t know how much freight they actually move on the NEC, considering some areas of heavy use by passenger rail.

Nathanael March 20, 2011 - 8:25 pm

Norfolk Southern, CSX, and their jointly-owned operation Conrail, move a lot of freight on the portions of the NEC south of New York City — but for very short distances. Fundamentally, the issue is that they serve a lot of branch lines east of the NEC, for which the only access is via the NEC.

For large examples, consider the entire Delmarva peninsula rail network (connections at Wilmington or Newark) or the entire South Jersey rail network (connection via Delair Bridge near Philadelphia or at Trenton). I suspect that a couple of short links could allow freight traffic bound for these networks to avoid the NEC, but at the moment they have to go on the NEC.

The matter is complicated by the fact that the US has failed to appropriately nationalize the railroads. NS lacks a trunk line parallel to the NEC; the nearest freight-owned line to the Delmarva network is the CSX line, which NS obviously doesn’t want to run on. Yet NS is the owner of most of the Delmarva network. So it uses the NEC to access it.

Alon Levy March 17, 2011 - 12:01 pm

Yes, but very little. I believe Norfolk Southern runs trains between Washington and Philadelphia, and CSX runs trains between the Bronx and New Haven. It’s a much smaller problem than Amtrak foamers make it look – these are not mainlines, and the lines either are four-tracked or will soon be (in CT) or have relief freight lines (in MD/DE/PA).

Joe Steindam March 17, 2011 - 12:07 pm

Freight must predominantly move on the NEC at night, I can’t see there being the space in the day to accommodate freight trains on many spots on the NEC. At least at night, the commuter rails have predominantly stopped running and there’s more open space to run trains.

Alon Levy March 17, 2011 - 8:05 pm

Yeah, pretty much. But even nighttime-only freight introduces two major problems on a high-speed line: first, it’s harder to do maintenance if the line isn’t shut down at night; and second, the line would still have to allow for the higher axle loads and lower superelevation demanded by freight.

Scott E March 17, 2011 - 4:15 pm

I believe I once saw a freight train crossing through Metuchen, NJ on the NEC.

Eric F. March 17, 2011 - 9:04 am

Where exactly would one site dedicated HSR tracks in the northeast? I just don’t see any way this is politically possible. I don’t say this gleefully, I think HSR would be very useful in the corridor, I just don’t envision getting tracks put in without a wholesale change in the law that allows the Feds to ram it through every current legal obstacle.

Joe Steindam March 17, 2011 - 12:04 pm

Aside from fixing the bottlenecks in service, the real problem spot is in Connecticut and outside NYC, where Metro-North owns the portion of the NEC and has priority. If you recall the $100+ billion Amtrak plan, this was where Amtrak actually planned using a different route to Boston.

And you’re absolutely right, shoving a HSR line through Northern CT will be very difficult (even if it follows I-84 towards Worcester). I don’t have high hopes for such an endeavor, but HSR routes everywhere face the same problem. If it can’t be done here, where support for rail is nearly bipartisan, then the US HSR program is truly dead.

Eric F. March 17, 2011 - 1:39 pm

I don’t even see how you’d do it in Jersey. You have stretches of mainline that are 4 tracks. I think you’d need to add two tracks there unless you want to cannibalize a huge amount of your mainline for HSR. Where you would site another two tracks in, say Elizabeth or Metropark is a mystery to me. You’d really have to take a cleaver to the area to do it. I don’t see any obvious parallel “bypass” route for Jersey either. Again, I think it’s worth doing, but you’d have to knock down a bunch of stuff built right up to the tracks. The most efficient NEC stretches in NJ have 5 or 6 tracks, so maybe there you wouldn’t need to do much, but that’s hardly the case on the entire corridor.

Alon Levy March 17, 2011 - 7:02 pm

The Jersey ROW has space for 6 tracks.

But the traffic south of Rahway is low enough that 4 should be enough, potentially with a single 6-track bypass segment around New Brunswick or Metropark.

Eric F. March 18, 2011 - 8:37 am

I have to disagree on both counts. There is no room for two additional tracks in, say Elizabeth. I have no idea where you’d fit two tracks on the current alignment. You’d have to take properties and rebuild the viaduct. Same thing at Metro. Take a look at it on a sattelite shot.

How could 4 tracks ever be enough when you have one set of two tracks reserved for trains going 170 mph? You have to leave one track for regionals, NJ super expresses and NJ locals. Something has to give. NJ couldn’t build the missing link to I-95 through what was an unpopulated area. I have no idea how it would be possible to condemn the vast amounts of urban properties needed to widen the ROW (or build a bypass).

Alon Levy March 18, 2011 - 11:02 am

You don’t need separate tracks for NJ locals, NJ expresses, and HSR. You would if all three were near capacity, but under something like present traffic levels, the following regime is enough:

1. The outside tracks are used primarily by NJT locals.

2. The inside tracks are used primarily by HSR.

3. NJT express trains use the outside tracks, and pass slower locals by using existing six-track segments, or switching to the inside tracks and then switching back. Even if there’s an HSR train every 10 minutes, there should be windows of a few minutes for NJT express trains to weave back and forth.

4. If HSR is so successful there’s no room for NJT express trains, then HSR local trains with unreserved cars replace some NJT super-express trains, and the remaining NJT express trains pass locals at six-track overtake segments.

As for Elizabeth, there are six tracks at EWR and Linden. Local and express NJT trains could share tracks on a segment with just two stations; the speed difference isn’t that large.

Eric F. March 18, 2011 - 11:58 am

Ok, so you’d squeeze the NJ service on the 4 track segments and use the 6 track segments for passing. Not the best solution of course. Depends on traffic levels , but there is a huge speed differntial between a local and some of those super-expresses.

Ideally, in Elizabeth, I’d expand to six tracks and streaighten the tracks in exchage for buying the city a new attractive station and other local mitigation. Metro has its own mitigation needs. Even with prior improvements it’s a traffic nightmare and only accessible from one side of the tracks.

Alon Levy March 18, 2011 - 1:13 pm

In Elizabeth, I’d straighten the tracks by buying out properties for above market value. The only two that are mission-critical are a parking structure near the station and a small commercial building just to the south.

The speed difference between local and express NJT trains is based on stop-skipping. Two stops aren’t a big deal, even at the higher speeds of express commuter rail and lower acceleration rates of the ALP-46s.

Amtrak Takes Lead on Gateway – Applies for HSR Funding | Gateway Gab April 4, 2011 - 6:13 pm

[…] the Gateway and HSR on the Northeast Corridor. ¬†Amtrak’s move was not unexpected, since just three weeks ago, the Federal government designated the NEC as a HSR corridor, making the line eligible for HSR […]


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