Home High-Speed Rail Amtrak’s NE Corridor: A very expensive HSR Hail Mary

Amtrak’s NE Corridor: A very expensive HSR Hail Mary

by Benjamin Kabak

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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pea-jay July 17, 2012 - 2:04 am

Hell even if it did cost that much, it’s still less than we blew on those two middle eastern wars or tax cuts. And 2040 is not an aggressive timeline. Doing the whole thing by 2020 is but taking more than 25 years?

Come on.

Marc Shepherd July 17, 2012 - 7:35 am

Exactly: Amtrak SHOULD think big, and transit friendly sites (like this one) SHOULD be lining up to support it. Far from being insane, the proposal is a level-headed example of the kind of big thinking we need.

Alon Levy’s solution does not sound credible.

Benjamin Kabak July 17, 2012 - 9:40 am

This proposal costs nearly ten times more per mile than the global average for high-speed rail construction. I don’t see this as anything more than a huge money grab by Amtrak, and there’s no reason why this should (a) be so expensive or (b) receive anything more than lukewarm support until Amtrak explains why the costs are so high.

Bolwerk July 17, 2012 - 10:00 am

If we’re going to be sane about this, it shouldn’t even cost as much for the most part. The corridor is there.

Nathanael July 18, 2012 - 2:47 am

I suspect someone at Amtrak is thinking as follows:

For the last 40 years, whenever Amtrak has asked for the amount of money they actually need, they’ve gotten less than half of it.

So why not ask for several times what they need. Then maybe they’ll get what they actually need.

Bolwerk July 18, 2012 - 4:49 am


But there is another effect here too, that Big Government actually doesn’t tend to offer ongoing operational support to anything besides highways and airplanes (Amtrak being a tiny exception). Agencies like to ask for way more than they need to over-build because they know they won’t get more.

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 10:24 am

They combined plans , ugh…why does no one seem to get this. The Old NEC , Feeders and New NEC , not just the New NEC. It might be a little inflated , but its not a bad plan.

Benjamin Kabak July 17, 2012 - 10:25 am

A “little” inflated doesn’t even begin to cover the costs. Even if you separate out the pieces, we’re still talking about something that is around 6-7 more expensive than global average. Combining two programs doesn’t excuse the cost.

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 10:34 am

It is the Northeast , and everything in this region is inflated beyond madness look at the SAS and the South Coast line both cost way more then they should. Its not so much the Plans but the bids. Agencies after dealing with the lower bidders and getting poor results. You could probably shave off 20-35 Billion by switching the bids , but the Plan itself is fine except some tweaks. I don’t see a 35 min time between NY and Philly without bypassing Newark. They did answer my New England questions why they shifted it around which has also freed up more space for RI and CT Rail Master Plans to go through without much upgrades needed. Seeing how the cost was slimmed down by 15 Billion , i’m sure Amtrak will slim even more , probably another 15-30 Billion which makes it feasible. I think there just over-inflating the Cost , which is a first for them. But I think there doing to be safe , I would put the cost around 120-30 Billion.

Eric F July 17, 2012 - 11:10 am

About bypassing Newark: Agreed that this must happen, at least a bypass of the congested terminal. I had wondered whether Newark station could be expanded upward with a level added above the main level and reserved for Amtrak high speed service.

I understand the headline money amount here is high, but this is spending over 20+ years. If I was the president, and I was asked to set aside $10 billion for Amtrak cap ex per year for a world class NEC, that would be fine with me. We spend way more than that on way stupider stuff, much of which is counterproductive.

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 11:22 am

With Newark Bypass from Kearny JCT south they can use a CSX Freight line which bypasses the NEC on the Eastern side of the Ironbound. With some tweaking you can stick to tracks in there and ride to EWR which where the 6 track NEC would go up to. Part of the Amtrak Gateway Plans are to build a new Interchange between the RVL and NEC to reduce congestion and add capacity. As for Newark Penn , the station is being completly rebuilt , and the older southern platforms will be restored to allow another 8-10 cars ontop of 12 limit they have. This would benefit NJT which will run Super Regional Rail trains in the near future of 15-20 cars to meet demand…which is expected to be 170,000 by 2030 up from 65,000 today. The Newark Approach needs to be redone , the PATH lines need to rebuilt that was added in probably the reason for the cost increase and the Hunter Interchange between the 2 , and Dock Bridge upgrade id say an Addition 1-1.2 Billion. Everything has to be done with care and not disrupt the day to day operations. So far the Upgrade of Newark Penn has gone smoothly for 110,000 daily users… Theres a race against the clock due to more Companies and residents moving into Newark each year. Aside from large projects like the Gateway and Baltimore tunnels which are about 25 Billion combined , they were asking for a stepping process of 5-8 billion a year which is very reasonable… If you look at other Govt crap we spend on , like Defense which is 650 Billion a year this is a drop in the bucket.

Eric F July 17, 2012 - 11:58 am

There’s an “upgrade” to Newark Penn? I’ve been through there and all I’ve noticed is the reconstruction of some decrepit platforms. Is there more going on that’s not visible?

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 12:13 pm

Yes the Platforms will all be rebuilt , then the roof rebuilt , then the tracks and drainage. This should be done by 2019 , and the apporches depending on if the Gateway happens. Theres no concrete plans on a key bridge spanning at the end of the station , it was to be turned into a park , but that seems dead. The PATH approaches could be attached to the Gateway seeing how there built ontop of the NEC and need to be shifted for 1-2 extra tracks to be put in. Aside from the tracks , the traffic pattern outside the station will be done and made easier for pedestrians.

Marc Shepherd July 17, 2012 - 11:31 am

There is a bit of muddy thinking here. A lot of the costs are the result of union featherbedding, OSHA rules, envirnomental laws, FRA regulations, and so forth. Those costs would figure in any proposal, other than doing nothing.

I am not defending all of those costs, only pointing out that it is beyond Amtrak’s authority to fix them. If you think Amtrak’s current proposal costs 10x too much, then Alon Levy’s would cost 10x too much as well. The inefficiencies that Amtrak can’t fix, Alon can’t fix either.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 4:31 pm

People really have to stop blaming OSHA and environmental laws for everything. OSHA isn’t what’s forcing Amtrak to put in Gateway and the completely superfluous Market East tunnel. NEPA isn’t what’s forcing Amtrak to build long tunnels north of New Rochelle to get to I-84 just because it doesn’t want to deal with Metro-North. Unions aren’t what’s preventing Amtrak from fixing easy curves like Metuchen instead of spending far more money per minute saved elsewhere. The FRA isn’t what’s forcing Amtrak to suggest Charles Center in Baltimore – in fact the FRA is the lead agency on a study for new Baltimore tunnels that explicitly rejects Charles Center on cost grounds. And so on.

Eric F July 17, 2012 - 4:59 pm

I would lump in OSHA by any stretch, and we want our workers to be safe. I do think the enviro. process in the U.S. is just batty. Their context was a country that seemed to have a fully built out infrastructure after a huge building spree and a stable population of 200 million. Fast forward 40+ years and we have an infrastructure base for a nation of 200 million people but a population of 320 million heading to half a billion, and have built next to nothing from a capacity expansion perspective in 40 years.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 6:55 pm

The process is batty, though part of that comes from agencies that operate on a shoestring budget; the limiting factor for completing environmental work faster is often money, rather than inherent slowness.

That said, it’s not the batty review process that makes agencies build caverns, excessive multi-tracking, etc.

Eric F July 18, 2012 - 8:58 am

True enough, it’s not the review process that requires a deep cavern. What forces this stuff on planners is a contextual requirement that pretty much no one object to anything, which limits the ability of the planners to, say, knock down a square block of class B or class C space in the garment district flanked by wide avenues and build a proper station. We’ve reached a point in required consensus culture where this is more or less impossible.

Alon Levy July 18, 2012 - 5:19 pm

With this project specifically it’s something more fundamental: agency turf battles. The LIRR can’t think of any way to run a railroad other than to park trains in Midtown Manhattan between the am and pm peaks, and will under no circumstances cooperate with anyone else. Metro-North doesn’t want to share tracks at Grand Central, never mind it has more than 40 of them. Amtrak thinks it needs a concourse separate from that of everyone else at Penn Station.

AG July 17, 2012 - 9:09 pm

Alon – I agree with you – except the part about Gateway… the Gateway Tunnel project is an absolute necessity since the ARC Tunnel isn’t going to happen. Capacity MUST be increased under the Hudson river.

Spendmore Wastemore July 17, 2012 - 6:42 pm

“If we waste a real big pile of money on fool’s errand x, then why not waste a medium big pile overpaying for y?”

This week on Dangerous Jobs: Spelunking the American Mind!1!

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 2:11 am

Alon Levy’s Proposals were laughable at best , the Rail Community didn’t take too kinda to his proposals. Like hugging the Shore line , or some of the weird sharing things he proposals. I don’t mind the man , but he just gave the Rail haters ammo to tear up a project that’s been studied out. The only concerns the Rail community has is not adding a Newark Bypass and how were going to get from the Shoreline to the Inland route. Alot of us agree , a New NEC is needed. Lucky from PA to MD there is alot of abandoned ROW near or next to the NEC which used to support 6 Tracks. Even if you upgrade the Rolling stock your going to run into issues with capacity which is why you need a NEw track. All in all , the Northeast deserves a project like this , 151 Billion for the New and OLD NEC and Feeders. Which is about 3,740 miles of new or upgraded Rail….then you have another 10,278 miles of new or upgraded Regional Rail , Interurban , Light Rail , Streetcar , Subway or BRT…and another 120 Billion $$. The Northeastern states have great Master Rail Plan , while its not as cheap as the Midwest at 130 Billion , its needed. At least its not as Expensive as the West Coast Master Plan at 390 Billion….

Stephen Smith July 17, 2012 - 2:49 am

…some of the weird sharing things he proposals…

Using tracks efficiently is weird and un-American!

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 2:55 am

Using tracks with HSR is weird….but there all nearing capacity…so we need more tracks. 2 more from NY to DC…, he said if we could get the agencies to work together then we could free up space. While I like this proposal it will never happen. The LIRR and MNRR Employee egos would never allow this to happen and mixing in NJT would make things to soupy. As for Talgo , they don’t even have their foot in the door in this region…and yes i’m half asleep as i’m writing this…

BBnet3000 July 17, 2012 - 3:44 am

This is the kind of thinking that gets us stupid ideas like “Penn Station South”. Nowhere has anyone ever done less with more tracks than at Penn Station. How many tracks do they have? 22-23? They are running out?

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 5:25 am

How is Penn Station south a stupid idea? And it allows Amtrak to one day expand into Grand Central. Penn Station South is enough tracks for now….although more tracks down the road are needed. Penn Station may be big , but its a divided Station , the LIRR vs NJT / Amtrak…Amtrak wants more space so its building more space. Now if you mean the NEC , a 2 Track extension from South Elizabeth to Newark Penn is needed to reduce congestion and increase capacity. The Tracks go down from 6 tracks to 4 tracks then hit a S curve which would be straightened out , then grows to 5 and then 6 tracks near EWR. During Rush hr there are train traffic jams of one train waiting while another one can pass. And with the MOM Network coming down the road it will only add to the congestion. So more tracks are needed , same with Penn station with more services coming a few more tracks are needed to handle them. Its not just the MOM network but New Midtown Direct trains from the Raritan Valley line and Future West Trenton , Philpsburg lines and Lackawanna lines…more services will fighting for slots that don’t exist at the present. If they’re weren’t any new lines being added to Penn Station then it be stupid , all you need to do now is rearrange some trains and services. But that’s not the case by 2030 with a lot of these services feeding into Penn Station. Thats also why we need a New Kearny JCT , Portal Bridge , and New Tunnels… There also fixing the Harrison bottleneck by adding a 4th track between Newark Penn and Kearny JCT which will add capacity and reduce congestion. Currently Newark Penn Station goes from 4 to 3 tracks from the Dock Bridges to Kearny JCT then down to 2 tracks to NY. Kearny JCT will be grade Separated to allow for smooth operation between the Morristown line and NEC , Amtrak will also bypass Kearny JCT , Secaucus JCT and ride on a New ROW to NYP which will solve most of the issues. And yes all of that is needed…and I don’t know why people are so mad over the costs. Alot of people seem to think its just for the new NEC , when its for the old NEC and Feeders like ive said. The Gateways Costing increasing doesn’t bother me , would you rather have them go with the lowest bidder or corrupt bidder like the MTA? Amtrak goes with the best Quality Bidders….most of their projects come on time and on budget. Theres rarely a cost overrun. I think what Amtrak is doing is over estimating , but is that so wrong? Alot of times they under Estimate and costs explode upwards….

Bolwerk July 17, 2012 - 8:47 am

Two more full tracks may be overkill, but adding two more in some segments where it can allow passing or segregate commuter traffic is pretty low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t really call even for condemning more land necessarily. Penn Station South is simply a boondoggle.

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 9:52 am

How do you proposal NJT feed any addition 100 trains by 2030 from the NJCL / MOM into the NEC? The 6 track segment needs to extended up to Newark , and Kearny JCT expanded to allow for more trains to go Hoboken and Amtrak to bypass a Choke point and NJT to be allowed to add more trains to NYC. NJT is getting 3 tracks from Kearny to Secaucus and Amtrak which bypasses the mess will get 2 tracks..which is responsible. How is Penn Station south a boondoggle? When more space is needed?

Bolwerk July 17, 2012 - 10:02 am

We don’t need more space in Penn Station. If anything, we need to use less space. 6-8 tracks in Penn should suffice if there is through running. The only railroad with an excuse to dwell there is Amtrak, and even they don’t have an excuse to do it for very long.

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 10:18 am

Its for NJT aswell….and how do you propose Amtrak extend service to GCT. The New Tracks and Platforms would allow for the Future Expansion to GCT and make it easier.

Bolwerk July 17, 2012 - 11:12 am

If your goal is to expand Amtrak to GCT, why would you waste $10B to do something that doesn’t even bring trains close to GCT?

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 12:07 pm

The New Penn South tracks after the Platforms will start to curve North and go under the other tracks. Its a prep for GCT access which would probably after this project.

al July 17, 2012 - 2:08 pm

You might want to check the tunnel clearance. The tunnels were designed for LIRR M1 EMU commuter rail cars. The C3 bi-level cars don’t fit. That will prevent hv overhead power. You would need dual voltage equipment with 3rd rail current collector, and smaller equipment.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 6:47 pm

Wait, what? The tunnels already have medium-voltage overhead power, for Amtrak.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 4:35 pm

Where the hell do you get the idea you need 2 more tracks all the way from New York to Washington?

For the record, here is a very long explanation for why even in the busier parts of the NEC, HSR and commuter trains do not need to share tracks in New Jersey south of Newark, even without adding tracks anywhere.

Likewise, on SEPTA the commuter rail frequency on the Trenton and Wilmington Lines is low enough everything can fit on the local tracks, again requiring zero track sharing except at some junctions near 30th Street Station and near Wilmington.

Baltimore-Washington I haven’t looked at too closely; I’m wavering between “it can be done with present infrastructure” and “it needs to be expanded to four tracks from today’s mostly-three.”

Eric F July 17, 2012 - 5:04 pm

Does that logic breakdown where the corridor is heavily used? I am concerned that you are assuming operational perfection. I-95 in CT is way under-built for the traffic and thus maintenance work is confined to off-hours. This itself imposes an increased maintenance cost because you can’t take out a lane when normal people would be working during productive hours. But even confining routine surfacing to midnight to 5 a.m., you get huge tie ups, which are unpredictable to late night drivers and haulers because with the infrastructure strained taking out one out of three or one out of two lanes at 2 a.m. is enough to cause a minor crisis.

I just don’t see why you wouldn’t want redundant and slack capacity. In real life, maintenance is required, storms hit, trains get disabled… Why not have some ability to have a functioning system when every single last part is not functioning the way its drawn up in a textbook?

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 6:45 pm

I’m not assuming perfection, but I am assuming better practices than currently exist. When I put together fantasy schedules, I follow Switzerland’s 7% schedule padding.

For the record, all dedicated HSR corridors in the world are two-tracked. Maintenance is done at night, when trains do not run. The same can be done in the US – think FasTrack only it’s every day of the year. On the four-track lines it’s possible to run a few night trains; in principle it’d be slower than normal because of work zone rules, but in practice, depending on how much freight traffic there is at night, they could be padded less because of lower passenger traffic.

Instead of spending many tens of billions on redundancy, it’s much better to spend a fraction of that money on more reliable systems: for example, trains with the MDBF of the subway or the LIRR rather than that of the Acelas. It shouldn’t be a normal thing that trains break down on the track. For infrastructure, it’s important to identify difficult bottlenecks. The reason I’m pushing Cos Cob Bridge so hard is that it combines a reliability improvement, infrastructure replacement, and slow zone removal. Of course four-tracking the North River Tunnels would add more reliability and capacity, but that’s way more expensive.

lawhawk July 18, 2012 - 10:01 am

For the same reason, I’ve been calling for the Portal Bridge to get done, separate and apart from the now bundled project with ARC/Gateway. It had been originally proposed as a separate project, but has repeatedly been combined in the costs of the ARC/Gateway.

It would eliminate a major bottleneck heading into Secaucus from Newark, improve reliability, and eliminate a slow zone. The 2-track swing bridge would be replaced by 2 separate fixed spans – a 3 track and 2-track configuration with new alignments.

Douglas John Bowen September 12, 2012 - 9:10 am

Portal Bridge was proposed as a separate project by some measures, as a means to advance each/both by keeping apparent projected costs down. Amtrak is now less disingenuous over the two-projects-as-one than NJ Transit was. That said, lawhawk’s argument is a good one: Portal Bridge needs addressing, even if Gateway never takes hold.

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 11:40 pm

You do realize, by 2030 regardless of train changes the amount of trains is expected to double to about 2400 a day. Now you may not know this but the Original NEC was up to 8 tracks , a lot of the ROW is preserved so added 2 tracks from New Rochelle to DC isn’t that difficult. As for bypassing 30th Street for Market East , by 2030 with all the Septa plans hopefully moving by then , the zoo interchange will become a jammed mess and there’s no way even with upgrades that you could squezze in HSR. Its stupid not to bypass all the Philly Chokepoints. Sure Market East will be big and expensive , but its the heart of Philly , a booming Philly , just like Charles Center in Baltimore. And bypassing both messes in Philly and Bmore will do wonders for the NEC. The Plans do call for upgrading the current NEC , but it can’t handle the increased traffic from the HST’s. Its something everyone knows in the Rail Community and you refuse to accept.

Alon Levy July 18, 2012 - 4:56 pm

The current grade separations are not eight-tracked. The bottleneck tunnels are not eight-tracked.

Traffic on most of the line could comfortably double and still not require adding two tracks everywhere. For example, the biggest market to go after right now is off- or reverse-peak; that doesn’t require pouring any concrete. But even for peak traffic, only a few strategic overtake locations are required, if at all. For example, my MBTA-HSR compatibility plan will let you go to a peak of not only 4 tph Providence but also 4 tph Stoughton, double the current level of 2.5 tph Providence and 1.5 tph Stoughton, in addition to 4 tph HSR.

The way Switzerland achieves high mode share with way less public funding is to add tracks where they are required based on a known service plan. This is what’s missing from American railroad planning. They say “We need X more trains per day” without ever giving more details.

Steve S. July 17, 2012 - 11:04 am

You mean simply applying tried-and-tested European transit planning norms to American situations and pointing out the absurdity Americans will go to to protect a “what’s mine is mine and yours is yours” mindset? He’s hardly the only one to do this.

Yeah, right.

Alon Levy is worth listening to because Alon Levy is RIGHT.

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 2:30 am

Also once all the Rail Master Plans for Regional Rail are completed , mostly by 2030 you’ll need a New NEC. With NJ , MA , RI , CT alone added a ton of congestion to the NEC and train traffic jams which already occur in NY…

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 8:00 am

Before I go to bed , I will leave you with a slightly upgraded Rolling Stock order sheet for the Northeastern States and Amtrak by 2025. There seems to be a push for more EMUs in the NYC and Philly regions. Its a shame the MBTA and MARC don’t join them. Which could reduce some the NEC congestion…but then again Amtrak hates EMU’s for some reason…

24 – Light Rail Vehicles
212 – Rapid Transit Cars for the Orange line
27 – HSP46 Diesel Locos (Top speed 110mph)
75 – Bilevel cars

308 – M8 Railcars – Top Speed 100mph
33 – M8/As for shoreline
20 – Unknown Diesel locos – Top Speed 110mph
100 – unknown cars for NH-SP line ^

236 – M9 & M9/A Railcars – Top Speed 100mph
252 – M9 Railcars (after 2015) – Top Speed 100mph

210 – M9 Railcars – Top Speed 100mph

NYC Subway
290 – R179 Rapid Rail cars
473 – Converted / New R188 Rapid Rail cars

New Jersey Transit / PATH
100 – bilevel cars
238 – Arrow 4 EMU Railcars for Gladstone & Monticlair Branches – Top speed 100-125mph
53 – DMU Railcars for Pascack Valley line & Atlantic city line – Top speed 90mph
70 – Light Rail Vehicles , Diesel and Electric
80 – Rapid Transit PATH cars

Septa / PATCO
60 – Silverliner 5 Rail Cars – Top Speed 125mph (next year speed bump)
231 – Silverliner 5 or 6 Rail cars – Top Speed 125mph
141 – Low Floor Light rail cars
120 – rebuilt PATCO Rapid Transit cars

40 – Acela Express Cars
70 – Electric Locos – Top Speed 135mph
130 – New Intercity Amfleets
70 – Next Gen Amfleets for Northeast regional


54 – Bilevel cars
35 – Bilevel cars (after 2015)
34 – Light Rail Vehicles for Red line
45 – Light Rail Vehicles for Purple line

364 – Rapid Transit Rail cars
7 – Streetcars
64 Rapid Transit Cars (after 2015)

32 – Bilevel Railcars
7 – Diesel locos

al July 17, 2012 - 2:19 pm

Missing R211 for R44/46 replacement and to meet increased demand when the economy clears out the excess from the last 20 yrs and grows at 3-4% again. 2025 is also 40 service yrs for R68 and R62. They will need a replacement, or a heavy rebuild to last to ~2035.

Nathanael July 18, 2012 - 2:49 am

EMUs aren’t so hot for long-distance operations, which is most of what Amtrak does. More “locomotives” (in FRA classification) to maintain, more work to join and split cars, less interior room, etc.

The main benefit of EMUs over electric locomotives is acceleration, and if you have a long distance between stations, that’s less important.

Steve S. July 18, 2012 - 10:19 am

Then maybe it’s the FRA that’s the problem?

The Siemens Velaro is a high-speed EMU that is used safely from Córdoba to Moscow, from Harbin to Hainan, as an example. Look, I agree long-haul medium-speed transcontinental trains are going to be loco-hauled for the long term (e.g. the Golmud-Lhasa railway, Trans-Siberian, etc.), but when dealing with HSR, speed is king and speed dictates EMUs. Why do you think Alstom is developing the AGV if it weren’t for the fact that the Velaro has offered Siemens a strong competitive advantage this past decade?

Alon Levy July 18, 2012 - 4:38 pm

Wait, what? EMUs give you more rather than less interior room. Think about it.

AlexB July 17, 2012 - 8:27 am

Why in the world do you think this proposal is “…a pie-in-the-sky idea that likely won’t and probably shouldn’t become a reality?” It seems pretty straightforward to me, and would include two very excellent and integrated railroads. Although there are ways to save money, in the long run, we all know you we will have to build a brand new line and there isn’t a cheap way to do that, except perhaps to avoid new cavern stations in cities. The whole thing is a set of individual projects. The first 15 years of this proposal is already common knowledge anyway: it’s the list of state of good repair projects. Those can be done as money becomes available. Sections of new 220 mph track can be laid in any number of 13 different sections to speed up service. Besides the Gateway project, Amtrak will choose the most cost effective segments first. In the long run, it may eventually make more sense to construct those deep cavern stations, but the governors and/or mayors of DC, Baltimore, Philly, Providence and Boston will have a lot more than us to say about this.

Phantom July 17, 2012 - 8:28 am

This routing through Hartford is meant to avoid the curves, congestion and slow speeds in the current route between NY and Boston?

Corey Best July 17, 2012 - 8:54 am

Yes , even if you could fix some curves it wouldn’t get speeds past 125mph which is too slow. And the Congestion along the Corridor is growing. The MNRR New Haven line is expected to have daily ridership of 185,000 by 2030 and some of the secondary routes will see 67,000 by 2030 so bypassing the Shoreline is a smart move. The Old NEC will be upgraded to handle all those new trains , along with wire and bridge replacement. And the Feeders will be upgraded. There are some unknowns like what the New Hartford and Providence stations will look like and what there design is. The NEC from Providence to Boston will be 4 tracked , there is some rumblings in the Rail Community in Mass , that Amtrak might 3 track the Fairmount line and send there Acelas up that way bypassing Back Bay. What I would like to see thrown is a North – South Tunnel and NEC Extension to Portland.

Phantom July 17, 2012 - 12:17 pm

I took the NYP – Providence Round Trip by Acela last week. The average speed was about 60mph, which is astonishingly slow.

I don’t know why in the world Amtrak bought the high speed trains when the existing NY – Boston tracks – even if they were emptied except for Acelas – cannot accommodate anything approaching a modern, fast service because of the tight turns, etc.

Eric F July 17, 2012 - 12:41 pm

I believe the Acela plan was scaled back for the segment from NYC to Boston due to Connecticut’s opposition to an improved alignment. Acela is more useful from NYC south. The advent of Acela did bring electrification to the NYC to Boston segement, so there’s that.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 4:39 pm

The Acelas are specifically equipped with tilt capability, to allow them to run faster on the curves. That, by itself, is a good decision Amtrak made.

Alas, everything beyond the concept was botched. The FRA stepped in late and demanded very high buff strength, even higher than it demands normal trains, and this made the locomotives way too heavy. Late in the design process they needed to widen the coaches to have ADA-compliant bathrooms; this meant the tilting capability had to be scaled back. Metro-North simplifies dispatching by making all trains run at the same slow speed, and so there’s no tilting between New Rochelle and New Haven even though that’s a curvy segment that could benefit from it; even the top curve speeds of non-tilting trains are disallowed there.

Walter July 17, 2012 - 4:10 pm

The route they choose (I-84) is so curvy and hilly that without significant tunneling there won’t be any high speeds. There’s one part of I-84 in Southbury, CT where it must be something like a 25% grade. There’s a reason the Shore Line was built where it was 150 years ago.

Douglas John Bowen July 17, 2012 - 9:01 am

The headline offers a very flawed analogy, not reflective of Mr. Kabak’s usual outstanding commentary. If the plan was a “last-minute, all-or-nothing” approach commensurate with Amtrak’s living or dying very quickly, the “Hail Mary’ stuff might hold. But it doesn’t. Right or wrong, good or bad, it’s a long-term, “stair-step” approach that has plenty of time and adjustment factors built in.

Amtrak officials at the Philadelphia conference made it quite clear the plan was long-term, subject to change and adjustment, and in keeping with real-world pressures to generate admittedly steep climbs of political acceptance and the money that comes with that. But it was a plan — not a Hail Mary.

Bolwerk July 17, 2012 - 9:29 am

Going after Amtrak’s PR stunt is pointless. Go after the pols like Lautenberg who are cheerleading this kind of cruft. This proposal literally costs, if not two orders of magnitude more than Amtrak’s budget, at least two orders of magnitude more than the NEC’s budget.

There are four New England states and five midatlantic states that can unambiguously benefit from a better NEC. Even Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Virginia arguably benefit. Yet I’m pretty sure I can confidently say that not a single northeastern senator (and no House reps as far as I know) even entertain reforming the regulatory framework that makes HSR impossible, and makes even efficient/reliable regional passenger service difficult at best, in America. They don’t legislate against crew minimums, buff strength requirements, inter-agency squabbling, or even low-hanging fruit like fare standardization.

Fix that political problem and Alon Levy’s generally sound proposals start looking doable. Even the teabaggers can’t deny that the feds have a constitutional prerogative to make rail work well.

Nathanael July 18, 2012 - 2:51 am

Or, better yet, focus on the best parts of Amtrak’s plan. By the time those are implemented, the rest will be long forgotten in favor of some new plan (anyone remember the full details of the long-term NEC plans in the 1970s?)

Nathanael July 18, 2012 - 2:52 am

I mean “better than go after Lautenberg”.

Obviously, anything which can be done to bring the FRA-regulation problem to the attention of the politicos is good. They don’t even know about it. The interagency coordination problem they will throw back at the agencies, of course.

Alex C July 18, 2012 - 11:37 pm

The Teabaggers see rail as inherently communist and un-American since it goes against the best interests of the oil companies.

As for the senators, I’ve sent Schumer and others emails on the issue and the response is always the generic auto reply email with no follow up ever done. And no legislation. Until the US as a country gets out of its bubble of rail being lame and slow and gets to see what it’s like in civilized countries, you will never have proper rail travel in the US. Our awful “news media” know no better and just parrot the same talking points about high speed rail being some crazy new concept that will never work.

Eric F July 17, 2012 - 11:01 am

Is there any sort of RoW alignment picked out between New Rochelle and Danbury? I think a greenfield NEC is a wonderful idea, but I cannot imagine how you’d get that through a zillion suburban NY towns, as a political matter. I wonder if they could use the median of I-684.

Steve S. July 17, 2012 - 11:09 am

My bet is that the route they’re proposing would run in the median of alongside 684 from somewhere east of White Plains to Hartford, but a greenfield alignment is still necessary to reach Providence.

Warp July 17, 2012 - 1:16 pm

Alongside I-684 wouldn’t really work. The NIMBY contingent there is very rich and very strong. I’d place bets on and ABOVE the median on I-684. What would be interesting is if there was a transfer at Golden’s Bridge. That would allow for use of the Upper Harlem as a feeder for parking.

After I-684 dissolves into I-84, the HSR ROW can go clear to Hartford through Danbury and Waterbury on and ABOVE the median. Perhaps feeder BRT on I-84 would make sense. I’d think feeding the Southeast Harlem Line station via BRT from Park & Ride on I-84 would allow for a more efficient use of road rolling stock than the present arrangement. A ramp direct from I-84 down to the Southeast Harlem Line station would make lots of sense to supplement this.

This would be a good pickup point for the HSR as there’s lots of parking to be had.

That is, if the government is absolutely crazy enough to do this.

Tsuyoshi July 17, 2012 - 11:14 am

I think I would rather just spend the $151 billion on local transit. A small portion of that would be sufficient for the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, a triborough subway, a tunnel to Staten Island, or many other useful projects.

lawhawk July 17, 2012 - 11:58 am

HSR or intercity transit would have a bonus of not only increasing transit options, but it would reduce air congestion since people would have a viable alternative to taking commuter jets to and from DC or Boston from NY or Philly. Rail would put those commuters/travelers at a city center in less time than airlines would, and would be a cost benefit to a wider number of people, particularly since the air traffic system nationally is constrained by congestion at the NYC area airports. Reduce the numbers of flights that are regional in nature, and you increase on-time performance nationally, and create a more effective air travel paradigm while building out a true HSR system.

Tsuyoshi July 17, 2012 - 2:29 pm

I don’t disagree with your sentiment. But if the object is to reduce congestion at New York airports, there is a very simple way to do that: raise the fees for using the airports. Building more rail capacity won’t even really work; whatever regional flights that are redirected to train travel will almost certainly be replaced by other flights from other regions or other countries.

Which is not in itself a bad thing — if more people are travelling to New York from other places that is obviously a good thing, however they get here. I think the best argument for this investment in the Northeast Corridor is simply that more travel will have economic benefits.

But my point is that it would likely have greater economic benefit if you just took the money and split it between the cities in the region (maybe New York would get $10 or 20 billion), and spent it on intracity transit.

This is theoretical of course — no one in the position to do anything about it is actually proposing to spend serious money on intracity transit in the US.

AG July 19, 2012 - 10:50 am

tsuyoshi – well actually if you go by pct of GDP – NY would get more than 20 billion… and that’s actually Amtrak’s argument to get funding…. that the NE Corridor (Washington to Boston) holds such a high share of the nations GDP that it should get the money. While it is true – and I agree – it’s not likely to happen because much of the country doesn’t like the Northeast – so their congressional members are not likely to vote for it. This is just a “wish list”.

SEAN July 17, 2012 - 12:09 pm

You need to think regionally & not be so NYC centric.

I don’t know how a new row will be built along I-684 since in Golden’s Bridge the highway, the existing Harlem Line & Route 22 are all constrained. Also how would trains get there from across Westchester unless a row was constructed from between Rye & Port Chester following I-287 & Westchester Avenue.

lawhawk July 17, 2012 - 11:54 am

The $151 billion can also be broken out to something around $335 million per mile (over the 448 mile route) or around $5 billion per year, which isn’t all that much considering what’s involved.

Yet, we’re talking huge sums of money that are vastly higher than comparable projects in Europe or Asia. We have to address those reasons if we ever want to bring the price tag down.

Some of the costs could be attributed to higher acquisition costs of ROW in the States, but it’s also due to regulations, union rules, and other inefficiencies of the US marketplace.

Congress should be addressing those – after all, if a Japanese or European HSR system has shown itself to be safe, efficient, and cost-effective, we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel with a system that is more costly because of added weight and safety concerns that aren’t real-world safety issues.

But as bad as the Amtrak proposal for the NEC is, the CA HSR plans show just how off the rails US HSR has gone. Amtrak at least has an excuse for some of the costs – due to massive tunnel projects and constraints on its ROW while maintaining existing service. CA has no excuse for the costs of its boondoggle in the making, not when SCNF was able to propose a routing that was significantly cheaper and linked more populous cities together.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 5:20 pm

$335 million per mile for HSR is actually absurdly high, even considering what’s involved. It’s more than the Chuo Shinkansen, a maglev line that JR Central is about to begin building between Tokyo and Osaka, tunneling through the Japanese Alps and under the entire Tokyo and Osaka urban areas, for a total tunnel percentage of 60% of the route.

But apart from unit costs, the decision to do massive tunneling in urban areas should not be taken lightly. JR Central is doing it because maglev and regular trains can’t share tracks. Amtrak doesn’t have that problem, and yet a huge fraction of the cost is in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In contrast, in Korea they wisely left the urban segments to last; excluding them, the current system, which is 40% in tunnel and 30% on viaduct because of all the mountains, cost about one third per mile as what Amtrak is proposing. Amtrak’s proposal is also more than the Swiss base tunnels, and close to twice as much as the most expensive completed project yet, Florence-Bologna, which is over 90% in tunnel.

lawhawk July 18, 2012 - 10:08 am

I’m in total agreement with you on this; the costs have to be brought down to something more manageable. There are easier and cheaper ways to improve the NEC, and that starts with the power systems.

It shouldn’t take 20 years (and counting) to upgrade the catenary systems, which Metro North touts as a success story for as much as they’ve accomplished to date. 59% of the CT lines have been upgrade, which means 1/3 of the system is still screwed up. Some success.

There has to be a better and faster way of dealing with this.

Alon Levy July 18, 2012 - 4:23 pm

Things like this are a matter of money rather than time. It doesn’t inherently take 20 years to upgrade catenary. Just, in an environment without much funding for these projects they will take longer.

Chet July 17, 2012 - 12:22 pm

As Benjamin said in Tweet earlier today, people seem to be ignoring that the cost of this project is so beyond the costs for similar HSR in other parts of the world.

The Daily News article said that in Spain, the cost is about $35 million a mile. At that rate, this project should be about $15 billion. Even if we triple that cost, we’re at $45 billion- over $100 billion less than what Amtrak has proposed.

It would seem to me that the greatest cost savings would come from completely overhauling work rules- how many people a TBM really needs for example.

If that is true, then the unions (and I’m a union person) really need to change their ways. At $40 billion, this project would really have a chance. It also wouldn’t have to take almost 30 years to complete. They could have so much more work if they just brought their work rules into line with what is needed today, as opposed to what was needed 100 years ago.

What could Amtrak do with that other $100 billion? HSR to Montreal… From Chicago to St Louis…

Phantom July 17, 2012 - 12:42 pm

If a high speed line was built say between NY and Montreal, would Quebec / Canada be expected to pay a big chunk of the cost? One would think so?

Alex C July 17, 2012 - 12:46 pm

It would probably be worth it as they’ve discussed the issue before, with Quebec willing to play ball. A branch off that line west to Buffalo and Toronto would also be a good idea.

Benjamin Kabak July 17, 2012 - 12:48 pm

I’d imagine Canada would pay for a good amount of it. The Amtrak route between New York and Montreal is laughably slow today.

Stewart Clamen July 17, 2012 - 1:45 pm

… but has the advantage of offering great scenery, and having very low fares.

A fast train between Montreal and New York City has been on the agenda in Quebec since the 70s, if not earlier.

Bolwerk July 17, 2012 - 1:48 pm

Back in the Pataki era, Montreal and New York held frequent trading summits and discussed this. I would guess, like most HSR projects under the current status quo, the 3hr (?) scheme they had went and will go nowhere.

Eric F July 17, 2012 - 2:36 pm

There is a report somewhere on the NYS DOT’s website that notes that upgrading the route in far north NY is essentially impossible due to environmentalist roadblocks. Just bearing the bad news.

Chet July 17, 2012 - 2:48 pm

I’d like to find that.

Personally, that’s ridiculous. There is already a train track. If the line was upgraded to true HSR, it would probably need to be moved and put into tunnels in various places. Having a HSR use the ROW of the NYS Thruway makes the most sense, and I can’t see how that would pose environmental problems.

Bolwerk July 17, 2012 - 4:24 pm

It doesn’t even need to be true HSR. It travels 381 miles averaging a bit under 35mph. Get the average speed up to 79mph, less than the Acela, so it can make the trip in under 5 hours and it would be airline-competitive.

If that works out, then make it HSR.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 6:05 pm

The problem is that it’s single-track, freight-owned, and optimized for low speeds. The track is curvy, and the superelevation is very low to prevent freight trains from running at cant excess. Tilting trains are a possibility, but if the experience of the Cascades is any indication, the host railroad will not let them run at tilting train speeds.

Bolwerk July 17, 2012 - 4:19 pm

Does it pass through Adirondack State Park? It could violate the “forever wild” clause of the NYS constitution if so. The fuckwits in the Sierra Club(?) tried to sue a short line railroad that is trying to restore service on a ROW that goes through the park. The service is even called the Adirondack.

Hard to see what a big deal double tracking it would be.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 5:23 pm

It doesn’t have to go through the Adirondacks. In fact, it shouldn’t, independently of all environmental concerns. Going through Vermont is easier (less mountainous terrain) and serves a slightly larger intermediate city (Burlington is larger than Plattsburgh, though both are tiny).

Nathanael July 18, 2012 - 2:53 am

The route through Burlington, Vermont has no such roadblocks and has more intermediate population.

lawhawk July 17, 2012 - 3:14 pm

Pataki had a deal with Amtrak, bought a bunch of Turbo Trains sets, and then never carried out any of the improvements of the line from NYC to Albany to increase speeds of the NYC to Albany run. The Turbos are now rotting away at a rail yard with the state on the hook for carrying costs, which they’re now finally trying to unload.

The blame game got played, and no one got the upgrades.

A HSR run from NYC to Albany and then to Montreal would not run along the NYS Thruway in any event – it’s the wrong side of the Hudson; and once you go past Albany, you’re talking about the Northway, not Thruway, and that alignment runs through Adirondack Park and has environmental/use concerns to deal with.

Chet July 17, 2012 - 3:28 pm

I meant run along the Northway (sorry for saying the Thruway) ROW north of Albany.

It’s upgrading the Albany to Montreal part of this route that is most problematic.

Chet July 17, 2012 - 2:45 pm

There is one train a day from Penn Station to Montreal- it takes about 11 hours.

From what I understand, it isn’t just a slow train as it goes through the Adirondacks, but crossing the border is an ordeal because of freight trains.

Phantom July 17, 2012 - 6:47 pm

I took the NYP – Montreal train some years back, for a weekend built around a couple of Expos games ( ! )

The scenery was gorgeous, so nice that I might so it again despite the slow speed.

I thought that the biggest delay was due to slow onboard customs and immigration.

Douglas John Bowen July 17, 2012 - 2:55 pm

At the UIC conference, one audience member (American) asked a Canadian representative (provincial Quebec) why the just completed Quebec City-Windsor Corridor didn’t look just a bit further west — to Chicago.

While it’s understandably hard enough to line up accord among two provinces and the federal government of Canada without adding another nation (and three states) into the picture, the Canadian rep’s response was oh-so-familiar: 1. Too far-reaching; and 2. Not invented here.

The Great White North earns its title in many ways. High speed rail isn’t among those ways, and it is one –maybe the only one–Western nation the U.S. actually is ahead of in terms of HSR.

Alon Levy July 17, 2012 - 5:29 pm

A recent Canadian study on the matter concluded that Toronto-Windsor is cost-ineffective, independently of border crossings, while at the same time finding Toronto-Montreal cost-effective. Unlike in the US, in Canada the projected costs are low – just less than $20 million per km.

I tend to be skeptical of international HSR, not just because of border crossing hassle (this can be dealt with), but also because the market is smaller than expected based on city size. This is especially true when the countries speak different languages, which is the case for connections to Montreal. The underperformance of Eurostar is not a problem of low market share, but one of small market size.

Chet July 17, 2012 - 2:43 pm

Absolutely. I would think that VIARail would jump at the chance to have its trains going to NYC in under three hours. (It’s about a 375 mile trip.)

Nathanael July 18, 2012 - 2:57 am

Unforunately, Harper is savaging VIA’s budget. Any funding for passenger rail in Canada is going to come from the provinces.

Alex C July 17, 2012 - 12:45 pm

It’s overpriced, and the timeline is laughable. By 2040, Japan will have a full-length Maglev operating and other countries will already be doing significant upgrades to their networks. Amtrak wants us to have in 2040 what other civilized countries have had for decades now. That is pathetic.

dave July 17, 2012 - 4:13 pm

I was going to say the same thing. This proposal is laughable at best.

Spendmore Wastemore July 17, 2012 - 6:36 pm

Reading this sane, sensible and level headed post even I can find nothing to grumble about.

Working in it ;-|

stan July 18, 2012 - 8:42 am

i’m a rail fan, but this seems psychotic

Bolwerk July 18, 2012 - 10:56 am

Hmm, 90 comments and no one has suggested replacing the NEC with a bus. I’m impressed.

stan July 18, 2012 - 11:12 am

but we ALREADY have the chinatown buses!

mike d. July 18, 2012 - 12:26 pm

Just few less.

dungone July 19, 2012 - 12:14 am

So, what I gather here is that most people think that an overall cost of 5bn a year for some years doable, but some think that the value for the dollar just isn’t there. The comparison is being made to costs per mile for HSR in other parts of the world, but the solution being offered to bring down those costs to a more reasonable level seems to be, to me, to do less than what is done in other parts of the world.

Alon Levy points out that in Tokyo a Maglev line is being built for less which is 60% tunnel. So why not make the NEC into a maglev that runs 60% of the way underground and figure out how to contain costs from there? Why worry about straightening out this or that curve or building this or that station to save money when it’s obviously not the issue which makes other HSR projects around the world cheaper? It sounds like a fool’s errand.

In my opinion, the thing is still more affordable for Americans to pay for than for the smaller economies who managed to build cheaper HSR lines. It should get built, even at this price. Bringing the costs down is just icing on the cake, as long as the project gets done. I don’t think there’s a lot of alternative uses for that money that are more important for the long-term economic vitality of the Eastern Seaboard.

AG July 19, 2012 - 10:52 am

Yeah – but the unfortunate reality is that unless it is for military expenditure – Americans as a whole – won’t want to spend that much money on something.

Alon Levy July 19, 2012 - 12:55 pm

Because said maglev line is multiple times more expensive than conventional HSR that’s not 60% in tunnel. The point isn’t to do the NEC slightly better at $130 billion; it’s to achieve about the same or slightly worse travel times at $15 billion, and if you have more money, spend it on other lines.

dungone July 19, 2012 - 7:47 pm

But $15bn will barely get you anything, no matter how many corners you cut. The measure I would use for success or failure isn’t the overall price, but whether or not the industrial and technical know-how for delivering rail infrastructure efficiently gets established by the time it’s all said and done. If they learn how to build cheaply, then all the other HSR projects will get done regardless if we spend 15bn or 150bn on the first one. The current bureaucracy we’ve got probably can’t support more than 2-3 big projects a decade just from an organizational and political perspective, so saving money on one probably won’t get you more rail projects – just more money to throw away on wars and tax cuts.

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