Home High-Speed Rail What future the Northeast Corridor?

What future the Northeast Corridor?

by Benjamin Kabak
One proposal for the Northeast Corridor involves spurs from Long Island to Connecticut.

One proposal for the Northeast Corridor involves spurs from Long Island to Connecticut.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve analyzed and debated the future of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, but we haven’t focused much on the ties that bind them together. If the city wants to rebuild a grand Penn Station by moving Madison Square Garden and expanding rail capacity under the Hudson River, we cannot ignore the implications for intercity rail. Whatever happens at Penn Station must involve some expansion of intercity rail.

As the Northeast Corridor remains the country’s hot spot for jobs and Amtrak’s most profitable route, the feds have their eyes on it. Over a year ago, the Federal Railroad Administration launched the NEC Future initiative. It’s comprehensive planning attempt to “define, evaluate and prioritize future investments in the Northeast Corridor.” It’s designed to promote growth in intercity, commuter, and freight rail services. I’d be a little wary of the feds handling such a project, but ultimately they hold the keys to the NEC future.

Earlier this week, NEC Future released its preliminary report [pdf], and at the least, it contains some interesting proposals and discussion points. Presenting 15 alternatives in four different buckets, the plan essentially asks which, if any, approach we should take to improving upon NEC rail, but ultimately I think a combination of all four would be best for the region.

From the start, some of NEC Future’s findings aren’t a big surprise. The spine of the Northeast Corridor runs from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and the vast majority of rides focus around those four cities. Here’s the key fact: Only 9 percent of all trips begin either north or south of New York and end on the other side of New York. We are the choke point, the bottleneck and the destination at the same time. But with auto traffic and congestion unsustainable and air travel plagued with problems, we need rail expansion.

With Amtrak focused on the Gateway Tunnel and high-speed rail, the FRA has its eye on some local routes. It is proposing “off-spine” connections that would bridge current service gaps. For example, one plan has trains running from New York City to Nassau County and under the Long Island Sound to Stamford while a comparable plan involves running through to Suffolk and north to New Haven. Such a route may not be the most direct connection, though, and that’s a real concern. If we’re building out Northeast Corridor connections, they have to make sense.

Ultimately, the FRA would love to realize an ambitious regional plan that involves all four of the buckets it proposes in this week’s document. Infrastructure along the NEC spine should reach that ever-elusive state of good repair while regional service should increase. Meanwhile, a second high-speed rail spine should emerge while additional spurs should be built out as well. Washington-New York-Boston routes could traverse multiple cities across multiple routes.

Now, it might not make sense to pursue such a route. Trains running, for example, from New York to New Haven via Long Island won’t have long-distance travelers, but regional rail could pick up the slack. As it stands now, Long Island travelers heading to Connecticut have no choice but to pass through New York, and a direct tunnel would be a huge time-saver. The other connections — through Delmarva or beyond D.C. — may be beneficial but not to the same extent.

The next steps here involve EIS analyses, but the key discussions are still premature. That is, of course, one focusing around costs. Does it make sense to dig a few tunnels under the Long Island Sound? Should we spend the money instead on high-speed rail with only a few stops between Washington and Boston? How can we pay for all of this anyway? For now, the FRA doesn’t have to pretend to entertain these questions, but it always looms. Today, we dream; tomorrow, we have to pay for it all.

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John-2 April 5, 2013 - 12:30 am

The Sound tunnels only make sense if they’re the most viable option for HSR between Boston and New York. But it certainly doesn’t make sense to prioritize it until Gateway and the two new Hudson River tunnels are pinned down (any rail connection via a Sound tunnel would also reqiure either a horrific expenditure to acquire land in Queens and Nassau County for a dedicated HSR line, or major upgrades to the Port Washington or Port Jefferson LIRR branches. And we haven’t even gotten to how the NIMBYs would feel about Amtrak blowing through Great Neck at 150 mph).

Bolwerk April 5, 2013 - 1:10 am

The Sound raises the interesting prospect of bypassing the NIMBYs in Connecticut.

There was a long discussion on Usenet a few years ago about a similar Long Island alternative. The track is pretty straight most of the way to Montauk, so I think it was discussed that Connecticut could be completely bypassed that way.

Ryan April 5, 2013 - 7:57 am

Yes, but then with the Montauk alignment you’d have to have the tunnel cross a longer distance than this alignment covers.

Patrick April 5, 2013 - 12:42 am

If you’re interested in what the Long Island alignment might look like if one of these later alternatives ever comes to fruition I did a piece on this report and how it would go through Long Island here: NEC FUTURE: Preliminary Alternatives Report: A Second NEC via Long Island?

If you scroll down about 3/4 of the way down the page I embedded one of those custom Google Maps thingy-s that shows where I would guess the second spine would go.

Frankly, most of these alternatives are interesting ideas, but many of them are still in the “pie in the sky” stage of development, meaning that it’s very, very unlikely that any of this would come to be in our lifetimes, but it is interesting to think about.

Bolwerk April 5, 2013 - 1:20 am

Stuff like this is what I mean when I say I wish they’d think about more than just the NEC. Looking at that map, corridors like Washington to Albany or Harrisburg to Boston make every bit as much sense to consider as coherent units.

If there are n stops on a route, there are n(n-1) potential pairs of stops to forge different service patterns. Even small HSR extensions hold big promise for service growth.

David Brown April 5, 2013 - 1:40 am

We cannot even get two extra tracks (Let alone a new platform) at Mineola, a station that has three branches going through it (Huntington, Oyster Bay & Ronkonkoma). I am there every weekday evening, so I know what it is like (Including seeing backed up East bound trains, and East bound trains arriving on the West bound platform, because there is not enough track and platform). People can blame NIMBY’s, poor planning, lack of $$$$, politics or whatever they want, but until they can do the basics like adding additional track at the most important LIRR station East of Jamaica, then thinking about tunnels to Connecticut is simply a waste of time.

marv April 5, 2013 - 1:45 am

A LI sound crossing is needed. Ideally it should be a 3 track + 4 lane (two in each direction) bridge allowing:

*alternate high speed routing from NYC to New England
*New England passenger service to Long Island destinations
*Long Island passenger service to New Haven, Hartford and beyond (boston?)
*Freight rail between Long Island, New England and beyond
*Piggyback freight service between Long Island, New England and beyond

If a combined rail road bridge is not doable, a rail tunnel should be built similar to that of the Chunnel to allow as much of the above use as possible. (This would of course maximize the use and revenue of such a facility).

I also found the fact that only 9 percent of all trips begin either north or south of New York and end on the other side of New York. Perhaps this shows that Amtrak’s consolidation into penn station was an unnecessary mistake that should be reversed. Grand Central (regardless of what metro north wants to believe has capacity which when used for service north could take some pressure off of Penn Station (to say nothing of giving at least some Amtrak passengers a beautiful arrivals station.)

Given post 9/11 security concerns, I am surprised that a second routing through NY is not part of the plan. The obvious choice is Atlantic Avenue through a new tunnel to a downtown terminal through a new tunnel to hoboken. To further enhance alternate routings, a line running between valley stream along conduit blvd to atlantic avenue (with possible connections to Rockaway Beach Branch) could bypass jamaica providing both a safety and operational alternate route.

Michael k April 5, 2013 - 1:58 am

The obvious choice is a tunnel from Atlantic to Hoboken with a commuter rail station beneath the Fulton Street Complex/Path WTC hub.

Ryan April 5, 2013 - 3:36 pm

Lower Manhattan is full of NIMBYs and tens of miles of underground tunnels already, not to mention utilities. So it can’t stop in Lower Manhattan.

Henry April 5, 2013 - 10:38 pm

This is silly, because both Fulton and WTC are designed to handle large inflows of commuters, and WTC in particular has a giant central concourse area that you could probably fit the entrance to an intercity train station in. Any launch box would also probably be in Brooklyn, so Lower Manhattan resistance is a non-issue due to the minimal amount of land acquisition required (maybe a ventilation shaft or two, but no cut-and-cover type disruption.)

(This is also silly because this is a large generalization about a group of transit-dependent people that, besides being extremely vague, is also untrue. If they can deal with the disasters of the Deutsche Bank deconstruction and the WTC rebuilding, then this is small change compared to those two megaprojects.)

Bolwerk April 6, 2013 - 12:14 pm

Aren’t there accommodations for using the porcupine as an LIRR terminal? (Not sure it’s possible to make it through to NJ. A deep bore may be possible immediately north of the WTC.

Henry April 6, 2013 - 1:13 pm

As of right now, the project describes a four-platform, five-track configuration for the PATH terminal, and I’m pretty sure that the JFK link for Lower Manhattan was supposed to end at WTC when they were still talking about that. The project may still be designed to accommodate something of that nature, especially with its large, central hall.

As for the comment about the porcupine design, keep in mind that the design of the entire WTC area has been changed multiple times due to interference with the original plans from PANYNJ and NYPD, which made everything much less elegant (and also increased costs, because every design change costs $$$ due to the implications it has on foundations, utility placement, etc.). The original designs for the Freedom Tower and the WTC hub weren’t so ridiculously ugly and expensive, but the NYPD decided to make the base of 1 WTC a giant, multistory concrete block and insanely thicken and increase the amount of the station supports, all in the name of counterterrorism.

http://www.gregallegretti.com/.....15;300.jpg would’ve been the original design, which is not nearly as horrid.

Bolwerk April 6, 2013 - 3:46 pm

It’s still pretty horrid. The porcupine is ugly, but the major problem is they’re just completely misappropriating space. I don’t get why planners are so offended by having simple, attached buildings people can live in and enjoy. You can still have the world’s tallesta really tall building with that. You can still have a park as part of the memorial.

Frankly, they’d have been better off putting the tenements back.

Henry April 7, 2013 - 11:28 am

If you look up the original Daniel Libeskind plan for Ground Zero, it had very nice, simple designs – most notably, shadows at the time the towers fell would fall on the original WTC sites.

I assume the WTC hub was always designed to have that Lower Manhattan-JFK link, and they just never redesigned it (because changing it multiple times costs money – see: 86th St SAS)

Henry April 7, 2013 - 11:29 am

It’s also meant to replace the original WTC underground mall, and if the Feds are ponying up for a significant portion of the rebuilding costs at WTC, I see no problem with it.

Ryan April 8, 2013 - 8:01 am

Yes, but at the same time they never should have designed the PATH station to be as ugly.

Alon Levy April 7, 2013 - 10:38 am

On the contrary – approximately nobody lives in Lower Manhattan, so there’s not much NIMBYism. Try building a junction station in Sunnyside and redeveloping the yards and see what the neighbors will say then.

AG April 7, 2013 - 9:38 pm

Lower Manhattan is the fastest growing neighborhood in the city. It’s population is over 70k now. That said – being that the whole area is a construction site and ppl are still moving there – I doubt anyone would mind a new commuter station. They’d probably love it because it would increase their home values.

marv April 7, 2013 - 11:10 pm

What portion of passengers arriving at Penn Station walk to their destinations?

What portion switch to other Jersey Transit /LIRR lines?

Do we need all trains to come into one station (Penn)?

Given the close concentration of subway line downtown (including the east side IRT which is out of reach for Penn Station) would a downtown Amtrak Station (on jamaica=>flatbush=>downtown=>Hoboken route) in fact better serve many of the users?

Would a carpool/taxi/bus lane on west street reduce the inconvenience for those wanting to be near penn Station?

Has there been any thought to a Jamaica=>Penn=>downtown (via a west street tunnel)=>flatbush=>jamaica loop been considered? (It would allow through running without dealing with bi-state politics.)(Hudson line users would also gain direct access to downtown the via west street tunnel.)

Henry April 8, 2013 - 12:05 am

Very few Penn riders switch to OTHER commuter services, and very few walk to areas within the surrounding neighborhood – most take a northbound E train or the downtown 7th Avenue services. Most Penn riders are heading for Midtown or Downtown, which the current subway system handles fairly well, albeit with crush-load crowding.

NJT service to Downtown would only be beneficial from riders coming from South Jersey, and some of the lines exclusively serve the Northern part of the state – routing them to Downtown would result in a U-shaped travel pattern. In any case, office rents in Downtown have been declining for quite some time, as opposed to the burgeoning market demand for Midtown space – however, WTC will bring in a large amount of workers whenever that’s done. Any downtown station would need to be deep by necessity, however – you’d need to be deep enough to allow freighters and cruise ships to navigate the Hudson, and to avoid the tangle of infrastructure below ground.

West St is so far from Penn Station that any improvements there would have minimal impact on Pen riders. In addition, the place is a pedestrian hell hole.

A West St rail tunnel would have severe engineering problems due to the proximity to the water – West St itself is on landfill. In addition, extending a rail line there would have no demand – most demand is centered either on the East Side or in the middle of Manhattan, and development density falls once you head west of Ninth Avenue. The West Side already has two four-tracked train lines, and at present there is no clear need for a train line serving the Far West Side. You’d also have a track mismatch, because the Atlantic Branch is only two tracks, whereas the East River tubes have four tracks heading into Penn. Finally, utility work and digging deep underground in Lower Manhattan is bound to be difficult – there has never been a map of the location of utilities for any area of the city save maybe Roosevelt Island, and there are countless archeological remains located within Downtown that probably haven’t been uncovered yet.

From a connectivity standpoint, a much better through line would be a line from Hoboken to Penn via WTC/Fulton and Park Avenue, as LIRR trains usually head into the West Side Yard after their runs (and thus do not switch directions in the station itself), but NJT trains switch within Penn, causing the delays. It would still suffer from the aforementioned engineering issues, however.

Alon Levy April 9, 2013 - 12:06 am

What portion of passengers arriving at Penn Station walk to their destinations?

Likely very low.

What portion switch to other Jersey Transit /LIRR lines?

Likely low. Destinations are concentrated within Manhattan, and destinations for which train travel is easier than driving especially so. For example, if you look at the distribution of four- and five-star hotels in the metro area, nearly all of them are in Manhattan and most of them are in Midtown.

Do we need all trains to come into one station (Penn)?

Yes, for reasons of frequency and cost. If Amtrak stays at Penn, then any new station can be built to the standards of rapid transit-ified regional rail, which means just one platform track per tunnel track, tighter curves, and fewer station amenities.

Given the close concentration of subway line downtown (including the east side IRT which is out of reach for Penn Station) would a downtown Amtrak Station (on jamaica=>flatbush=>downtown=>Hoboken route) in fact better serve many of the users?

No. Amtrak has a preexisting path to Jamaica, and Penn is the only place that points toward Boston.

Would a carpool/taxi/bus lane on west street reduce the inconvenience for those wanting to be near penn Station?

No. The west side of West Street is very hard for a pedestrian to get to.

Has there been any thought to a Jamaica=>Penn=>downtown (via a west street tunnel)=>flatbush=>jamaica loop been considered? (It would allow through running without dealing with bi-state politics.)(Hudson line users would also gain direct access to downtown the via west street tunnel.)

No. Nobody likes traveling in loops. A north-south route to Manhattan has no point connecting to Penn like this because there are more important north-south routes to connect to, i.e. Metro-North.

When you’re spending billions of dollars on through-tunnels, get the politics right. The cost of sending all the feudal honchos to early retirement is a rounding error compared to the cost of the tunnels.

Michael k April 5, 2013 - 1:55 am

To address the long island idea.

My perspective is one gained from growing up down the street from Merrick LIRR station.

At present, the Montauk line runs along sunrise highway. Sunrise is the primary truck route for the South Shore & can even be thought of as the LIE of the South Shore.

That said, the Babylon branch carries the most traffic of all the branch (in terms of utilization on a single line) and currently has 2 locals and 1-2 express trains every hour.

I have a friend that lives close to the tracks in highland park, nj where the Acela passes at high speed.

From my perspective, the express train to Speonk and the Acela sounded about the same.

I would then suggest, that any HSR in long island utilize the elevated straight away that Already exists along Sunrise Highway, abutting other “noxious” uses there. (instead of the main line that is very inappropriate for HSR since it goes literally inside people’s backyards.

Nyland8 April 6, 2013 - 8:16 am

Are you suggesting we start tunneling North to Connecticut from the South side of Long Island?

There are only two logical geographical places from which to launch either bridges or tunnels from LI to CT optimizing existing rail infrastructure.

Stoney Brook to Stratford.

Orient Point (Greenport) to South Lyme (Halfway between Old Saybrook and New London)

If you need to put New Haven/Hartford into the HSR path, then the Port Jeff line is likely to be the jumping off point.

At least that is what Google Earth would suggest.

Charley April 5, 2013 - 3:13 am

Amtrak’s ‘Vision 2050’ plan released last year is, despite being astronomically expensive, what needs to be done to increase capacity and bring true HSR to the Northeast Corridor. It also has the potential for major positive economic impact in the smaller New England cities (Hartford, Danbury, Waterbury) that have been struggling financially for decades. I mean no offense to anybody who lives in or is from Danbury, but it looks like a ghost town and/or a living breathing museum of America’s industrial past when driving through on I-84.

I see these alternatives as worthy projects that would further access and regional mobility, but Amtrak’s plan should be the main focus in my opinion, and the first phase of this master plan that should be focused on is The Gateway Tunnel – it will relieve the NYC bottleneck and open the door for any and all expansion.

Ryan April 5, 2013 - 7:56 am

Now, where are going to get the money to build a cross-Long Island Sound tunnel? Besides, the land acquisition and the tunnels will be a PITA. It’s only worth it if it saves time between Boston and New York, and the NIMBYs don’t complain.

Larry Littlefield April 5, 2013 - 8:29 am

Six words. Health Care. Senior Citizens. Forget It.

A rail tunnel under the LI Sound? How much more would Dean Skelos require that we pay retired, “disabled” LIRR workers to allow it?

If we are going to have a fanstasy, the Amtrak proposal to build a new line from NY to Providence away from the curves of the coast is better.

In the meantime, a still difficult but more realistic proposal would extend Amtrak Empire Services from Penn Station New York to Jamaica Queens. Why? Connection to Airtrain to JFK.

Alon Levy April 7, 2013 - 10:43 am

You know, it’s really stupid how Amtrak’s convinced everyone that it needs to avoid “the curves of the coast” when the topography near the coast is a lot flatter than inland. Near the coast, a line can be done without any tunneling east of New Haven, along I-95. It requires two difficult bridges, but no tunnels; HSR can climb steeper grades than trains could in the 1850s when the Shore Line was built, and the hills near the coast are no problem for its capabilities. In contrast, the vanilla I-91/84/90 Penn Design alignment includes a few kilometers of tunnel because there the topography is hillier inland and the Interstates don’t have a minimum curve radius of 4 kilometers.

Tsuyoshi April 5, 2013 - 10:55 am

This alternative of going through Long Island and then skipping Rhode Island seems preposterous to me. It hardly needs saying that it will go nowhere without support from Congress. Yet it skips over the bulk of population in one state, and then skips over another state entirely — thus forgoing the support of four US Senators. And at what would have to be astronomical cost.

I tend to see such an alternative as a hostage-taking threat, not a serious proposal.

Guido April 5, 2013 - 11:08 am

It’s redundant to propose two separate lines between New Haven and Boston, the population numbers don’t warrant it.
It would be better to run the new line to Hartford and then cut east to Providence and on to Boston. This would connect the most people in the most efficient manner.
NIMBYs will stop all of this along the entire corridor…

Alon Levy April 7, 2013 - 10:46 am

Yes, it would be the most beneficial, but it would also be more expensive. From Providence to the south, there’s a perfectly usable high-speed ROW, which needs minor facelifts to a few curves but is already used at medium-high speeds as far south as Kingston. To the west of Providence, no such thing exists – there was a line to Hartford but it was torn up and the ROW is no longer available, and so such a line would require about 2 km of tunneling under Providence neighborhoods. It may also require a bit of extra tunneling between Hartford and Providence because of hills, I’m not sure.

Ned April 5, 2013 - 12:37 pm

At the risk of stating the obvious, the idea behind the second NEC spine running from New Haven>Hartford>Worcester>Boston would be to possibly do an elevated/median-running HSR route along I-91 and I-84. The problem with the existing ROW along the CT and RI coasts is that it runs through some of the most valuable waterfront property east of New Haven, has a number of twists and turns, and several grade crossings (I’m thinking of New London for one). The thought of grade crossings on an HSR line in Europe would probably make a lot of people there laugh. Point being, that coastal route will never be a serious HSR, and the section from NYC to New Haven is already congested with Metro-North traffic. If we can ever get the money and political will together for the LI Sound tunnel, I really like the proposed HSR realignment. My understanding on the LI routing is that it could give you JFK access, but access to the rest of LI isn’t so much the point as much as skipping the CT congestion (although building dedicated HSR in LI amidst the existing commuter ROW will be no easy feat). The greater distance of the LI route would be, I assume, more than made up for in significantly faster travel speeds on it.

It should be noted that a studio of UPenn City Planning masters students presented that same HSR alignment seen above to the VP in Sept 2010.


Ben covered an alternative alignment Amtrak tossed into the ring back in July here:


Alon Levy April 7, 2013 - 10:49 am

Elevated over a highway = $$$
Median = too constrained, given that the Interstate standards for curves assume cars go at 110 km/h rather than at 360 km/h

The thought of median HSR in Europe is also quite laughable, though the Florida HSR and DesertXpress routes sort of make it work by sacrificing some speed. When HSR is twinned with motorways in Europe, it runs alongside the road, not in the median, so that it can take gentler curves when necessary.

Unfortunately, the topography in inland Massachusetts and Connecticut makes it more difficult to do this. The Penn Design plan has a few short tunnels north of Hartford. I-95 is actually straighter; I’m told that the head of the Penn Design team rejected I-95 on the grounds that it’s not constructable, but although there are difficulties with bridges in New Haven and New London, I have never heard an adequate explanation for what those constructability problems are.

Henry April 5, 2013 - 10:42 pm

Besides the fact that almost all of the LIRR ROWs run in backyards and are grossly inappropriate for HSR, there is no great, centralized population center in Long Island that would be an ideal hub for HSR to serve. Ronkonkoma doesn’t begin to count – in its current form, it is used as a commuter parking lot for Eastern LI’ers who don’t want to deal with crappy transit service. Western Connecticut, as well as the areas to the north of the city, are definitely more suitable locations for HSR than Long Island.

Nathanael April 7, 2013 - 12:11 am

“there is no great, centralized population center in Long Island that would be an ideal hub for HSR to serve.”

Jamaica. Still, there are better choices in Connecticut and Westchester.

Henry April 7, 2013 - 12:40 am

I’m referring to the “Nassau Hub” the plan refers to – in the Preliminary Alternatives report, it mentions some station in Long Island that the train would stop in. I’m guessing it would be Hicksville based on the map provided, but that’s a really dubious place to put an HSR station…

Alon Levy April 7, 2013 - 10:53 am

Nassau Hub in the Penn Design plan is in Garden City. The Penn Design route transitions to the abandoned Central Railroad of Long Island ROW between Floral Park and the junction with the extant Central Branch in Bethpage. This route is grade-separated or mostly grade-separated, I forget which, but runs in Levittown backyards and is thus considerably more NIMBY-prone than e.g. my proposal to go elevated over purely commercial parts of US 1 in Darien and Norwalk.

Nyland8 April 6, 2013 - 8:25 am

In a post-Sandy world, finding political will for a sea wall, or tidal gates, at the eastern end of Long Island is a proposal that might find more approval – if an HSR were to run along the top of it.

More uses = more advocates = more funding.

Nathanael April 7, 2013 - 12:10 am

No love for the Lackawanna Cutoff? Sigh.

Alon Levy April 7, 2013 - 10:55 am

It’s not a high-speed route – it’s a medium-speed one. It can be upgraded to pretty high speed, but there’s not much point. The route from New York to Dover is curvy like fuck and has tons of local commuter traffic, so high speeds there are unlikely. The route from Delaware Water Gap to Scranton is also curvy as fuck. By all means, let’s electrify to Scranton and Binghamton and run EMUs at 160 km/h, but running much higher top speeds on the Cutoff saves not much time and costs too much in getting specialized EMUs and easing curves in tunnel.


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