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.