INSTERSTATE ACELA DELIVERS PROMISE DESPITE COMPROMISE
by Thomas Dorsey, SoulOfAmerica
Okay … So the image below is a little misleading. Amtrak Acela only does 150 mph for a small number of miles. Lets explore why the 437-mile principal route of Amtrak since 1971, underachieves today, but is better than flying in the Northeast Corridor and has great promise in the years ahead.
The Boston-NYC-Washington Northeast Corridor is often described as America’s most strategic region. It contains the largest concentration of residents, business, government, colleges, medical centers and tourists — producing one quarter of America’s economic output. For those reasons, Congress, Presidents and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) have allocated the majority of federal railroad funds to this corridor.
For reasons of passenger experience, its best to think of the Northeast Corridor as two strings of cities or “segments” linked by railroading since the 1830s:
* Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-New York City
* Boston-Providence-New Haven-New Rochelle-New York City
In 1977-81, President Carter’s USDOT allocated a few hundred million dollars to begin building overpasses that would eliminate all roadway crossings over Amtrak railway between NYC and Washington. Presidents Reagan and Bush I were not keen about funding anything that would help Amtrak. Nevertheless, Carter’s funding allowed Washington-NYC railway segment had all road crossings eliminated, fenced-off tracks, station platforms level with train floors, and overhead electrical wires, called “catenaries”, permitted Amtrak Metroliner trains to reach 125 mph top speed.
That may sound fast, but too many Slow Zones (sharing tracks with freight & commuter trains, curvy tracks, poor bedding under tracks, old catenaries, old bridges and tunnels) produced only 68 mph average speed for a lousy 3:20 minute Washington-NYC Journey Time. Due to far more Slow Zones, the 211-mile Boston-New York City segment produced a snail-like 4:30 minute Journey Time. Amtrak Metroliner Trains ran every 30-45 minutes in the Northeast Corridor.
By comparison, world-class French, Japanese and Italian HSR service eliminated Slow Zones to reach 186 mph and average 135-140 mph in the 1990s.
CLINTON STARTS INTERSTATE HIGH SPEED RAIL, SORT OF
Then in 1993, President Clinton’s USDOT began the first significant funding for High Speed Rail (HSR) service, as America started emerging from an economic recession. Clinton publicly stated the need for speeds like the French TGV to produce a 5-hour Boston-NYC-Washington trip time and frequent trains.
But TGV HSR service in Paris-Lyon corridor cost $6 billion from 1971-1981 for 274-miles of HSR-only tracks. Given Boston-NYC-Washington was 437 miles, had far more bridges and tunnels to upgrade, and 22 years more inflation, the cost to achieve similar results would likely be $18 billion. Since Congress would only approve $2 billion in economic stimulus funds and $2 billion more over the rest of his 8-year administration, Clinton’s USDOT needed a strategy with more focus, yet sure of success for high-profile impact.
Given the population density of NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltmore-Washington corridor was triple that of Paris-Lyon corridor and at 226 miles, is 48 miles shorter than Paris-Lyon corridor, Clinton’s USDOT should have focused funding there. Faster impact in that corridor would spur demand for world-class Interstate HSR expansion.
NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor segment already had roadway crossings eliminated to enable 125 mph and major train stations served by extensive rapid transit. The fastest drive between NYC and Washington required use of tollways for half the distance and averaged only 60 mph. It was often traffic congested, causing driver frustration and blown schedules. Nor did people want the higher expense and hassles of flying 225 miles or less between JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC airports, plus taxi rides to each downtown.
More specifically, the $2 billion in stimulus funds plus $2 billion in cumulative federal railroad grants over Clinton’s 8-year administration would have attracted $2 billion in state funds in NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington corridor. That $6 billion total could have built 97 miles of HSR-only track for NYC-Newark-Philadelphia segment, eliminated several Slow Zones between Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington segment and purchased Acela’s high-speed trains.
Federal regulations would still limit Acela trains to 165 mph for NYC-Newark-Philadelphia and 125 mph for Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington. But NYC-Washington Journey Time would have shrank from 3:20 minutes to 2:25 minutes. By 2001, the media and public would pressure Congress to finish funding HSR-only tracks in the Northeast Corridor for a 2-Hour NYC-Philadelhia-Washington Journey Time and NYC-Boston 3-Hour Journey Time by 2009. Northeast Corridor success would have spurred demand for HSR-only tracks in Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte, NYC-Albany-Rochester-Buffalo and Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Cleveland corridors, once the Obama Administration arrived.
Unfortunately, the Clinton Administration got hoodwinked. MagLev was running on short test tracks in Germany and Japan at a jaw-dropping 267-280 mph. Due to excessive construction and energy costs however, neither country would announce construction dates to move MagLev into commercial operation. Most telling of all, both nations continued building HSR routes.
Weighing those obvious clues, the Clinton Administration should never have authorized incremental amounts summing to $1 billion on MagLev engineering studies, leaving only $1 billion in stimulus grants for the 437-mile Boston-NYC-Washington Corridor.
Though more funding was directed towards the HSR project, only $4 billion from Carter to Clinton administrations, was invested in the 437-mile Northeast Corridor, leaving us with mediocre Amtrak Acela HSR service today.
POPULAR, DESPITE TOO MANY COMPROMISES
In 2000, when Acela’s 165 mph-capable trains were introduced on 18 miles of HSR-only tracks in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut, there wasn’t enough safety space between them and parallel tracks that ran slow commuter and freight trains. The higher the speed, the more air pressure between passing trains for an uncomfortable passenger jolt. As a result, federal regulators limit Acela to 150 mph top speed. Slow Zones limit top speed to 60-135 mph elsewhere in the 437-mile Northeast Corridor.
Nevertheless, Acela’s wider leather seats, electrical outlets at each seat, dining options and 91% on-time performance appealed to many business travelers. To better differentiate the superior passenger experience of Acela, Amtrak name-changed its prior best passenger experience, “Metroliner”, to “Northeast Regional” trains that make more stops and cost half as much to ride.
Since 9/11/2001, flying between Northeast Corridor cities is a big drag. Given all the security lines, boarding delay, runway delay, deboarding delay and taxi rides, Journey Time between Washington and NYC takes 3.5 hours with only 70% on-time performance for most airlines, plus taxi/shuttle time between each Central Business District.
In contrast, Acela patrons often arrive only 10-15 minutes before their scheduled train because security is a breeze and boarding through as many as 16 train cabin doors is extremely fast. Trains run at 91% on-time performance. Though many planes also boast WiFi service for a fee, you get more uninterrupted Wi-Fi on the train for free. About 2 minutes before arrival at destinations, patrons gather their belongings and start heading for cabin doors. When doors open, typical deboarding happens in less than a minute.
In the 226-mile Washington-New York City segment, Acela Express reduced Journey time from 3:20 minutes to 2:42 minute Journey Time. Northeast Regional trains take about 30 minutes longer. Since you arrive in the heart of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark and New York City, there is no taxi/shuttle/Uber/Lyft ride to downtown. The clincher is Washingtonians and New Yorkers discovered that they could Day Trip by via 5:30am-8:30am departures and 5:30pm-9:00pm returns.
Since Acela represents time, productivity, comfort and dependability advantages over flying, twice as many people ride trains than fly between Washington and NYC. Acela and Northeast Regional trains attracted over 14 million passengers in 2013 — more than all, but the Top 19 U.S. Airports.
The 211-mile Boston-New York City segment is a different story. Slow Zones of 90-110 mph track in the Rhode Island-Boston segment and Slow Zones of ultra-curvy 60-90 mph track in the NYC-New Haven segment sandwich the 18 miles of 150 mph track. Constrained by those conditions, Acela’s Boston-New Haven-NYC Journey Time is 3:35 minutes. This segment runs fewer trains and on-time performance is ~83%. In fact, most train delays in Washington-NYC segment start with trains coming from Boston-NYC segment.
In 2010, more U.S. High Speed Rail Corridors were kick-started by the Obama Administration. Money was awarded for speed upgrades to four Northeast Corridor sections totaling 100 miles, with 24 miles between Newark and New Brunswick, NJ slated for HSR-only track upgrade. In 2013 after-hour tests, Acela Express trains were re-certified for 160 mph. When that HSR-only stretch of track completes in 2017, Acela Express will reach 160 mph in commercial service.
Obama asked Congress for more HSR funding to remove all Slow Zones in the Northeast Corridor and enable 160 mph throughout the Washington-NYC corridor segment. Amtrak also wants to purchase 200+ mph trains in 2020, but needs the majority of NYC-Washington corridor in HSR-only track status for it to pay off.
Here’s where it gets personal. In July 2014, I had dinner with my Hound Phi Hound college brothers in Philadelphia 30th Street Station. Afterwards, I planned to ride the Amtrak Northeast Regional train to Baltimore.
After the evening fun was had, I discovered that my train was running so late, the Acela Express scheduled after it would arrive an hour before the next Northeast Regional. Under normal Amtrak rules, you can’t take the Acela having only paid for Northeast Regional (that would be a sneaky upgrade). But since I didn’t cause the exceptionally long train delay before the next Northeast Regional, I didn’t think I should have to pay for an upgrade. Fortunately, a helpful Amtrak agent (Ricarda Burrell) jumped through hoops to get me on the Acela Express without a hassle. I had another great Acela riding experience and made it to Baltimore on time to be picked up by family. Nevertheless, I wish there were fewer Acela delays and more frequent trains up to 9:30pm or 10pm, like European and Asian HSR.
A majority of Senate Republicans have agreed to boost HSR funding in the MAP-21 Bill Proposal. If the new group of House Republicans come around, our government can deliver world class HSR service in the Northeast Corridor. Instead of fighting with President Obama on every issue, lets hope the Republican Congress recognizes that America’s high density corridors must include faster, more dependeable trains, like our Global Economic Competitors in Asia and Europe.
Opening in segments between 2020-25, we can have 160-200 mph Acela trains every 10 minutes up to 9:30pm in Washington-NYC-Boston corridor. Nextgen Acela also deserves 97-98% on-time performance, like the French TGV. Until then, Ricarda Burrell is working overtime to deliver customer satisfaction.
For more insights on HSR in America, see Interstate High Speed Rail Progress, Part 1