INTERSTATE HIGH SPEED RAIL ACELA PROMISE
by Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
Okay … So the image below is a little misleading. Lets explore why the 456-mile principal route of Amtrak underachieves today, but has promise in the years ahead.
The Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, also called “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. It produces one quarter of America’s economic output. For those reasons, Congress, Presidents and their 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 in railroading segments since the 1830s:
• Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-New York City
• Boston-Providence-New Haven-New Rochelle-New York City
In 1978, President Carter’s USDOT allocated a few hundred million dollars to upgrade 225 miles of passenger rail between NYC and Washington, but very little on the 231 miles between NYC and Boston. Carter’s funding allowed all road crossings to be eliminated via grade separations, fenced-off tracks, built station platforms level with train floors, and installed overhead electrical wires that powered Amtrak Metroliner trains to 110 mph top speed. Since railroad grade separations can take several years due to a lengthier environmental review and construction process, the benefits of Carter’s funding arrived in 1984.
That 110 mph may sound fast, but too many Slow Zones (sharing tracks with freight & commuter trains, curvy tracks, poor bedding under tracks, old electric wires, old bridges & tunnels) produced only 68 mph average speed for a lousy 3:20 minute Washington-NYC Journey Time. Due to far more Slow Zones, the 231-mile Boston-New York City segment produced a snail-like 4:30 minute Journey Time. Worst of all, Presidents Reagan and Bush I did not care for Amtrak.
By comparison, world-class French and Japanese HSR service eliminated Slow Zones to reach 186 mph by 1993. German HSR service ran up to 155 mph. Both achievements were slated by their governments.
CLINTON STARTS INTERSTATE HIGH SPEED RAIL, SORT OF
As America started emerging from economic recession in 1993, President Clinton’s USDOT began new funding for High Speed Rail (HSR) service. He wanted speeds like French TGV to produce a 5-hour Boston-NYC-Washington trip time and trains every 30 minutes or less.
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 456 miles, had far more curves to straighten, 100 year old bridges and tunnels to upgrade or replace, and 22 years more inflation, the 1993 cost to achieve similar results in the Northeast Corridor would likely cost $15-16 billion. Congress approved $2 billion in economic stimulus funds to Amtrak and $2 billion more in Amtrak capital projects and $1 billion more in MagLev test studies — without a fight over Clinton’s 8-year administration.
By 1993, more rapid transit went to five train stations, excluding the small city of Wilmington. Drives between NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington required tollways for half the distance and averaged only 60 mph. Nor did people want the hassles of 2-3 hour ticket-security-boarding-flight-unboarding between JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC airports, plus taxi rides to each central business district. Clinton’s USDOT had a chance for undisputed success, if they didn’t get hoodwinked and unfocused without a sound HSR strategy.
First, lets examine the hoodwinked part. MagLev trains ran on short test tracks in Germany and Japan at jaw-dropping speeds of 267-280 mph. Due to excessive construction and energy costs, neither country would announce construction dates to move MagLev into commercial operation. Most telling, both nations continued building HSR routes. There is no way USDOT should have paid for a series of expensive MagLev test studies before Japan or Germany committed to build commercial MagLev in their countries. They wasted nearly $1 billion over 8 years on MagLev engineering studies.
Second, if you want Americans to switch from a travel mode they know, you have to impress them with something really better the first time. Interstate Highway did that in 1956. Introducing faster jets that cut flight time by 25% per mile and reduced turbulence by flying at higher altitudes did that in 1958. Clinton’s USDOT lacked a strategy on how to make an impressive HSR introduction quicker. Nor did Clinton fight for $5 billion more funding, instead of the $3 billion in his next 7 years of a growing economy. Higher federal funding would have attracted $3 billion/8 years from five Northeast Corridor states for $10 billion total.
Acela trains were originally certified to operate up to 165 mph. By avoiding potential delay and cost over-runs fixing NYC-NJ Hudson tunnel and Baltimore’s B&P tunnels, they could focus on 172 miles of HSR-only track, inclusive of the Portal North Bridge northeast Newark and a new bridge over Maryland’s Susquehanna River. With top speed boosted from 110 mph to 165 mph, Acela could have produced a transformative 2 hour 15 minute NYC-Newark-Philadeplhia-Baltimore-Washington travel time. By 2001, public demand would pressure Congress to replace/upgrade NYC-NJ Hudson River tunnel, Baltimore B&P tunnel and Washington-Baltimore track upgrades for a world-class 2-Hour travel time. At the same time, NYC-Boston corridor upgrades would have cut 90 minutes for an 3-Hour Journey Time attractive to business patrons by 2009.
Once Obama’s USDOT arrived, Northeast Corridor HSR success would have justified more funding for California HSR, Las Vegas HSR, Texas HSR plus 110 mph Emerging HSR in these corridors:
• Minneapolis-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis
• Los Angeles-Anaheim-Irvine-Oceanside-San Diego
Instead, only $4.5 billion from Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations was spread across the 456-mile Northeast Corridor.
POPULAR, DESPITE COMPROMISES
In 2001, Acela trains were introduced on 18 miles in two HSR zones in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There wasn’t enough safety space between the HSR tracks and parallel tracks containing slow commuter and freight trains. At 165 mph, more air pressure between passing trains would create an uncomfortable jolt. Nor could Acela excessively tilt towards freight and commuter trains without maintaining a safe distance. As a result, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) limited Acela to 150 mph top speed and smaller tilt in those zones. Though more track in eastern Connecticut was upgraded, there are only 34 miles of 150 mph track between southern Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut. In total by 2019, Northeast Corridor will have ~162 miles that can operate commercially at 135 mph; 60 of those miles will support 150-160 mph.
Now the bad news. Average speed in Boston-NYC corridor is crippled by Slow Zones for 60-90 mph track in the NYC-New Rochelle-New Haven segment. Constrained by those conditions, Boston-Providence-New Haven-New Rochelle-NYC travel time is an unsatisfying 3 Hours 35 Minutes.
Nevertheless, Acela’s wider leather seats, electrical outlets at each seat, dining options and 91% on-time performance appeals to many business travelers. To better differentiate 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 drag. Security lines, boarding delay, runway delay, de-boarding delay and taxi rides cause Journey Time between Washington and NYC to take 3 to 5 hours with only 70% on-time performance for most airlines, plus taxi/Uber/Lyft/shuttle time between each Central Business District.
In contrast, Acela patrons often arrive only 10-20 minutes before their scheduled train because they bought tickets online. Security is a breeze, boarding through 16-18 cabin doors is extremely fast and Acela trains run more dependably than planes. Though many planes boast WiFi service lately, you get more uninterrupted Wi-Fi on Northeast Corridor trains. About 5 minutes before station arrival, patrons gather belongings and head for station platforms. When train doors open, de-boarding/boarding completes in 3-4 minutes. Acela has been attractive enough to run at operating profit since 2008.
In the 225-mile Washington-NYC corridor, Acela runs mostly 100-135 mph for a 2 Hour 42 Minute travel time. Due to more stops, Northeast Regional takes about 30 minutes longer. Since you arrive in the heart of Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark and New York City, there is no long ride to central business districts. Washingtonians and New Yorkers discovered they could Day Trip via 5:30am-8:00am 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 have surpassed 12 million annual ridership.
Here’s where it gets personal. In July 2014, I had dinner with my Hound Phi Hound (college social club) brothers in Philadelphia 30th Street Station. I previously booked aa ride on the Northeast Regional to Baltimore afterwards.
After evening fun was had, I discovered that my train was running so late. The Acela Express scheduled after my late rain 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, as that would be a sneaky upgrade. But since I didn’t cause the long train delay before the next Northeast Regional, I felt I should not 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 experience and made it to Baltimore on time for family pick-up.
In 2010, President Obama and Congress funded upgrades to miles of Slow Zone in the Northeast Corridor, highlighted by 23 miles of HSR track between New Brunswick and Trenton, NJ. Acela trains were re-certified to operate up to 160 mph, when that new stretch in New Jersey opens in 2020. Obama also funded nextgen Acela trains arriving in 2021, will likely run up to 200 mph on those 23 new HSR miles. A grand Moynahan Station replaces tacky Penn Station in the same year. Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Baltimore Penn Station and Washington Union Station also receive capacity and amenity upgrades by early next decade.
For more insights on HSR in America, see Interstate High Speed Rail Progress, Part 1