Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Promise
In July 2014, I had dinner with my Hound Phi Hound (college social club) brothers in Philadelphia. I chose a restaurant in 30th Street Station for convenience because I booked a ride on Amtrak Northeast Regional train to Baltimore after dinner.
After evening fun and memories were had, I discovered that my train was running late, very late. The Acela scheduled after my train would arrive an hour before my Northeast Regional train. Under normal Amtrak rules, you can’t take Acela having paid for less expensive Northeast Regional train, as that would be a sneaky upgrade. But since I didn’t cause the long train delay before the next Northeast Regional and it was late, I felt I should not have to pay for a ticket upgrade.
Fortunately, a helpful Amtrak agent (Ricarda Burrell) jumped through hoops to get me on the Acela. I had another good Acela experience and made it to Baltimore on time. Nevertheless, my experience waiting for trains illustrates that Acela is well short of its need and potential. Here’s a summary of Amtrak history in the Northeast that gives context to the challenges and potential of Acela in the next 20 years.
Initial Challenges for Improved Intercity Passenger Rail
The Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, called “Northeast Corridor”, contains America’s largest concentration of residents, business, government, colleges, medical centers and tourists. It produces one quarter of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Congress, Presidents and their U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) administrations have allocated the majority of federal highway, aviation, transit and railroad funds to this corridor. For reasons of passenger rail experience, its best to think of the Northeast Corridor as two connected rail corridors with multiple owners of track segments:
226 Miles: Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-NYC
231 Miles: Boston-Providence-New London-New Haven-Stamford-NYC
In 1978, Congress and President Carter, via his USDOT, allocated a few hundred million dollars to upgrade passenger rail in the NYC-Washington corridor because its population centers drive the most air, road and rail traffic. The funding eliminated all remaining railroad crossings, fenced-off tracks, and upgraded signaling for Amtrak trains to reach 110 mph in that 226-mile corridor by 1984. That speed may sound fast, but the corridor still had poor track quality, old electric power systems, old bridges, old tunnels and a few significant curves. Corridor ownership and operation shared, with large portions of track supporting slow freight and commuter trains. Those “Slow Zone” factors limited average speed to 68 mph for a lousy 3 Hour 20 Minute Washington-NYC Travel Time.
The situation was worse for 231-mile Boston-NYC corridor. Carter could not convince Congress to allocate any significant amount of funds to it. Boston-NYC corridor had many old bridges, many railroad crossings and a devil’s abundance of curves that produced a snail-like 4 Hour 30 Minute travel time. Worst of all, Presidents Reagan and Bush I disliked the whole of Amtrak and crippled its improvement from 1981-93.
By comparison, the governments of Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Spain made High Speed Rail (HSR) a priority. Their federal funding eliminated Slow Zones in their highest priority rail corridors first. By 1993, there were over a dozen European and Asian HSR lines operating or under construction to support 155-186 mph.
Bill Clinton Starts Poor Man’s High Speed Rail
To help America recover from economic recession, Congress approved economic stimulus funds for President Bill Clinton to invest in 1993. Clinton’s USDOT allocated $4.3 billion for HSR in the 457-mile Northeast Corridor. Initially, he wanted to upgrade from 110 mph infrequent trains to 186 mph frequent trains, like the TGV in France. At the same time, Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington were combining state and federal funds to improving rapid transit service to their train stations. An American train renaissance was possible.
By 1993, population growth and more flights made airport travel time (ticket-security-wait-boarding-runway taxi-flight-runway taxi-unboarding-walk to curb) longer nationwide. The excessive number of regional flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington crowded their airports. Northeast Corridor flights that used to encompass 2 Hour 30 Minute travel time balloon to 3 Hour 30 Minutes. The highways were no better. I-295 Tollway & I-95 Freeway in the Northeast Corridor were slowing to 60 mph average speed. Demand for more frequent, higher speed trains in the Northeast Corridor was increasing. Unfortunately, a majority of Congress lacked passenger rail vision during peace time and Clinton’s USDOT made several strategic mistakes.
TGV service in 274-mile Paris-Lyon corridor cost $6 billion to build from 1973-1981. Given 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor had far more curves, old bridges, old tunnels, more railroad crossings without over/underpasses and 22 years more inflation, the cost to achieve similar results in the Northeast Corridor would be roughly $25 billion, with two caveats. USDOT’s Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak needed to make smart cost-benefit decisions of when to ease curves (less expensive) vs. tunneling (very expensive) and the entire project needed funding commitment in 1993.
Yet, Congress only approved $2.3 billion in economic stimulus funds for Amtrak, $2 billion more from normal USDOT funding to Amtrak capital improvement projects and $1 billion more from USDOT to MagLev pre-engineering studies over Bill Clinton’s 8-year administration.
Strategic Mistakes by the USDOT
Clinton’s USDOT made several critical misjudgments that hampered HSR in America.
Let’s begin with the first misjudgment– drinking too much MagLev Kool-Aid. MagLev (Magnetic Levitation) trains ran on short test tracks in Germany and Japan at jaw-dropping speeds of 267-280 mph. Due to excessive Construction Cost/Mile however, MagLev financial modeling revealed that it would not be cost-effective for Germany in any reasonable time horizon. Nor did financial modeling suggest near-term viability for Japan, the most train-friendly nation on Earth. Germany halted MagLev construction, licensed their MagLev technology to China and built out its national HSR network. Japan continued MagLev as an 18-mile cost-controlled R&D project, while building out its national HSR network. Since that was public information, Clinton’s USDOT should not have wasted $1 billion on MagLev studies. Instead, USDOT should have directed those funds to Northeast Corridor HSR and waited until Japan introduces MagLev in the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor. Until MagLev proves that its financially viable in that wealthy, 80-million person, 272-mile corridor, no one else should touch it.
Second, despite the booming U.S. economy over 1995-2000, Clinton did not fight for $4 billion more Congressional funds for Northeast Corridor HSR. That could have brought the HSR total to $9.3 billion/8 years in federal funds — a level sufficient to attract $3.2 billion matching funds from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and revenue from retail tenants in upgraded train stations.
Third, Clinton’s USDOT wanted trains that could take higher speed on curvy tracks to appease Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island politicians. That compromise led to a Poor Man’s HSR, when land, materials, tunneling and labor costs were less than half of today. Due to the state of rail technology at that time, Acela high speed trains could only operate up to 165 mph on straight tracks because they needed tilt up to 4 degrees in the many curves of Stamford to eastern Connecticut. Under Clinton’s DoD, Connecticut continued getting multi-billion dollar nuclear submarine contracts. He didn’t need to further appease Connecticut Congressmen to get their Amtrak HSR votes. Since 1991, the USDOT started pouring billions to Boston’s Big Dig infrastructure project. He didn’t need to further appease Massachusetts Congressmen to get their Amtrak HSR votes. Rhode Island Congressmen wanted I-295 and I-195 Freeway funding more than improved Amtrak service.
Clinton’s USDOTs should have focused on Washington-NYC corridor, where all railroad over/underpasses and fencing were built and most of the corridor had 2 tracks for Amtrak passengers, plus 1-2 tracks for slower freight & commuter trains. Then, USDOT and Amtrak could have used $1.5 billion for standard 186 mph trains, purchase land for curve easing in Philadelphia, and additional 3rd track in Delaware to separate slow commuter & freight trains from HSR. The remaining $11 billion could have built high-speed track & signaling, new electric systems, replacement Baltimore tunnel, replacement Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland, replacement Portal North Bridge east of Newark and upgraded Hudson River Tunnel into NYC Penn Station. The result would have been a substantially straight, modern NYC-Washington corridor with 2 Hour NYC-Washington Travel Time, 9-10 cabin capacity like TGV and 95% on-time performance. Acela would have captured public imagination the day it opened. Alas, that scenario did not unfold.
Acela Popular, Despite Strategic Misjudgments
In 2001, Acela trains capable of 165 mph were introduced in the 457-mile Northeast Corridor. But only 18 miles between the outskirts of Boston and Rhode Island were ready for high speed. Even in those 18 miles, there wasn’t enough safety space between HSR tracks and parallel tracks conveying freight an commuter trains. At 165 mph, Acela would tilt within the minimum separation for passing freight trains. For safety reasons, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) limited Acela to 150 mph top speed on that track segment. Over the years, there have been more upgrades for 34 miles of 150 mph track between southern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. But 45-90 mph track and old bridges populate the remaining 197 miles of Boston-Providence-New Haven-Stamford-NYC corridor. The results are only 65 mph average speed in Boston-NYC corridor for an unsatisfying 3 Hour 35 Minute travel time.
In contrast, Washington-NYC corridor Acela trains reached 70-110 mph shortly after leaving stations then sped up to 125-135 mph for long stretches outside cities. Including stops at Washington, Baltimore Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark and NYC for 83 mph average speed, Acela obtained a 2 Hour 42 Minute travel time with 16 weekday trains each way. Its wide leather seats with legroom, electric outlets at each seat, food car and 89% on-time performance appealed to business travelers. The complimentary Northeast Regional features 19 weekday trains that make more stops, but cost half as much per ticket. Those conditions propelled Acela & Northeast Regional to operating profitability in 2008.
Though President Bush II seemed to inherit a dislike for Amtrak from his father, he did attend Yale in New Haven and Harvard adjacent to Boston. New Haven has lousy commercial airport service, so he must have rode trains from New Haven to NYC and Boston or knew many friends who did. Bush II knew the value of improved train service between NYC, Stamford, New Haven, Providence and Boston, even if he continued disliking Amtrak outside the Northeast Corridor. A successful Washington-NYC HSR corridor would have pressured Bush II to invest $10 billion over 8 years to upgrade NYC-Boston corridor. Couple that federal money with New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts contributing $3.5 billion (my est.) to replace bridges, purchase land to ease a few curves and complete over/underpasses for 110-150 mph service. There would be 3 Hour Boston-NYC Travel Time and better on-time performance today.
Without much public pressure, Congress and President Obama invested $13 billion in economic recovery funds on Amtrak and other HSR projects. If news media could report how much the public enjoyed Acela 2 Hour Washington-NYC Travel Time, 3 Hour NYC-Boston Travel Time, frequent trains and 95% on-time performance, it would have pressured Congress and Obama to double that funding amount.
Acela, The Little Engine That Could
Once 9-11-2001 happened, the regional flight experience became more of a hassle. That extra hassle was most evident in the Northeast Corridor burdened with so many regional flights between its big cities. Time to airport, longer security lines, wait time, boarding time, origin taxi runway time, flight time, flight delays, destination taxi runway time, unbarring time, walk to curb and taxi/shuttle rides or car rentals caused travel time between Washington and NYC to range 3 1/2 to 5 hours. Combine that with 70-73% on-time performance for most airlines. Patrons could justify the hassle for longer flights across country or overseas, but invasive body searches seemed particularly frustrating for short flights by frequent business travelers in the Northeast.
In contrast, Northeast patrons who switched to Acela would soon buy tickets online and often arrive only 10-15 minutes before their scheduled train. Security is a breeze. About 3 minutes before train arrival, patrons head for station platforms. Boarding/Unboarding through 2 doors for each passenger cabin is fast. Acela trains run at 89% on-time performance. You get uninterrupted Wi-Fi on Northeast Corridor trains. Despite only 6 passenger cabins and travel time lengthened to 2 Hours 54 Minutes due to 2 more stops, Acela has sold out trains and maintained an operating profit.
In the 226-mile Washington-NYC corridor, Acela added stops at Trenton and Metropark, plus extra dwell time in stations. Now, the best travel time is 2 Hours 54 minutes. Due to more stops that attract more patrons than Acela, Northeast Regional takes 32-34 minutes longer. Nevertheless, passengers arrive in Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Metropark, Newark and New York City CBDs, so there is no long taxi/shuttle/Uber/Lyft ride to CBDs. Many Acela business patrons Day Trip between Washington, Philadelphia and New York via 6am-9am departures and 4pm-7:30pm returns.
Since Acela and Northeast Regional represent time saving, productivity, comfort and reliability advantages over flying, twice as many people ride trains than fly between Washington and NYC. In 2018, Acela and Northeast Regional achieved 12 million ridership and the whole of Amtrak reached 31.7 million ridership.
More Acela Progress Coming
President Obama and Congress funded a number of important Northeast Corridor upgrades, highlighted by 23 miles of straight high speed track between New Brunswick and Trenton, New Jersey. Current Acela trains are re-certified to run at 160 mph in that stretch of new track, when it opens in 2020.
Obama and Congress also funded nextgen high speed trains to replace current Acela trains over 2021-22. Nextgen Acela trains are being built in America by Alstom, the French company renown for TGV trains. Alstom’s Avelia Liberty model will replace Acela’s current Bombardier/Alstom model trains. Acela’s Amelia Liberty trains will run at 186 mph on those 23 new HSR miles, though the train and track are capable of 220 mph. Acela’s Avelia Liberty trains will comfortably tilt up to 7 degrees on curves, compared with 4 degrees for current Acela. Lighter weight, better wheels and superb aerodynamics permit Avelia Liberty to take mild curves 30% faster. If Amtrak transfers Metropark and Trenton stops from Acela to Northeast Regional, Avelia Liberty trains can jump from 83 mph to 95 mph average speed for 2 Hour 30 Minute Washington-NYC Travel Time.
Acela will have enough Avelia Liberty trainsets for 30-minute peak hour frequency between NYC and Washington. Each Acela transit is growing from 6 cabins to 9 cabins, with technical ability for expansion to 12 cabins, when demand requires. Depending on how Amtrak defines peak hour length and night service improvement, anticipate 24-28 daily Acela trains, plus an equal number of Northeast Regional trains. Acela trainsets will run hourly, plus an equal number of Northeast Regional trains between Boston and NYC.
At present, its unclear how many daily trains will be added to Northeast Regional. But growing demand for Acela and Northeast Regional is driving long overdue capacity and amenity enhancement to NYC Penn Station/Moynahan Train Hall complex. Over 2022-25 Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Baltimore Penn Station and Washington Union Station also receive capacity and amenity upgrades.
As of May 2019, more tunnel, bridge, curve-easing and extra track upgrades are planned. If they get funded, the Northeast Corridor will move towards a 2040 passenger capacity twice that of today with these attractive Acela features:
• 113 mph average speed for 2-hour Washington-NYC Travel Time
• 77 mph average speed for 3-hour Boston-NYC Travel Time
• 95% on-time performance
• Service extended from Washington to Richmond
For more insights on the challenges and progress towards HSR across America, see Interstate High Speed Rail, Part 1