Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Promise

Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Interstate High Speed Rail Acela

Passenger concourse inside Philadelphia 30th Street Station; (c) Soul Of America

For dinner with my Hound Phi Hound brothers from college, I chose a restaurant in Philadelphia 30th Street Station. Since I booked a ride on Amtrak Northeast Regional to Baltimore that evening, there would be no hurried ride to the station later. But an investigative journey of Amtrak Northeast Corridor would begin. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America

Donny Jones, Thomas Dorsey & Bob Davis at 30th Street Station, Philly

Donny Jones, Thomas Dorsey & Bob Davis at 30th Street Station

After chopping it up with the brothers, I discovered that my Amtrak Northeast Regional train was running late, very late. So late that Mother won’t be awake when her son from California visits. The next Acela train would arrive an hour before the next Northeast Regional.

Under Amtrak rules, you can’t take Acela having paid for a less expensive Northeast Regional, as that would be a sneaky upgrade. But since I didn’t cause the long delay before the next Northeast Regional train and it was late, I felt that I should not have to pay for a ticket upgrade to get the next train to Baltimore.

To my good fortune an Amtrak agent, Ricarda Burrell, jumped through hoops to get me on the next Acela train. I made it to Baltimore on-time for a fresh slice of Mother’s sweet potato pie. Nevertheless, my experience illustrates that Acela and Northeast Regional service falls short of world-class High Speed Rail service. How could that be in the wealthiest country on Earth and whose railway was not damaged by war. That experience prodded the transportation analyst in me to discover why.

Initial Challenges for Northeast Corridor High Speed Rail

Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, “Northeast Corridor”, contains America’s largest concentration of residential, business, government, collegiate and medical centers. It produces a quarter of America’s economic activity. It generates the most air, highway and passenger rail traffic. It attracts the most tourists.

Though Congress and Presidents invest the majority of federal highway and aviation funds to this corridor via U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) grants, the corridor causes 1/3rd of America’s flight delays, in large part, because there are too many regional flights. Interstate driving also slows through Boston, Washington, NYC and Philadelphia highways, respectively ranked as the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 9th most congested highway systems in America by INRIX.

Why doesn’t Amtrak attract more travelers from those regional flights and interstate drives? The principal answer is, Amtrak and commuter trains use old infrastructure not built for modern travel. Before examining the challenges to modernize Northeast Corridor railway infrastructure, its important to understand what world-class high speed rail service should be.

Japan and France were the world leaders in High Speed Rail (HSR). Both had/have economic conditions that determine how much HSR construction they can afford each year. Both have citizen land rights and labor rights similar to America, that affect where and how HSR can be built. If government proposes to a rail line anywhere in those nations, you can bet that the concerns of a public interest group must be addressed before the first shovel is turned.

France however, has population density more similar to America. All things considered, France was and remains the best model for how America should build HSR infrastructure and operate high speed trains.

France Showed How To Build High Speed Rail

French HSR began construction in 1973 in the 264 miles between Paris and Lyon. French high speed train service called Train a’ Grande Vitesse (TGV), was launched on HSR between those cities in 1981.

French HSR was built with the precision of a Swiss watch. It consists of modern viaduct, bridges, tunnels, long straightaway and extremely mild curves. When track runs on the surface, there are over/underpasses at every railroad crossing and fencing to prevent people, animals and automobiles from crossing them. It has premium track bedding to make the route level. Continuous welded rail is aligned on concrete ties within 1 millimeter of tolerance to prevent vertical and horizontal sway by trains. Track profile is also shaved for smooth rides at high speeds. To maintain smooth train rides, track is precisely measured from end-to-end on a frequent basis, with swift repairs.

Though France already had electric railway between cities, its lower voltage power systems and looser-strung overhead electric wires (called “catenary”) were insufficient to power high speed trains. So France built high voltage power systems and high-tension catenary to transmit high voltage to the pantographs atop TGV. The first TGV reached 168 mph (270 kph). Technology upgrades later boosted Top Speed to 186 mph (300 kph).

Though a trained operator drives each TGV, the French HSR System includes automatic control to prevent trains exceeding speed limits and detect track problems before train braking distance. More broadly, French HSR System has state-of-the-art signaling and communications to manage all train movements in the system. Those combined features enable the outstanding safety record of French HSR, where no loss of life has occurred in commercial operation since TGV began.

The French developed other state-of-the-art HSR operational practices that many other countries follow. Freight trains are not permitted on HSR tracks, since their heavier weight throws track out of alignment faster. Depending on curvature in part-of-route, TGV speeds ranged from 137-168-186 mph (220-270-300 kph). All TGV adhere to the same speed for each part-of-route, so that no TGV is slowed by the train in front.

TGV enters metro areas at 93-99 mph (150-160 kph) and maintain speed before slowing to 19 mph (30 kph) to enter the track switches of station areas. Track switch lay-out is optimized for TGV to enter and exit quickly. Though TGV and French commuter trains share route in metro areas, commuter trains use parallel track to avoid blocking the faster acceleration/deceleration of TGV. Those operational practices shorten ride time and permit up to 12 TGV per hour on French HSR.

Aside from speed, frequency, safety and comfortable rides, TGV is lauded for generating foot-traffic that attracts shopping malls to train stations and more adjacent hotels. TGV, commuter rail, Metro Heavy Rail, Metro Light Rail (called “Trams” in Europe) and retail activity makes urban train stations vibrant from 6am-10pm daily and increases nearby property values.

French government equally prioritizes railway, highway and airport infrastructure. The important distinction is why they invested $6 billion on the initial HSR line and continue investing in HSR expansion, though TGV operating profits also contribute to HSR expansion.

Underinvestment Cripples Old Northeast Corridor Railway

In the 1830s, American railway began in Baltimore as privately-owned freight and passenger service for 30-50 mph trains. A remnant of the city’s railway heritage is one curvy tunnel, opened in 1873, forces all trains to exit Baltimore Penn Station at 30 mph for several miles. Hundreds of railway miles extended to train stations in Washington, Philadelphia, Newark, New York City, New Haven, Providence and Boston. To increase train speeds and access to stations in the Northeast Corridor, most viaduct, bridges and tunnels opened between 1873-1920.

Today, 363 miles of the Northeast Corridor railway are owned by Amtrak; state transit agencies own the rest. 2,000 commuter trains, 140 Amtrak trains and 60 freight trains use the Northeast Corridor each day. Though Amtrak only handles 5% of passenger traffic, it transports more intercity travelers than airplanes in Northeast Corridor.

Northeast Corridor track owners

Amtrak owns dark blue track segments; the rest is owned by state transit agencies; (c) Amtrak

Northeast Corridor operates best where it has 2 tracks for bi-directional Amtrak trains, 2 tracks for bi-directional commuter and freight trains, plus 2 tracks placed intermittently on each side (“siding tracks”) for slow freight trains to pull aside. To further understand challenges limiting Amtrak speed, frequency and dependability, think of 457-mile Northeast Corridor as two railway segments connecting at New York Penn Station, America’s busiest train station:

NEC Mileage Between Stations

As explained in American Passenger Rail History, federal and state governments never prioritized Railway investment equal to Highway and Aviation investment. The short story was in 1965, Congress and President Johnson low-funded America’s first electric high speed train (“Metroliner”) between NYC and Washington. When service began in 1969, Metroliner ran up to 125 mph. By 1970, safety issues with old infrastructure reduced Metroliner Top Speed to 100 mph. Everywhere else in America, passenger rail ran far slower, less frequently and lost money.

In 1971, Congress and President Nixon formed Amtrak to save intercity passenger rail by consolidating remaining private lines under Amtrak, then allocating a federal subsidy each year to combine with ticket revenue and pay operating expenses. Aside from rebranding trains and station area for “Amtrak”, they did not invest federal funds to improve passenger rail infrastructure.

In 1976, Congress, President Ford and regional states invested a bit more to improve signaling and build overpasses at every railroad crossing in NYC-Washington corridor segment by 1984. Top speed only increased Amtrak Metroliner to 110 mph due to remaining Slow Zone infrastructure (major curves, 4 tracks constricting to 3 or 2 tracks, old track switches, old power systems, old catenary, old signaling, old communications, bumpy tracks). Slow Zones limited Amtrak Metroliner to a 3 Hour 20 Minute NYC-Washington ride time — slower than driving Interstate Highway.

Acela running on Susquehanna River Bridge, built in 1906

Acela running southbound towards Baltimore on Susquehanna River Bridge, built 1906; credit James G. Howes

Northeast Corridor has many old movable bridges that sit relatively low above water. Given Maritime Law prevails over Railway Law, movable bridges are required to open so tall ships can pass. The longest movable bridge is Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland. The manual opening/closing of movable bridges takes a crew 15-30 minutes. Hence, the unpredictable tall ship passing can wreck a passenger train schedule.

Today, the increasing number of weather events trigger frequent repair of old bridges, old tunnels, old power systems and old track switches. Yet, the most frequent cause of delay in the Northeast Corridor is when freight trains constrict to shared tracks with Amtrak and commuter trains. Since it is the largest chokepoint affecting the most Amtrak riders and it limits the frequency and dependability of all Northeast Corridor trains, the worst Slow Zone is between Newark Penn Station and New York Penn Station.

Newark Penn Station to New York Penn Station

Slow Zones from Newark Penn Station to New York Penn Station; credit realtransit.org

New York Penn Station should have the same number of tracks entering/exiting on both sides to prevent train congestion. That is not the case. From the east side, East River Tunnels bring 4 tracks into New York Penn Station. From the west side, Hudson River Tunnels (“North River Tunnels” on diagram) bring 2 tracks into New York Penn Station. Fewer trains can enter/exit per hour from the west side than from the east side. When old Hudson River Tunnels (1908) and East River Tunnels (1910) require repair after major weather events, they also become a Slow Zone factor.

Old track switches (“Interlockings”) at Rea and Hudson rail junctions, enable a mix of Amtrak and commuter trains (red tracks) and more commuter trains (brown tracks) from Hoboken to merge with tracks heading to Newark Penn Station. Portal Interlocking also contains an old movable bridge. For safety, Amtrak typically runs only 35-80 mph over that 10-mile stretch between stations.

NYC-Stamford-New Haven-New London-Providence-Boston corridor segment had even more old movable bridges, old track switches, old power systems, old catenary, Amtrak crossing commuter & freight rail tracks in rail junctions, constriction from 4 tracks to 3 or 2 shared tracks, over a dozen railroad crossings and a devil’s abundance of curves produced a lousy & bumpy 4 Hour 30 Minute ride time.

Bill Clinton Starts Poor Man’s High Speed Rail

In 1970, Northeast air travel times (taxi + airport queues + flight + airport queues + taxi) from CBD to CBD used to encompass 2 hour 30 minutes. Business people with carry-on luggage loved air travel to avoid 3-6 hour drives and slow trains in the Northeast Corridor.

When President Clinton took office in 1993, Northeast Corridor had grown to 45 million residents and airline competition lowered airfares. More people flying caused longer airport queues for ticketing, luggage checks, security screening, board/unboard airplane, and airplane taxi on runway. As the densest corridor in America, increasing flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington made their airport queues worse than in other regions. Average Northeast Corridor air travel times ballooned to 3 hours 30 minutes.

New York I-95 Freeway traffic

I-95 Freeway traffic entering NYC via George Washington Bridge

In 1975, one could drive between Washington and NYC via I-95 Freeway and I-295 Tollway with two tollway stops, yet average 67 mph. By 1993, population growth and more toll stations increased I-95 Freeway and I-295 Tollway congestion. Average speed slowed to 60 mph or worse, when accidents occurred. The picnic driving Northeast Corridor was over.

Lengthening air travel and highway travel times spelled market opportunity for Amtrak. President Clinton’s USDOT and the governors of state DOTs wanted Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR as an alternative to wider highways and airport expansion. If built to French HSR standards, travel times would not be crippled by weather events, long airport queues, and long CBD-Airport-CBD taxi rides.

HSR in 264-mile Paris-Lyon corridor that cost $6 billion beginning construction in 1973 to launch of TGV service in 1981. That $6 billion inflation-adjusts to $19.5 billion beginning 1993. It was a rule-of-thumb indicator that Northeast Corridor HSR would not be cheap. And yet, America could have built Northeast Corridor HSR at lower cost per mile than France did for several reasons.

Northeast Corridor already had complete railroad overpasses and fencing in Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-NYC-Stamford-New Haven segment. Two major railway tunnels, a NYC bridge and existing viaduct straightaway could be modernized at less cost than new infrastructure. Experienced HSR consultants could be hired to avoid costly design mistakes on new infrastructure. The corridor had about 225 miles in chunks of straightaway and mild curvature. With 75 miles of rural land acquisition for new infrastructure interconnecting those chunks, Northeast Corridor could form 325 miles of mostly contiguous straightaway and mild curvature track for high speeds. Proven high speed trains could be bought from the same company that built TGV, but assembled in America.

By committing all funding in 1993, our federal government and state partners could lock-in time & material prices before rising health care costs exploded inflation. Furthermore, the 1989 renovation of Washington Union Station proved that shopping mall companies would contribute to station redevelopment projects that anticipate high foot-traffic.

Northeast Corridor HSR didn’t need to match TGV’s 186 mph Top Speed and 135 mph Average Speed in 1993. It only needed 165 mph Top Speed and 108 mph Average Speed to achieve initial ridership and financial success compared to flying and driving options. With ridership and station profits, more infrastructure could be modernized for higher speed later. That’s what France did as ridership and financial success spurred the Paris-Lyon HSR upgrade from 168 mph in 1981 to 186 mph in 1988.

From my studies of rail construction costs, I estimate that Northeast Corridor HSR, if fully funded in 1993, would have cost about $40 million per mile vs. $74 million per mile for French HSR. with that rule-of-thumb estimate, 165 mph Top Speed and 108 mph Average Speed in 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor could have been accomplished with only $20 billion in 1993.

Clinton’s USDOT needed $14 billion in federal funds authorized by Congress. That would trigger Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland DOTs to contribute $4 billion. Based on Washington Union Station upgrade attracting a large shopping mall company, Clinton’s USDOT could anticipate other shopping mall companies and hoteliers investing $2 billion to upgrade major train stations. Freight rail companies would invest $50-75 million in more siding track. The figures would sum to $20 billion.

Viaduct can be upgraded in 6 to 8 years, but new bridges and tunnels take 11-12 years from start to finish. Therefore, Northeast Corridor could be fully modernized for efficient HSR, commuter rail and freight rail service by 2005. Driving and flying between cities in the corridor would drop.

Powerful airline lobby and highway lobby opponents feared a challenge from HSR and the highway lobby didn’t care much for enhanced commuter rail either. They influenced Congress to torpedo that scale of federal funding. Congress approved only $2.3 billion economic stimulus funds for Clinton’s USDOT to invest in Northeast Corridor HSR. Over his 8-year term, Congress only added $2 billion of standard USDOT funding for the HSR project and another $1 billion in studies for a competing Magnetic Levitation (“MagLev”) train project.

Key Mistakes by Clinton’s USDOT

The Clinton’s USDOT made several mistakes obtaining and allocating federal HSR funding.

First, Clinton’s USDOT wasted $1 billion on Northeast Corridor MagLev feasibility studies, instead of Northeast Corridor HSR. HSR routes utilize existing station area, railroad overpasses, tunnels, viaduct and bridges built or modernized less than 25 years ago to reduce the need and cost for new infrastructure. HSR shares track switches, signaling, power systems, catenary poles and fencing with commuter rail. That benefit-sharing increases HSR Benefit/Cost Ratio.

In contrast, MagLev is so technologically different that it can not sharing railway infrastructure. To run substantially faster than 186 mph HSR, MagLev requires new overpasses, bridges, tunnels and viaduct for straightaway to enable 267 mph, Top Speed at that time. Germany, a MagLev pioneer, realized that it would have to acquire more contested land and construct new MagLev infrastructure at huge expense. In 1993, that nation gave up on MagLev because projected Benefit/Cost Ratio was far less attractive than its first HSR line opened that year. So Germany prioritized HSR System expansion and sold its MagLev technology to China, whose system of government allows them to take land in less time and assign labor at lower costs.

Of all wealthy democratic countries in 1993, only Japan had a corridor population-dense enough and short enough that MagLev might produce a Benefit/Cost Ratio higher than 1.0. Moreover, 50 million people in 320-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor had three decades of proof that Japanese would patronize fast trains at a profit to the rail lines.

Since nextgen Japanese HSR was being planned for 199 mph (320 kph) Top Speed by 2005-07, MagLev had to be run straighter and substantially faster than HSR. To reduce land acquisition lawsuits and design enough straightaway for 311 mph (500 kph), Japan is building 90% of its MagLev route in tunnels and the rest on viaduct. Its goal is 67 minute MagLev travel time vs. 2 hour 10 minute nextgen HSR travel time in Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor.

Given MagLev construction costs twice as much per mile as nextgen HSR, Japan focused on HSR expansion, while tightly controlling MagLev R&D expense over 18 miles. Clinton’s USDOT ignored those obvious clues to avoid MagLev on his watch.

By the way, 90% of Japan’s National HSR System completed in 2013, enabling the island nation to plan ahead. Since Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka HSR service would reach design capacity around 2040, Japan’s government authorized funding for Tokyo-Nagoya MagLev segment to open in 2027 and for Nagoya-Osaka MagLev segment to open in 2037. Construction costs are estimated to be $83 billion for the entire 272-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka MagLev corridor. MagLev corridor distance is shorter than HSR corridor distance because its straighter. America should take clues from Japan and not touch MagLev until 90% of our Interstate HSR System is completed.

Second, Clinton’s USDOT did not prioritize our most population-dense corridor segment: NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington.

Given Congress downscaled his 1993 HSR funding request, Clinton’s USDOT would have to defer adding another Hudson River Tunnel and modernizing old Hudson River Tunnels. But they could build a new Baltimore Tunnel and replace all movable bridges in the segment. They could replace old track switches, signaling systems, power systems and catenary. They could purchase 15 miles of rights-of-way for 2 straighter high-speed tracks for Amtrak and 2 other tracks for commuter and freight trains. They could convince freight rail companies to add more siding track. That approach would yield a good Benefit/Cost Ratio.

Third, Clinton did not flex political muscle to obtain more HSR funding. By 1995, the U.S. economy was booming. America was not involved in wars. Those conditions started producing a budget surplus and near certain Clinton re-election in November 1996. A politically stronger Clinton could have horse-traded with Congress to obtain $6 billion more HSR funding, instead of $2 billion more over 6 years.

The $9.3 billion ($2.3B stimulus + $1B from MagLev studies + $6B) federal funds would have attracted about $3.7 billion from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland DOTs. Clinton’s USDOT could reasonably estimate that $1.5 billion would be contributed from shopping mall companies and hoteliers wanting to locate at New York Penn Station, Newark Penn Station, Philadelphia 30th Street Station and Baltimore Penn Station. Public and private partnership funds would total as $14.5 billion. That funding would enable a 2 hour 10 minute Acela NYC-Washington ride time, more frequent train service and 94-95% schedule dependability by 2005.

More commuters would also ride trains to those stations. Those collective improvements would convert more flyers and drivers to trains. Higher ridership would also fund the purchase of more train cabins so Amtrak could implement First, Business and Coach fare classes on every Acela train to increase HSR ridership and profits.

With Acela operating at a high level, public pressure would escalate for the next Congress and President to add a new Hudson River Tunnel, modernize old Hudson River Tunnels and completely modernize NYC-Stamford-New Haven-New London-Providence-Boston corridor segment. Unfortunately, Clinton’s USDOT thinly spread $4.3 billion ($2.3B stimulus + $2B) across 457-mile Northeast Corridor. Since Northeast Corridor HSR devolved to an underfunded project whose grasp exceeded its reach, regional governors contributed fewer funds.

In 2001, Clinton’s USDOT delivered Acela tilt trains capable of 165 mph, but only 17 miles from Boston suburbs to Providence were modernized. Even in those 17 miles, there were only 2 tracks shared between Amtrak, commuter trains and freight trains without enough space between tracks for Acela to pass them at 165 mph. For safety, the Federal Railroad Administration limits passenger trains to 150 mph in that stretch.

Over two decades, 18 more miles after Providence were modernized for a total 35 miles capable of 150 mph, but still constricted to 2 tracks. Hence, 231-mile Boston-NYC corridor segment has 195 miles of Slow Zones that produce only 62 mph Average Speed for 3 hour 35 minute Acela Boston-NYC ride time with less frequency and dependability than NYC-Washington Corridor Segment.

There was some good news. NYC, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Newark increased Commuter Rail and Metro Rail service to train stations. Better Amtrak Northeast Corridor service attracted more riders, particularly to New York Penn Station. Retail success at Washington Union Station convinced a shopping mall company to pay big bucks for the master lease of retail space and a hotelier to build on NYC Grand Central Terminal property. Consequently, Washington Union Station and Grand Central Terminal renovations proved that high-traffic train stations can attract a couple billion dollars from shopping mall companies and hoteliers.

Bush II USDOT Squandered Northeast Corridor Opportunity

In 226-mile NYC-Washington corridor segment, Acela reached 135 mph Top Speed and 85 mph Average Speed when trains only stopped at Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark and NYC for 2 hours 41 minutes ride time. To attract more business travelers, Acela added 2 of 3 stops (Metropark, Wilmington, BWI Airport) per run between NYC and Washington. Population growth caused more commuter trains to congest under New York Penn Station, delaying some trains from entering/leaving via the west side. Acela reduced to 82 mph Average Speed for a longer 2 hour 48 minute ride time.

Since Acela’s Average Speed never approached TGV’s 135 mph Average Speed, Acela and Amtrak easy targets for news media and government critics.

President Bush II was an “Oil Man.” Like most Oil Men, he hated Amtrak because it meant less people consuming oil to fly and drive. Yet Bush II knew of Acela’s potential between Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark, NYC, Stamford and New Haven. Acela high speed trains were already running with untapped potential for higher speed, frequency and dependability. As a Yale University alum, Bush II had college friends that rode Amtrak from New Haven to job interviews and internships in Stamford, NYC, Philadelphia and Washington. The President’s staff caught Acela from Washington to NYC for fundraisers and United Nations meetings. He knew Congressmen who rode Acela in the corridor. Northeast Chambers of Commerce lobbied to further improve HSR, commuter & freight rail infrastructure in America’s densest, wealthiest corridor for higher economic productivity. A bi-partisan Congressional majority would have supported President Bush II on Northeast Corridor railway projects.

Acela NYC to Washington Speed Limit

Acela NYC to Washington Speed Limit Current & Infrastructure Modernization Phase 1; credit RealTransit.org

Clinton handed Bush II a golden opportunity to invest only $6 billion/6 years to attract $2.5 billion/6 years from states to modernize New Haven-Stamford-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington infrastructure. That would attract $1.5 billion from shopping mall companies and hoteliers for New York Penn Station, 30th Street Station, Baltimore Penn Station, Newark Penn Station and Stamford Station renovations/expansions. Let the next President and Congress worry about Hudson River Tunnels and complete modernization of New Haven-Boston segment.

By 2009, Acela could have reached 108 mph Average Speed for 2 hour 10 minute Washington-NYC ride time and 1 hour NYC-New Haven ride time to double Amtrak ridership, while improving commuter rail capacity and on-time performance. For a rounding error in the federal budget, Bush II would have been credited for fixing most Northeast Corridor railway, reducing highway congestion and boosting American productivity. He could avoid blowback from his Big Oil friends by ignoring HSR projects elsewhere. Why President Bush II passed on that slam-dunk legacy opportunity is a mystery.

Acela, The Little Engine That Could

Once the 9-11-2001 terrorist event occured, hassle and longer queues were most evident at congested Northeast Corridor airports. Though flight time remained 50 minutes, air travel time between Washington CBD and NYC CBD, including taxi rides and airport queues, grew to 3 hours 45 minutes at best. In bad weather and traffic congestion to/from airports, air travel time often passed 4 hours.

In contrast, Northeast Corridor HSR travelers could buy tickets online and arrive 10-15 minutes before their scheduled train and breeze through security. About 3 minutes before train arrival, patrons head for station platforms. Northeast Corridor station platforms are level with cabin floors and Amtrak trains have 2 doors per cabin, enabling riders to swiftly board/unboard. Since Amtrak went CBD-to-CBD, travelers had four options upon arrival:

• short walk with luggage to the curb, then short taxi/shuttle ride to central destinations
• short walk without luggage to the curb, then walk 3-5 blocks for business/government meetings
• short walk with luggage to another station platform, transfer to commuter rail
• short walk with small luggage within the station, transfer to Metro Rail

To recover from the 2008 Great Recession, Congress granted President Obama $13 billion in economic recovery funds to invest in Amtrak upgrade projects and other HSR projects. He planned to authorize more funds for Northeast Corridor HSR, California HSR, Chicago-Midwest HSR, Southeast HSR and Florida HSR. Unfortunately, the loss of Congressional bi-partisanship from 2011-16 and the next President from 2017-20 kneecapped HSR funding.

In early 2021, Acela travel time including taxi/Uber rides is often 3 hours 30 minutes. Thats only a 15-minute advantage over the best Washington-NYC air travel time. But Acela has other compelling advantages. Its 87-89% on-time average beats the 73-80% on-time average of commercial airlines.

The longest Northeast Corridor flight is Washington Reagan Airport to Boston Logan Airport with average flight time of 70 minutes. It features 30 minutes of cruising altitude when you can open a laptop for productive work. NYC-Washington, NYC-Boston, Philadelphia-Boston, and Baltimore-Boston flights only have 10-20 minutes of cruising altitude. If those flights are bumpy, you won’t get that much time for work or restroom break.

In contrast, all Acela and Northeast Regional ride time is available for productive work and the comfort of visiting a Cafe Car and restroom at your leisure.

Northeast Regional trains, whose fares cost one third to one half that of Acela, attract nearly 3 times more passengers than Acela. But they add 30-35 minutes to ride time, depending on number of additional stops. Since Acela and Northeast Regional represent more schedule dependability, productivity and comfort advantages over flying, twice as many people ride trains than fly between Washington and NYC.

The best Acela NYC-Stamford-New Haven-New London-Providence-Boston ride time is 3 Hours 35 minutes at 62 mph Average Speed. When adding taxi/shuttle/Uber rides to/from train stations, Acela travel time is slightly longer than air travel time in that segment. Yet, Amtrak and air travel split evenly between Boston and NYC.

Acela and Northeast Corridor Progress Coming

President Obama, with urging from Amtrak rider Vice-President Biden, convinced Congress to fund the modernization of 24 miles between New Brunswick and Trenton, New Jersey before leaving office. Amtrak funded the modernization of 30 miles between suburban Washington and West Baltimore. Delaware added a 3rd track at Wilmington Station to prevent freight & commuter trains from slowing Amtrak trains.

President Obama also convinced Congress to loan Amtrak $2.5 billion for nextgen Acela trains. They are being built in America by Alstom, the French company renown for building TGV. Over 2021-22, Alstom’s nextgen Avelia Liberty trains will replace current Acela train-sets. Avelia Liberty trains accelerate/decelerate faster and tilt 10 mph faster in curves. Amtrak also purchased track shaving equipment to enable smoother Acela and Northeast Regional rides between NYC and Washington. By 2023, enough small infrastructure upgrades will complete for nextgen Acela to run 110-160 mph on more miles between Newark and Washington for a reduction to 2 hour 33 minute ride time. By 2030, Amtrak and its state and private partners would like to have a “>new Baltimore Tunnel and the Gateway Program between between Newark and NYC complete.

Passengers are frustrated when current 5-cabin Acela train-sets are sold out and less frequent than demand. Nor are they impressed with the Cafe Car menu. Nextgen Acela will have 8-cabin train-sets and 8 more train-sets to operate 40% more frequently. Amtrak will finally be able to offer First, Business and Coach Class fares and a better stocked Cafe Car on each Acela.

Northeast Corridor ridership growth is driving capacity, architecture and amenity upgrades to New York Penn Station-Moynahan Hall, which handles 650,000 daily riders and Washington Union Station, which handles half that amount. Major upgrades are planned for Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Boston South Station, Baltimore Penn Station, and Newark Station as well.

Amtrak has identified $45.2 billion in vision projects to remove the biggest Slow Zones in Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1. To achieve that vision, Amtrak, state and private partners commit $15.1 billion. Federal funding rules say that a Benefit/Cost Ratio of 1.0 or higher makes a project more competitive for federal funding. Amtrak Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1 is well above that ratio, yet the 2017-20 President’s USDOT committed only $3.84 billion. So there’s a $26 billion federal funding shortfall.

The U.S. House of Representatives supports Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1 plan and wants to replicate Interstate High Speed Rail benefits across America. If Congress and President Biden close that $26 billion shortfall in 2021, Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1 can complete by 2030. Acela speed profile will look similar to the green line on Northeast Corridor Speed Limit chart, with higher frequency and 95% schedule dependability.

Respected group advocates like the U.S. High Speed Rail Association recommend that Congress and President Biden invest enough to complete Northeast Corridor HSR Phase 1 asap, while simultaneously granting funds to public HSR projects in California, Chicago-Midwest, Southeast and Northwest, plus loans to private HSR projects in Las Vegas, Texas and Florida.

A second phase of Northeast Corridor Modernization is needed to further shorten ride times, increase dependability, and increase capacity as the Northeast region hurdles past 60 million population. Coupled with upgraded commuter rail and more Metro Rail, they will divert more people from airports and highway to railway. As ridership increases, it will be easier getting political support for Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 2 to achieve these Acela performance metrics by 2040:

226-Mile NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington Corridor Segment
• 185 mph top speed over 175 miles
• 118 mph average speed for 1 Hour 45 minute ride time
• 15-minute Peak and 30-minute Off-Peak train frequency
• 97-98% schedule dependability

Boston-New Haven-NYC Segment, A Larger Challenge

Before getting too excited about Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 2, lets circle back to fixing the slow Boston-NYC corridor segment.

NYC-Stamford-New Haven segment has overpasses at every railroad crossing and most of the segment has 4 tracks. Where the segment has 2 or 3 tracks, it can be expanded to 4 tracks by 2026. Modernizing track switches, signaling, power systems and catenary can also complete by 2026. Modernizing East River Tunnels, rail bridges and rail junctions between Queens and New Rochelle can complete by 2030. Amtrak will finally gain 2 dedicated tracks without chokepoints from NYC to New Haven. Though curves will remain, nextgen Acela will tilt faster for 90-125 mph speeds. All Amtrak and commuter trains will run more frequently and dependably in this segment.

Acela Speed Limit New Haven to Boston

Acela Speed Limit New Haven to Boston; credit RealTransit.org

New Haven-Old Saybrook segment requires a few miles of property acquisition to expand from 2 shared tracks to 2 bi-directional tracks for Amtrak and 2 bi-directional tracks for commuter rail and freight rail. If Amtrak gets 2 dedicated tracks, nextgen Acela can reach 125-150 mph in this segment.

Boston-Providence-Kingston segment also requires modest property acquisition to expand from 2 Amtrak HSR tracks and 2 commuter & freight rail tracks. Since this segment has more straitaway, 2 dedicated HSR tracks will enable Acela to reach 185 mph.

Fixing Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment is the heaviest lift. There are 10 coastal railroad crossings, 1 in-land railroad crossing and 1 movable bridge that limit speeds to 35-80 mph. The movable bridge will be replaced in Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1. Given so much development around coastal track however, it is economically impractical to widen Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment to 4 tracks.

Should those 10 coastal railroad crossings receive overpasses? Given the high cost to remove properties for sub-90 mph speeds and minimal additional capacity, it raises troublesome questions about the Benefit/Cost Ratio compared to other HSR projects.

Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1

Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1; credit CTMirror.org

Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment can reach 185 mph by implementing a $64-66 billion Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1, a 50-mile bypass of coastal curves. Its the light blue bypass on the CTMirror’s map of Boston-Providence-New London-New Haven-Stamford-New York railway. This CTMirror article also summarizes $131-$136 billion Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 2 that departs Providence through upstate Connecticut to Hartford, then down to New Haven for existing route to NYC. Lastly, CTMirror summarizes $267-308 billion Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 3 using more of Massachusetts to bypass Rhode Island and most of Connecticut towards NYC on new infrastructure supporting 220 mph.

Aside from faster speed, there’s another compelling reason for a rail bypass. Global Warming is melting glaciers faster than forecasted in 2000, causing sea level rise with higher storm surges. A respected Bloomberg BusinessWeek report indicates that Global Warming is accelerating with devastating consequences to coastal property, railway and roadway. Even if America, China, Europe, Russia, Japan and India slow greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 onwards, sea level will likely rise 1 foot by 2040 and 2-3 feet by 2060. A 2-foot sea level rise will have bad economic, transportation and ecological consequences. A 3-foot sea level rise will be devastating.

Like I-95 Highway in southeastern Connecticut, a moderately in-land bypass can protect Amtrak Northeast Corridor against sea level rise. Planning ahead, Amtrak preferred NEC Bypass Alternative 1 to retain & enhance Amtrak service in southeastern Connecticut. Though Amtrak would no longer use current Mystic and New London coastal stations, the bypass would include a combined New London/Mystic Station and improve Amtrak service to Old Saybrook, Kingston and Providence. In contrast, Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternatives 2 and 3 would eliminate all or most Amtrak service in southeastern Connecticut.

Southeastern Connecticut protest against NEC Bypass Alternative 1 currently outweighs support. For the most part, protestors want to maintain Amtrak service along the coast. Protesters enlisted support from the Connecticut governor, Congressmen and coastal mayors to prevent an in-land bypass. Unfortunately, their political muscle has short term viability.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy proved that coastal threat by temporarily raising sea level 10 feet in lower Manhattan. Surge waves were high enough to flood a NYC subway station. As the nation’s financial hub and densest property location, NYC Metro Area will attract the largest share of federal funds towards $100 billion in flood wall and infrastructure hardening to protect against sea level rise and storm surge. Many other large coastal American cities will receive billions in federal funds for flood wall and infrastructure hardening too.

As the Hurricane Irene video above proves, southeastern Connecticut is subject to storm surge. In the coming years, sea level rise and storm surge will go higher. Competing for federal funds against the large coastal cities of America, the small towns of southeastern Connecticut stand less chance obtaining enough money for a lengthy flood wall. It will be harder to get flood insurance on all coastal property. Though difficult for coastal protestors to accept, many property owners will have to relocate in-land over the next 20 years or self-insure at risk.

In 1971, President Nixon and Congress founded Amtrak with a charter to eventually become a profitable entity without federal operating subsidy. It was on course to become profitable without federal operating subsidy in 2020, just before the pandemic shutdown. Amtrak is still charged to increase ridership and achieve self-sustaining operating profit. Its ridership and operating profit bulwark is Washington-NYC-Boston corridor. To sustain operating profit through changing economic and climate conditions, Acela must reach 1 hour 45 minute ride in Washington-NYC segment, 2 hour 45 minute ride time in NYC-Boston segment and prepare both segments for sea level rise and storm surge. Given lengthy environmental review before construction and potential storm damage, the Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative will likely be chosen several years before Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 2 turns shovels in 2030.

An alternative use of funds for $267-308 billion NEC Bypass Alternative 3, is to build HSR in the more populous Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta corridor at a higher Benefit/Cost Ratio. The latter option also represents a lot of Congressional muscle from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. And given four U.S. Senators in Rhode Island and Connecticut tend to coordinate with eight U.S. Senators in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont before voting on USDOT budgets, they are unlikely to approve NEC Bypass Alternative 3 that skips by Rhode Island and most of Connecticut.

Congress and Amtrak also know that delay since 1993, has nearly tripled new infrastructure cost. Many Congressional voters for new Transportation infrastructure are fence sitters based on cost-per-mile and Benefit/Cost Ratio. It is empirically easier to get more Congressional votes for $64-66 billion Bypass Alternative 1 at lower cost-per-mile and higher Benefit/Cost Ratio compared to $131-$136 billion Bypass Alternative 2 at higher cost-per-mile and lower Benefit/Cost Ratio.

Will southeastern Connecticut leaders resolve current issues with Bypass Alternative 1 to back it or will Bypass Alternative 2 become a forced Congressional & Amtrak choice later?

If Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1 is chosen and starts construction by 2030, Acela can meet these performance metrics by 2040:

231-Mile Boston-Providence-New London/Mystic-New Haven-Stamford-NYC Corridor Segment
• 185 mph top speed over 80 miles
• 86 mph average speed for 2 hour 45 minute ride time
• 30-minute Peak and 50-minute Off-Peak train frequency
• 92-94% schedule dependability

Those performance metrics, higher capacity trains, smoother rides and station upgrades can mitigate highway and airport congestion as Northeast Corridor population and tourism grow. But wait, there’s more.

Amtrak is modernizing New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor and Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor with plans for extension to Pittsburgh. By 2030, Amtrak can buy more Avelia Liberty trains to run 185 mph in NYC-Philadelphia segment, while bookending 110-125 mph service in NYC-New Haven-Springfield segment and 125 mph service in Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh segment. By 2030, more federal and state funding will upgrade Amtrak NYC-Albany-Syracuse-Rochester-Buffalo-Niagara Falls segment to 110-125 mph and Amtrak Washington-Richmond-Raleigh segment to 110-125 mph. All Amtrak Northeast Region services will get higher train frequencies.

NYC Metro Area, has a infrastructure investment plan to connect Metro-North Railroad to Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit commuter rail at New York Penn Station and others for same-seat rides on each other’s systems. The plan will convert standalone commuter rail lines into a world-class Regional Rail system, like the RER providing comprehensive and frequent service throughout Paris metro area.

Many travelers take TGV, Thalys, ICE and Eurostar high speed trains to Paris, then switch to RER trains. Fewer people need long taxi/shuttle rides to access cities within a 25-mile radius of central Paris. When the NYC Regional Rail Network is implemented, it will deliver similar benefits in NYC Metro Area. Philadelphia also has a Regional Rail Network Plan for SEPTA and New Jersey Transit commuter rail lines connecting at 30th Street Station.

That combination of upgraded Amtrak and regional rail service will be a Northeast lifestyle game-changer, particularly for students traveling between college, home, job interviews and entertainment venues. Maybe your kids will use Amtrak and regional rail to chop it up with college friends at New York Penn Station, Philadelphia 30th Street Station or Washington Union Station too.

For more insights on Amtrak Northeast Corridor Vision and Interstate High Speed Rail, click the links below.

Amtrak Northeast Corridor Vision

Interstate High Speed Rail, Part 1