Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Promise
At dinner with my Hound Phi Hound brothers from college, I chose a restaurant in 30th Street Station in Philadelphia for convenience because I booked a ride on Amtrak Northeast Regional train to Baltimore that evening. Though there would be no hurried ride to the train station later, an investigative adventure began. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of AmericaAfter 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 train.
Under Amtrak rules, you can’t take Acela having paid for a less expensive Northeast Regional train, 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 night, I felt that I should not have to pay for a ticket upgrade to get the next train to Baltimore.
Fortunately, a helpful Amtrak agent (Ricarda Burrell) jumped through hoops to get me on the Acela. I made it to Baltimore on time and fresh slice of Mother’s sweet potato pie. Nevertheless, my experience illustrates that Acela and Northeast Regional service are well short of market need and their potential for world-class High Speed Rail. That brief experience prodded the transportation analyst in me to discover why they fall short in the wealthiest country on Earth.
Initial Challenges for Northeast Corridor Passenger Rail
Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, called “Northeast Corridor”, contains America’s largest concentration of residential, business, government, collegiate and medical centers. It produces one quarter of America’s economic activity. It generates the most air, highway and passenger rail traffic. It attracts the most tourists. Congress and Presidents authorize the majority of federal aviation and federal highway funds to this corridor via U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) grants.
Yet this corridor causes 1/3rd of America’s flight delays, in part because there are still 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 people from those regional flights and interstate drives? The answer is that Amtrak uses old railway infrastructure not built for modern demands. Think of the 457-mile Northeast Corridor as two connected rail segments shared by Amtrak, commuter and freight trains:
231-Mile Boston-NYC corridor segment
0 Mile Boston South Station
1 Mile Boston Back Bay Station
11 Mile Route 128, MA
43 Mile Providence, RI
105 Mile New London, CT
156 Mile New Haven, CT
195 Mile Stamford, CT
231 Mile NYC Penn Station
226-Mile NYC-Washington corridor segment
241 Mile Newark Penn Station
255 Mile Metropark, NJ
263 Mile New Brunswick, NJ (Acela bypasses this station)
289 Mile Trenton, NJ
322 Mile Philadelphia 30th Street Station
347 Mile Wilmington, DE
416 Mile Baltimore Penn Station
427 Mile BWI Airport, MD
457 Mile Washington Union Station
Though it began as privately-owned railway in the 1800s, 363 miles of the Northeast Corridor are owned by Amtrak today. State transit agencies own the rest. Splintering south from Washington to Richmond are two lines owned by freight rail companies. Given its shared uses between Amtrak, commuter rail and freight rail, the Northeast Corridor has places where it spans from 2 to 3 to 4 tracks. At its operational best, Northeast Corridor has 4 tracks: 2 for bi-directional Amtrak high-speed trains, 2 for bi-directional commuter and freight trains, plus an occasional siding track where freight trains can park without slowing commuter trains.
Amtrak Northeast Corridor made its first advance towards higher speed in 1976, when Congress and President Ford invested $1.75 billion. State and local governments chipped in $150 million for a total of $1.9 billion to electrify the line, eliminate remaining railroad crossings with over/underpasses and insert fencing where needed in the NYC-Washington corridor segment.
Underinvestment Cripples Amtrak High Speed Rail
In 1978, President Carter pushed for more Northeast Corridor project funding to make the entire Boston-NYC-Washington corridor function like High Speed Rail (HSR) system opened by Japan in 1964 and those under construction in Italy and France. It would have cost $12 billion more ($9 billion federal funds to attract $3 billion state funds). Lacking foresight, Congress would not grant it. Over 1981-92, Presidents Reagan and Bush I hit the pause button on Amtrak project investments.
When the earlier Amtrak project authorized by President Ford completed by 1984, Amtrak speeds only improved from 30-80 mph to 30-110 mph in the NYC-Washington corridor segment. When you see 30 mph associated with passenger rail that’s supposed to run 110 mph, you know something is wrong.
The Northeast Corridor uses many old tunnels and bridges built over 1873-1920. They were not designed for high speed, high frequency trains. One curvy tunnel built in 1873, forces all trains to exit Baltimore Penn Station at 30 mph for many miles. The Northeast Corridor also has several old movable bridges that sit relatively low above the water. Maritime Law requires them to open so tall ships can pass. Since they take 15-30 minutes to re-close, the unpredictable schedule of tall ships passing can wreck a train schedule. One glaring example is the movable Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland.
Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains slow down whenever it switches 4 tracks down to 2 tracks. That happens a lot because Amtrak trains approach many 2 track bridges & tunnels in the corridor. Amtrak trains can not return to high speeds until commuter and freight trains switch off the 2 high-speed tracks over to 2 tracks for commuter and freight trains. Several other places force commuter trains to switch across Amtrak high-speed tracks to enter/exit a maintenance yard or fork to another commuter rail corridor. For safety, Amtrak trains slow to 60-80 mph in those stretches.
Though over/underpasses eliminated railroad crossings in NYC-Washington corridor segment in 1984, old track switches, poor track bedding and bumpy rail remained in too many places. Old power & communication systems failed too often. Old overhead electric wires (“catenary”) could not transmit enough voltage to the pantograph receptors atop high-speed electric trains. All those Slow Zone factors rendered a lousy 3 Hour 20 Minute Amtrak NYC-Washington Travel Time. They also limited train frequency and schedule dependability.
Infrastructure was far worse for 231-mile Boston-NYC corridor segment. Along with the same shortcomings as NYC-Washington corridor segment, it had more than a dozen railroad crossings, more movable bridges and a devil’s abundance of curves. Those limitations produced snail-like 4 Hour 30 Minute travel time that attracted fewer riders. At lower ridership, Amtrak cost-justifies half as many trains per day in Boston-NYC corridor segment.
Bill Clinton Starts Poor Man’s High Speed Rail
While funding for new Amtrak projects stalled from 1981-92, Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, West Germany, United Kingdom, South Korea and Spain prioritized funding HSR projects. By 1993, there were a dozen Asian and European 155-186 mph HSR lines operating or under construction.
By 1993, U.S. population growth and higher flight demand lengthened airport queues and travel times nationwide. Excessive regional flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington airports made Northeast Region congestion worse than other regions. Flights that used to encompass 2 Hour 30 Minutes total travel time ballooned to 3 Hours 30 Minutes. Driving hassle on I-295 Tollway and I-95 Freeway in the Northeast Corridor increased, as their average speed slowed to 60 mph.
The 457-mile Northeast Corridor had about 45 million residents in 1993 — higher than any rail corridor of similar length in Europe. Lengthening flight and highway travel times coupled with population density spelled market opportunity for Amtrak because trains would not be crippled by time consuming airport-like queues and long taxi/shuttle/car rental rides to Central Business Districts (CBD).
When he arrived in 1993, President Clinton wanted to build French TGV-like service in the Northeast Corridor and a number of northeast governors agreed. TGV service in 274-mile Paris-Lyon corridor cost $6 billion to build from 1973-1981. Building TGV-like service in the more challenging 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor would require about $19 billion more from multiple sources. If complete funding was authorized by Congress, President Clinton and regional governors in 1993, then all Northeast Corridor HSR work could complete by 2005.
NOTE: Due to inflation, the $19 billion cost is $7 billion higher than President Carter’s Northeast Corridor HSR proposal in 1978.
Clinton’s USDOT needed about $14 billion in federal funds for the entire HSR project. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland would allocate about $4 billion in state funds. Anticipating higher foot-traffic at train stations, hoteliers and shopping mall companies would bring another $1 billion to the project, boosting the total to $19 billion.
Unfortunately, powerful opponents in the Airline and Highway lobbies influenced Congress to torpedo that scale of federal funding for HSR. In 1993, Congress only approved $2.3 billion economic stimulus funds for Clinton’s USDOT to invest. Clinton only allocated another $2 billion towards the Northeast Corridor HSR project over his 8-year term in office.
Strategic Mistakes by Clinton’s USDOT
The Clinton Administration also made several judgment mistakes related to the project.
First, his USDOT wasted $1 billion on various MagLev feasibility studies. Germany gave up on MagLev by 1993 because its projected benefits would not outweigh excessive costs to construct completely new infrastructure its highest population-density corridor. Of all countries on Earth, only Japan had a corridor population-dense enough and short enough to project a positive benefit-cost ratio. Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor had about 50 million people in 1993. Like America, Japan’s democracy has citizen rights that increase the cost of land acquisition for infrastructure. To reduce land-owner lawsuits and build straight enough for 311 mph speed, Japan is building 90% of its MagLev route in new tunnels. The route will require 272 miles of new infrastructure. Given its construction cost is nearly twice as much per mile as new High Speed Rail lines, Japan focused on completing most its National High Speed Rail System before significant MagLev investment.
By 2027, 98% of Japan’s High Speed Rail System will complete and MagLev is slated to begin commercial operation in 178 miles between Tokyo and Nagoya. It won’t operate over the entire Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor until 2035, at best. MagLev construction costs are estimated to be $82 billion in Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor that will have over 80 million residents by 2035. That’s 35 million more residents than the Northeast Corridor had in 1993. No other democratic nation should have considered MagLev until Japan proves its benefit-cost ratio.
Second, given Congress downscaled his 1993 Northeast Corridor HSR funding request, his USDOT should have invested all Northeast Corridor funds on 262-mile Stamford-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington segment, where over 95% of railway was already separated by over/underpasses from roadway and shared with commuter rail. Bridge & tunnel replacements combined with other upgrades would produce more benefits faster than anywhere else. Success in Phase 1 would make it easy for the next Congress and President to justify funding Phase 2, a 195-mile Stamford-New Haven-Providence-Boston corridor segment.
Third, Clinton did not flex political muscle to obtain more Northeast Corridor HSR Phase 1 funding. By 1995, the U.S. economy started booming and America was not involved in foreign wars. Those conditions produced a budget surplus and near-certain Clinton re-election in November 1996. Instead of sitting on all of that budget surplus, Clinton could have flexed political muscle with Congress to obtain $5 billion more funding, instead of $2 billion, by horse-trading with the funding priorities in Congressional states and districts.
The $9.3 billion ($2.3B stimulus + $1B from MagLev + $5B) federal funds would have attracted $3.5 billion from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and $1 billion from hoteliers & shopping mall companies for a total of $13.3 billion. We could have had 165 mph trains running between Washington and NYC and 110 mph trains running between NYC and Stamford at high frequency and high dependability by 2004-05.
As things played out however, President Clinton’s USDOT thinly spread $4.3 billion ($2.3B stimulus + $2B) across 457-mile Northeast Corridor. States contributed relatively few funds to the under-scoped project with confusing goals. Thus, Clinton’s USDOT delivered Poor Man’s HSR, as illustrated in the next video. The exception was public-private funding that upgraded Washington Union Station to tourist attraction status.
Bush II USDOT Also Squandered Northeast Corridor Opportunity
In 2001, Acela tilt trains were introduced in the Northeast Corridor. They were certified to operate at 165 mph, but only 18 miles from Boston’s southern suburbs to Providence were ready for high speed. Even in those 18 miles, there wasn’t enough space between passing Amtrak, commuter and freight trains. For safety reasons, the USDOT’s Federal Railroad Administration limits Acela to 150 mph in that stretch. Over the years, 18 more miles between New London and Old Saybrook in eastern Connecticut eliminated railroad crossings, added new track, high-speed switches, catenary, power & communication systems for 36 total miles that now support 150 mph.
The rest of Boston-NYC corridor segment has severe curves, 9 railroad crossings, movable bridges, old catenary, power & communication systems, old track switches and bumpier track that still limit speed to 40-90 mph. In total, 231-mile Boston-NYC rail segment has over 190 miles of Slow Zones that produce 63 mph average speed for Acela’s 3 Hour 35 Minute Boston-NYC travel time that falls short of broad appeal for business travel.
In 226-mile NYC-Washington corridor segment, Acela’s top speed, 135 mph, is imposed by inadequate catenary, power & communication systems, old track switches and bumpier track than TGV. There’s also two places in New Jersey where slow commuter trains switch across high speed tracks.
Nevertheless, Acela averaged 83 mph for 2 Hour 42 Minutes travel time in NYC-Washington corridor segment — faster than travel time via flights & taxi rides to CBDs. Its 4 Business Class and 1 First Class cabins had wide seats with legroom, WiFi and electric outlets. The Cafe Car was nothing to rave about, but Acela’s 87-88% schedule dependability compared to an airplane’s 70-75% schedule dependability appealed to business travelers. Acela featured 16 daily round trips. Amtrak Northeast Regional added 19 daily round trips that make more stops in the same corridor, but cost half as much per ticket. Those conditions propelled Acela and Northeast Regional trains to operating profitability by 2006.
President Bush II knew the value of improved Northeast Corridor service, though he disliked Amtrak elsewhere. Bush II attended Yale in New Haven and Harvard next to Boston. New Haven still has lousy airport service. On school breaks, young Bush II and friends must have rode Amtrak from New Haven to NYC and Boston. Bush II knew that Congressmen rode Acela from Washington to NYC fundraisers. State Chambers of Commerce supported Northeast Corridor upgrades. New tunnels & bridges are a favorite target of inflation. In Stamford-New Haven-Providence-Boston corridor segment, no new tunnels were required and bridges to replace were shorter than those in Phase 1.
The federal budget was still generating an annual surplus in 2001. If Clinton’s USDOT avoided those 3 mistakes, it would have been harder for Bush II to pass on an opportunity to finish the last 195 miles of Northeast Corridor HSR on his watch. President Bush II ignored this opportunity, then got distracted by Middle East wars.
Acela, The Little Engine That Could
Once the terrorist event happened on 9-11-2001, extra hassle and travel time was most evident in congested Northeast Corridor airports. Curb-to-curb travel time by flight between Washington CBD and NYC CBD grew to 3.5 to 4 hours.
In contrast, Amtrak Northeast Corridor travelers could buy tickets online and arrive as little as 15 minutes before their scheduled train. Passing through security was a breeze. About 3 minutes before train arrival, patrons head for station platforms knowing that boarding/unboarding is fast through 2 doors for each cabin. All seats had great legroom and Acela’s on-time performance was better than flying. There was no long taxi/shuttle/rental car ride from airport to CBD. In 2010, communication systems were upgraded for GPS train operations & WiFi on Northeast Corridor trains well before commercial flights had it. Business travelers ensured that Acela would be profitable and college students became a staple of Northeast Regional trains.
To recover from the 2008-2011 Great Recession, Congress enabled President Obama to spread $13 billion in economic recovery funds on all Amtrak and other HSR projects around the nation. Improvements were made to Washington-NYC segment and Amtrak added Metropark and BWI Airport stops to attract more business travelers. The trade-off is stops add 3-4 minutes to travel time. Now, the best Acela NYC-Washington travel time is 2 Hours 49 minutes. Acela Boston-NYC travel time is now 3 hours 35 minutes with 62 mph average speed. Add 32-38 minutes for Northeast Regional travel time in each corridor segment, depending number of additional stops.
Since Acela and Northeast Regional still represent travel time saving, productivity, comfort and dependability advantages over airlines, twice as many people ride trains than fly between Washington and NYC. At lower travel time savings and dependability, the percentage of people riding trains vs. flying in Boston-NYC segment is roughly 50-50. In 2019, profitable Acela and Northeast Regional trains grew to 12.5 million annual ridership. That milestone helped Amtrak near operating breakeven.
More Acela & Northeast Corridor Progress Coming
Before leaving office, President Obama with background urging from long-time Amtrak rider, Vice-President Biden, convinced Congress to fund more small-ticket Northeast Corridor upgrades, highlighted by 24 miles of modern HSR (new catenary, new power & communication systems, high-speed track switches and track smoothing) between New Brunswick and Trenton, New Jersey and 30 miles of modern HSR between suburban Washington and West Baltimore. President Obama convinced Congress to give Amtrak a $2.5 billion loan for nextgen high speed trains. They are being built in America by Alstom, the French company renown for building high speed trains in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Over 2021-22, Alstom’s Avelia Liberty trains will replace all current Acela trains. Avelia Liberty trains tilt better to take mild curves 10 mph faster and will have 9 cabins, plus expansion capability to 12 cabins. Enough projects in NYC-Washington corridor segment should complete by 2022 for Acela NYC-Washington travel time to shrink to 2 hours 35 minutes.
The rise in Northeast Corridor HSR ridership is driving capacity, ADA, safety and amenity upgrades to NYC Penn Station-Moynahan Hall, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Boston South Station, Baltimore Penn Station and Washington Union Station.
Amtrak has identified $45.2 billion in vision projects to completely modernize Northeast Corridor HSR and double ridership by 2040. Today, Amtrak, state and private partners have committed $15.1 billion and the current USDOT commits $3.84 billion, so there’s a $26 billion federal funding shortfall.
The U.S. House of Representatives is on board with President Biden’s plan for world-class passenger rail in America. The U.S. High Speed Rail Association recommends that the Biden Administration invest up to $50 billion in Northeast Corridor. If President Biden can convince the U.S. Senate to agree to fund a large fraction of that amount, Acela can meet these performance metrics by 2033:
231-Mile Boston-NYC Corridor Segment
• 90-150 mph top speeds over 150 miles
• 84 mph average speed for 3 Hour travel time
• 30-minute Peak and 50-minute Off-Peak train frequency
• 92% schedule dependability
226-Mile NYC-Washington Corridor Segment
• 125-186 mph top speeds over 190 miles
• 113 mph average speed for 2 Hour travel time
• 15-minute Peak and 30-minute Off-Peak train frequency
• 97% schedule dependability
Due to more intermediate stops, Northeast Regional travel times should only be 25 minutes longer in NYC-Washington corridor segment and 30 minutes longer in Boston-NYC corridor segment. That range of travel times, train frequencies and schedule dependability will mitigate highway and airport congestion as Northeast Corridor population and tourism grows. But wait, there’s more.
Extensive commuter rail lines serving NYC Metro area span a 60-mile radius in New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region. About 2,000 commuter trains, 140 Amtrak trains, and 60 freight trains use the Northeast Corridor each day. Commuter Rail does not yet fulfill their potential in the region, but that will change. There is a regional plan to make strategic investments that connect Long Island Railroad, Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit systems at NYC Penn Station and extend to many stations in each other’s systems. By sharing many stations and rail infrastructure with upgraded Amtrak Northeast Corridor, the plan would create a world-class Regional Rail System like the RER serving Paris region. Many tourists, workers and college students take TGV, Thalys or Eurostar HSR trains to Paris, then switch to frequent RER trains to access dozens more cities within a 50-mile radius of Paris. When the NYC Regional Rail Network Plan is implemented, it will boost tourism, job growth and college access throughout the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region.
Philadelphia plans similar upgrades to SEPTA Regional Rail & New Jersey Transit lines interconnecting at 30th Street Station. Maybe you or your kids will use upgraded Amtrak and Regional Rail to chop it up with college friends at NYC Penn Station or 30th Street Station one day. For more insights on the challenges and progress towards Acela and Interstate HSR across America, click of the links below.