Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Promise
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 to my surprise, an investigative journey of Amtrak Northeast Corridor would begin — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
After chopping it up with the brothers, I discovered that my Amtrak Northeast Regional train was canceled. The next Amtrak Acela train would arrive an hour before the next Northeast Regional — so late that Mother won’t be awake when her son from California visits. So late that her mouth-watering, “slap somebody” sweet potato pie would have to chill.
Under Amtrak rules, you can’t take the Acela train 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 and it was late night, 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 home to Baltimore in time for Mother’s welcoming smile and a hot slice of that sweet potato pie.
Nevertheless, my experience illustrates that Amtrak Acela and Northeast Regional services fall short of the world-class High-Speed Rail that other nations enjoy. How could that be in the wealthiest country on Earth? My experience and that question prodded the travel publisher and transportation analyst in me to discover why it takes so long to fix.
Old Infrastructure Cripples Northeast Corridor Railway
Boston-NYC-Washington corridor (“Northeast Corridor”) contains America’s largest residential, business, government, collegiate, and medical concentration. It produces a quarter of America’s economic activity. It attracts the most tourists. Northeast Corridor features the most Americans riding passenger trains.
Today, 363 miles of the 457-mile Northeast Corridor railway are owned by Amtrak. State transit agencies own the rest for commuter rail service. Amtrak and state transit agencies have track-sharing agreements with freight rail companies. Each pre-pandemic weekday, 2,000 commuter trains, 140 Amtrak trains, and 60 freight trains use the corridor.
Think of Northeast Corridor as two major railway segments connecting at New York Penn Station. By handling 600,000 daily pre-pandemic passengers, it is America’s busiest intermodal transportation center for Amtrak trains, commuter trains, and rapid transit.
In 2019, the fastest Acela ride times were 2 hours 52 minutes for the Washington-NYC segment and 3 hours 36 minutes for the NYC-Boston segment. Amtrak and commuter trains operate best where the corridor has 2 straight tracks for bi-directional Amtrak trains, 2 tracks for bi-directional commuter trains and freight trains, and 1 or 2 intermittent siding tracks for slow freight trains to pull aside.
Northeast Corridor has the oldest railway in America. That legacy includes many old movable bridges that sit low above the water. Given Maritime Law prevails over Railway Law, movable bridges are required to open so tall ships can pass. The manual opening & closing of movable bridges take a crew 15-30 minutes. Hence, the unpredictable passing of a tall ship can wreck a passenger train schedule.
Weather events also introduce delays by triggering unscheduled repair of old bridges, tunnels, electric power systems & wires, signaling, and track switches.
The most frequent cause of schedule delay in the Northeast Corridor is when it constricts from 4 tracks to 3 tracks, then 2 tracks. Since they are shared by Amtrak, commuter trains, and slow freight trains, these chokepoints limit passenger train speeds and frequency. Though 30-40 mph speeds are okay for freight trains, their companies don’t like schedule delays either.
The worst chokepoint is between New York Penn Station and Newark Penn Station as seen on the map below.
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”) bring 2 tracks into New York Penn Station. Fewer trains can enter & exit per hour from the west side. And when major weather events trigger the unscheduled repair of Hudson River Tunnels (1908) and East River Tunnels (1910) they become chokepoints.
Old track switches (a total of 6 “Interlockings” on map) and a junction (“Waterfront Connection” on map) handle Amtrak and commuter trains (red tracks). Commuter trains from Hoboken (brown tracks) merge with red tracks heading to Newark Penn Station or points west. All the track switches cripple train speed. Hence, Amtrak and commuter trains only run 35-90 mph over that 12-mile chokepoint. The Portal Interlocking also contains an old movable bridge.
By comparison in France, most TGV trains leaving stations reach 99-106 mph a few blocks after leaving stations, then accelerate to higher speeds.
The second worst chokepoint is where the American railway began in 1830, the city of Baltimore. One curvy 3-track tunnel opened in 1873 forces Amtrak, commuter trains, and freight trains to enter & exit the west side of Baltimore Penn Station at 30 mph for about 6 miles.
The third worst chokepoint is the mile-long Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland. Opened in 1906, the bridge has the triple penalty of being a movable bridge, constricting 4 tracks to 2 tracks, and not being designed for speeds above 125 mph. By comparison, the French TGV runs 174-186 mph across most bridges.
Railway infrastructure is worse east and northeast of New York Penn Station. NYC-New Rochelle-Stamford-New Haven-Old Saybrook-New London-Providence segment had more old movable bridges, old track switches, old signaling, old power systems & overhead wires. Tracks constrict from 4 to 3 to 2 tracks too often. Amtrak crosses commuter rail in more junctions. A dozen railroad crossings for automobiles limited Amtrak speeds below 80 mph and a devil’s abundance of sharp curves limited speeds to 30-60 mph.
Those chokepoints produced a lousy and bumpy 4 Hour 30 Minute ride time between NYC and Boston.
America’s federal and state leaders have had many chances to build a world-class High-Speed Rail corridor when property and labor were cheap. In 1965, Congress and President Johnson introduced the first HSR project between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, and NYC. If we got serious about HSR, America could have had an Interstate HSR System 6 or 7 times larger than the one in France.
To America’s detriment, every combination of Congress and President since 1965, failed to make the needed scale of railway infrastructure investment. Even if we excuse them from being distracted by the Vietnam War, they should have ramped up HSR investment beginning in 1974.
Many passenger rail advocates thought Congress and President Clinton would finally get serious about HSR in 1993. America was emerging from economic recession and was the richest nation on Earth. The 1990 Gulf War ended quickly, so we could reallocate more taxes on Transportation Infrastructure.
Northeast Corridor, the densest in America, had grown to 45 million residents. That was nearly 4 times more people than France had when it started building the HSR corridor. More Americans flying caused longer airport queues for ticketing, luggage handling, security screening, and boarding & unboarding. Increasing flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington made airport queues worse than in other regions. When you include taxi rides to & from the airport from Washington CBD to NYC, Total Air Travel Time ballooned to 3 hours 30 minutes, on average.Driving the corridor also got more expensive and slower. More toll stations brought in revenue to maintain I-295 Tollway, but increased I-95 Freeway congestion and slowed average driving speed below 60 mph.
Assessing those conditions in America’s most important economic region, President Clinton’s U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and state DOTs wanted an alternative to highways and airports. They wanted TGV-style HSR in the Northeast Corridor, but no one wanted to pay the infrastructure cost to produce it.
Long story short, Congress & President Clinton, and Northeast state legislatures & governors needed to invest $20 billion in the 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor.
That was a reasonable sum considering GDP size and America’s economic growth from 1993-2006. Acela could have been running up to 165 mph with a 2-hour 10-minute NYC-Washington ride time and a 2-hour 45-minute NYC-Boston ride time. News media would have sung their praises the same way it chirped after Interstate Highways opened in the 1950s-70s.
Despite that low-risk, high-benefit infrastructure opportunity, our leaders invested only $4.3 billion in Northeast Corridor HSR.
Despite Shortcomings, Northeast Corridor HSR is Succeeding
Amtrak Acela service began in December 2000. Once the 9-11-2001 Terrorist Event occurred, security check hassle and queues at all airports serving America’s Top 75 metro areas. Though flight time remained 50 minutes between Washington and NYC, Total Air Travel Time ballooned to 4 hours on average.
In contrast, Northeast Corridor HSR travelers could buy tickets online and arrive 10-15 minutes before their scheduled train and breeze through security. Station platforms are level with cabin floors and passenger trains have 2 doors per cabin. That let riders swiftly board. Once train riders arrived in a CBD, they could walk, take a taxi, ride Metro Rail, or ride commute rail to final destinations.
In 2019, Acela NYC-Washington ride time was 2 hours 52 minutes. Including Taxi/Uber/Lyft, the Total Acela Travel Time averaged 3 hours 30 minutes.
The best Acela NYC-Boston ride time was 3 Hours 35 minutes. Including Taxi/Uber/Lyft, the Total Acela Travel Time averaged 4 hours 15 minutes. Despite Total Acela Travel Time averaging 15 minutes longer than Total Air Travel Time, Acela and Northeast Regionals patronage matched airline patronage between NYC and Boston.
Northeast Corridor HSR delivered more advantages than flying in the corridor. Acela’s 88-90% reliability beat airlines’ 73-80% reliability. Travelers value visiting the Cafe Car and restroom at their leisure. Amtrak Northeast Regional offered fares competitive with most Coach Class airfares in the corridor. All flights between Washington and Boston have only 10-30 minutes of cruising altitude when you can open a laptop for work. In contrast, all Amtrak ride time is available for work or entertainment between these city pairs in 4 hours or less:
• Boston-New Haven
• Newark-New Haven
• Philadelphia-New Haven
• Baltimore-New Haven
Despite lackluster performance by HSR standards elsewhere, Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR services have been profitable since 2006.
Obama’s Unfulfilled High-Speed Rail Promise
President Obama made a campaign promise for huge federal investment in HSR projects sponsored by Amtrak or state governments. There were a number of Ready-to-Build and Near-Ready HSR projects in the Northeast Corridor, California, Florida, and the Milwaukee-Chicago-Detroit corridor. To build HSR correctly, those projects needed $60 billion from the $787 billion Economic Stimulus authorized in 2009.
To be specific, Northeast Corridor HSR needed $20 billion in USDOT grants. California HSR needed $20 billion, Florida HSR needed $10 billion, and Milwaukee-Chicago-Detroit HSR needed $10 billion. State, local & private matching funds would range between 10-35% of project costs. Amtrak Regional & Long-Distance trains also needed a $10 billion grant to address their maintenance backlog.
If any new governor rejected HSR funding solicited by the prior governor, Chicago-St. Louis HSR project was a viable backup with a willing governor.
Unfortunately, President Obama approved only $8.5 billion in economic stimulus funds for HSR projects and $5 billion to address the Amtrak maintenance backlog. Given the political nature of infrastructure funding, Federal Railroad Administration & Amtrak had to spread that $13.5 billion thinly across too many states.
Focusing on other campaign priorities, Obama gambled that he could short-fund Amtrak-HSR projects in his first two years. When the Surface Transportation Bill came up for renewal in 2011, he assumed or hoped that Congress would approve his $55 billion/6 year Amtrak-HSR proposal, in part, to quicken the economic recovery.
The November 2010 Election shattered his assumption. In 2011, the new Congress halted additional funding for HSR projects. Consequently, HSR achievements during the Obama Administration were limited to:
• Modernization of 23 HSR miles in New Jersey
• Partial modernization of 30 HSR miles between Washington and Baltimore
• Funding the equivalent of 40 HSR miles in California’s Central Valley
Just before leaving office, President Obama convinced Congress to loan Amtrak $2.5 billion to purchase Nextgen High-Speed Trains. They are being built in America by Alstom, the French company renowned for building TGV trains.
By February 2020, Amtrak was transporting more travelers in the corridor than airlines finally leading Amtrak to profitability. Though the pandemic butchered ridership and slowed project construction for 20 months, there was some countervailing good news.
In 2021, the long-awaited New York Penn Station-Moynahan Hall opened with architectural features and amenities comparable to Grand Central Terminal. By mid-decade, New York Penn Station anticipates 700,000 daily patrons — more than most Hub Airports in America.
Infrastructure Bill Anchors Northeast Corridor Phase 1 Modernization
Beginning fall 2023, nextgen Acela trains (“Avelia Liberty”) will start replacing current Acela trains. They accelerate & brake faster and tilt 5-10 mph faster in curves. Top speed will reach 160 mph over 23 miles in New Brunswick-Trenton segment of New Jersey.
Passengers will appreciate better seat cushions, lighting, and WiFi. Old Acela 5-cabin trains offer only First & Business Class fares. Nextgen Acela 8-cabin trains will offer First, Business, and Coach Class fares. The Cafe Car is better stocked. Nextgen Acela adds 8 more train sets to the scheduled service. Train frequency improves from a 30-minute Peak & 50-minute Off-Peak to a 15-minute Peak & 30-minute Off-Peak.
Amtrak has identified $46 billion in Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1 projects to complete in 2035. The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) allocates $30 billion in federal funds over 5 years to the Northeast Corridor, plus spurs to Harrisburg, Richmond, VA, and Springfield, MA. Amtrak, state, local and private partners also commit $16 billion in matching funds this decade.
Major upgrades are also coming to Washington Union Station, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Boston South Station, Baltimore Penn Station, Newark Station, New Haven Station, and Stamford Station in the corridor.
Though the pandemic and supply-chain issues added 2 years of construction delay, by 2030, 250 miles of the Boston-Washington rail corridor will enable Acela to reach 140-160 mph.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes funds for the Amtrak Philadelphia-Harrisburg spur to reach 125 mph and 17 daily roundtrips. Amtrak New Haven-Hartford-Springfield spur and Amtrak Washington-Richmond spur will be upgraded to 110 mph and higher frequencies.
By 2035, the new Hudson River Tunnel and refurbished Hudson River Tunnels should complete. All chokepoints in the Newark-NYC-New Rochelle-Stamford-New Haven segment will be eliminated to sustain 90-110 mph in the curviest, commuter-heavy part of the Northeast Corridor.
In rural parts of the corridor, Amtrak will straighten some mild curves and apply track smoothing to sustain longer stretches of 160 mph. By then, Amtrak targets 2 hours 26 minute Acela NYC-Washington ride time and 3 hours 8 minute Acela Boston-NYC ride time.
Northeast Corridor Phase 2 Modernization Needs Funding
In the next phase, a second Portal Bridge in Newark-NYC segment is planned along with more curve straightening and track smoothing for higher passenger train speeds and frequencies. The Washington-NYC-New Haven segment will modernize to a 25-kilovolt electric system to match the 25-kilovolt electric system in New Haven-Boston segment. Dedicated bypass tracks are also planned within the Philadelphia-Baltimore segment to support 200-220 mph.
Though I advocate for 165-190-220 mph HSR speeds nationwide, Amtrak makes its own speed decisions. We may see a combination of 180, 200, and 220 mph speeds by Acela from Newark to Washington and Boston to New Haven to achieve these performance metrics by 2042:
226-Mile NYC-Philadelphia-Washington Corridor Segment
• 180-200 mph over 185 miles
• 1 hour 45-minute trip time
• 54 daily Amtrak roundtrips; growing to 72 after Phase 2
• 96-97% schedule reliability
Improving infrastructure to speed up Acela trains from New Haven to Rhode Island will become the next big challenge in Phase 2.
New Haven-Old Saybrook segment requires expansion from 2 shared tracks to 2 bi-directional tracks for Amtrak and 2 bi-directional tracks for commuter rail and freight rail for nextgen Acela to reach 180 mph in this segment.
Fixing the 57-mile Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment is a heavy lift. There are 10 coastal railroad crossings that limit speeds to 35-80 mph. And given so much development around the coastal track, it’s impractical to straighten their curves and elevate tracks.
Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment can reach 220 mph by implementing a $64-66 billion Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1 to skip 50 miles of coastal curves. It’s the light blue line on the CTMirror’s map of Boston-Providence-New London-New Haven-Stamford-NYC 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.
There’s another compelling reason for an inland railway bypass. Global Warming is causing sea level rise accompanied by higher storm surges, like those by Superstorm Sandy. A respected Bloomberg BusinessWeek report indicates that Global Warming is accelerating with devastating consequences to coastal property, railway and roadway. An in-land bypass can protect Amtrak Northeast Corridor against sea-level rise, yet still, be close to coastal Connecticut’s New London and Mystic cities.
Amtrak prefers NEC Bypass Alternative 1 because it represents tremendous time savings at less expense. Exiting Old Saybrook, it would run parallel to I-95 Highway to an inland New London/Mystic Station, then go to Kingston, Rhode Island. Most protestors, however, want to maintain the current Amtrak coastal service. They’ve enlisted support from the Connecticut governor, Congressmen and coastal mayors to prevent an in-land bypass.
Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 2 would skip from Kingston to Hartford, eliminating Acela service in southeastern Connecticut. That’s not popular with protestors either.
Even if America, Europe, China, Japan, India, Southeast Asian, and Brazil slow greenhouse gas emissions, sea level will likely rise 2 feet by 2050. That rise will have bad economic, transportation, and ecological consequences with a 3-foot sea-level rise devastating to coastal areas.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy proved that coastal threat with 10 feet storm surge in lower Manhattan. As the nation’s financial hub and population-densest location, NYC will attract the largest share of federal funds towards $100 billion in seawall 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 seawall and infrastructure hardening too.
As the Hurricane Irene video proves, southeastern Connecticut is also subject to storm surges. As storm surges increase, it will be impossible to get flood insurance on coastal property. Competing for federal funds against the large coastal cities of America, the small towns of southeastern Connecticut stand less chance of obtaining enough money for a lengthy seawall.
The harsh reality of sea-level rise and storm surges will cause more residents to relocate inland over the next 20 years. It will become politically easier for Connecticut politicians to request the $66 billion Bypass Alternative 1 by 2028 or 2030.
If Bypass Alternative 1 starts construction by 2032, Acela can meet these performance metrics and harden against sea level rise by 2042:
231-Mile Boston-Providence-New London/Mystic-New Haven-Stamford-NYC Corridor Segment
• 180-220 mph over 125 miles between Boston and New Haven
• 90-110 mph in commute-heavy NYC-New Haven corridor
• 2 hour 15-minute trip time
• 54 daily Amtrak roundtrips
• 95% schedule dependability
When Phase 2 completes, a 4-hour trip time with 54-72 daily roundtrips, and 97% schedule reliability in 457-mile Boston-Providence-New Haven-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington rail corridor that’s resiliant to sea level rise will be a game-changer.
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 enhance Commuter Rail lines into a Regional Rail system, like the Réseau Express Régional (RER) providing 5 lines of frequent service in Paris metro area. Some RER trains average 70 mph.
Many travelers take TGV, Thalys, ICE, and Eurostar high-speed trains to Paris, then switch to RER and vice-versa. Fewer people need long taxi/shuttle rides to access smaller cities within a 30-mile radius of central Paris. When the Regional Rail Network is implemented in NYC Metro Area, it will deliver similar benefits. Philadelphia also has a Regional Rail Network Plan for SEPTA and New Jersey Transit commuter rail lines connecting at its 30th Street Station.
Amtrak HSR, Regional Rail, and more Metro Rail will be an even larger lifestyle game-changer, particularly for college students. Maybe your kids will use Amtrak to chop it up with college friends at New York Penn Station, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Baltimore Penn Station, or Washington Union Station too.
For more insight on how Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR fits within the big-picture Interstate High-Speed Rail System, click below.