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 was had, I discovered that my train was running late, very late. The Acela scheduled after my train would arrive an hour before the next Northeast Regional train. Under normal Amtrak rules, you can’t take 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 felt I should not have to pay for a ticket upgrade.
Fortunately, a Amtrak agent (Ricarda Burrell) jumped through hoops to get me on the Acela. I made it to Baltimore on time. Nevertheless, my experience illustrates that Acela is well short of its potential in the Northeast.
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. About 45 million people live in it. The corridor produces one quarter of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and its metro areas generate the most air, road and rail traffic. 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 NYC-Washington rail corridor. The funding eliminated all remaining railroad crossings, fenced-off tracks, and upgraded signaling for Amtrak to reach 110 mph by 1984. That speed may sound fast, but the mostly straight corridor still had poor track quality, old electric power systems, old bridges, old tunnels and a few significant curves. Large portions of speed-limited track are shared with slow freight and commuter trains. Those “Slow Zone” factors limited average Amtrak 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 priority rail corridors. 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
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. Excessive regional flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington crowded their airports. Their flights that used to encompass 2 Hour 30 Minute travel time, ballooned to 3 Hours 30 Minutes. I-295 Tollway & I-95 Freeway were no better in the Northeast Corridor as average speeds was slowing to 60 mph.
To help America recover from economic recession, Congress approved economic stimulus funds for President Bill Clinton to invest in 1993. Over his 8-year administration, Clinton’s USDOT allocated $4.3 billion for HSR in the 457-mile Northeast Corridor. Initially, Clinton wanted 186 mph trains, like the TGV in France. At the same time, Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington were combining state and federal funds to improve rapid transit service, particularly to train stations. Under those conditions, an American passenger train renaissance was possible. Unfortunately, a majority of Congress lacked passenger rail vision and Clinton’s USDOT made 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, required more over/underpasses and 22 years more inflation, cost to achieve similar results in the Northeast Corridor would be about $25 billion, with two caveats. First, the entire project would need $25 billion committed between 1993-96. Second, USDOT’s Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak needed to make smart cost-benefit decisions of when to buy land to ease curves (less expensive) vs. new tunneling (very expensive).
Yet, Congress only approved $2.3 billion in economic stimulus funds for Amtrak and $2 billion more from normal USDOT funding to Amtrak capital improvements over Bill Clinton’s 8-year administration. Over the same timeframe, USDOT allocated $1 billion more for MagLev pre-engineering studies. Those strategic mistakes, particularly by Clinton and his USDOT, hampered Interstate HSR.
Strategic Mistakes by the USDOT
Let’s begin with the first mistake. 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, financial modeling revealed that MagLev would not be cost-effective for Germany. In response, Germany halted MagLev construction, licensed their MagLev technology to China and built out its national HSR network instead. Financial modeling also revealed was not viable for Japan for several decades. Japan limited MagLev as a 18-mile cost-controlled R&D project, until it finished building its national HSR network (by 2025-26). Japan would also be the best Demonstration Case because MagLev would run in a wealthy 80-million person, 272-mile corridor. Since that MagLev information was public, Clinton’s USDOT should not have wasted funding on MagLev studies. Instead, USDOT should have directed that $1 billion to Northeast Corridor HSR then waited until Japan introduces MagLev in the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor and proves its financial viability.
Second, despite the booming U.S. economy by 1995-96, Clinton did not fight for $4 billion more Congressional funds for Northeast Corridor HSR. With $4B + $1B + $4B for HSR could have totaled to $9.3 billion over his 8-year administration. That level of federal funds would have been sufficient to attract $3.2 billion matching funds from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and revenue from retail tenants in upgraded train stations. Locking in HSR construction contracts no later than 1996, would have roughly been equivalent to $20.4 billion of construction in 2019. That’s enough to fund most tunnels, bridges and track upgrades in the Washington-NYC corridor today.
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 a fraction of today. Under Clinton’s Department of Defense, Connecticut continued getting multi-billion dollar nuclear submarine contracts. In 1991, the USDOT started pouring many billions into Boston’s Big Dig infrastructure project. Rhode Island prioritized I-295 and I-195 Freeway funding. He didn’t need to further appease Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island Congressmen to get their Amtrak HSR funding votes.
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 straiter tracks for Amtrak, plus 1-2 tracks for slower freight & commuter trains. Then, USDOT and Amtrak could have used $1.5 billion to purchase 186 mph trains, 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. Acela would be running in a modernized HSR corridor with 2 Hour NYC-Washington Travel Time and 96% on-time performance that captured public imagination.
Alas, that scenario did not unfold.
Acela Popular, Despite Strategic Misjudgments
In 2001, Acela tilt trains were introduced in the 457-mile Northeast Corridor. The trains were certified to operate up to 165 mph. 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 freight tracks. For safety reasons, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) limited Acela to 150 mph on that track segment. Over the years, there have been more upgrades to achieve 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 for an unsatisfying 3 Hour 35 Minute Boston-NYC 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 next 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. Therefore, Bush II knew the value of improved train service between NYC, Stamford, New Haven, Providence and Boston, even if he disliked 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 90-150 mph service. There would be 3 Hour Boston-NYC Travel Time and greatly improved on-time performance.
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, trains every 15-30 minutes and excellent on-time performance, it would have pressured Congress and Obama to double that funding amount.
Acela, The Little Engine That Could
Once 9-11 happened, the flight experience changed forever. Extra hassle was most evident in the hyper-busy Northeast. Time to airport, longer security lines, wait time, boarding time, origin taxi runway time, flight time, flight delays, destination taxi runway time, unboarding 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 and invasive body searches endured by frequent business travelers.
In contrast, Northeast patrons who switched to Amtrak would soon buy tickets online and often arrive 10-15 minutes before their scheduled train because passing through 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. There are 4 Business Class cabins, including a Quiet cabin, 1 Cafe cabin and one First-class cabin. All cabins have great legroom and Acela’s 89% on-time performance is appreciably better. Patrons also enjoyed Wi-Fi on Northeast Corridor trains before commercial flights. Despite only 6 passenger cabins, Acela has maintained an operating profit since 2008.
In Washington-NYC corridor, Acela added stops at Trenton and Metropark to attract more patrons in 6-cabin trains, which also increased dwell time in stations by a few minutes. Now, the best travel time is 2 Hours 54 minutes. Northeast Regional takes 33 minutes longer on average. 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/car rental to CBDs. Many Acela business patrons Day Trip between Washington, Philadelphia and New York via 6am-9am departures and catch 4pm-7:00pm return trains.
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 Avelia 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 trains. 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 expansion ability to 12 cabins. Depending on how Amtrak defines peak hour length and night service improvement, anticipate 24 daily Acela trains and 24 Northeast Regional trains in NYC-Washington Corridor.
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 June 2019, more tunnel, bridge, curve-easing and track upgrades are planned. If they get funded, the Northeast Corridor will likely 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
• 96% on-time performance in Washington-NYC corridor
• 90-91% on-time performance in Boston-NYC corridor
• 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