Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Promise
At dinner with my Hound Phi Hound (college social club) brothers, 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. There would be no hurried ride to the train station later.
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 train. 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 and it was late night, I felt I should not have to pay for a ticket upgrade to get the next train to Baltimore.
Fortunately, an 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 and Northeast Regional service are well short of their need and potential. That experience awakened the transportation nerd in me to discover why.
Initial Challenges for Northeast Corridor Passenger Rail
Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, called “Northeast Corridor”, contains America’s largest residential, business, government, collegiate and medical center concentration. It produces one quarter of America’s economic activity. It’s metro areas generate 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 the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). Yet New York metro area airports cause 1/3rd of America’s flight delays. INRIX ranks Boston, Washington, NYC and Philadelphia highways as the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 9th most congested in America, respectively. Other sources rank Los Angeles highways as most congested with those Northeast Corridor cities close behind.
Think of the 457-mile Northeast Corridor as two connected intercity rail segments shared by Amtrak, commuter and freight trains:
231-Mile Boston-NYC rail 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 rail segment
241 Mile Newark, NJ
255 Mile Metropark, NJ
263 Mile New Brunswick, NJ (Acela bypasses this station)
289 Mile Trenton, NJ
322 Mile Philadelphia 30th St 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, today the Northeast Corridor is mostly owned by federal-funded Amtrak. State transit agencies own the rest. At its operational best, Northeast Corridor has at least 4 tracks: 2 for bi-directional Amtrak trains, 2 for bi-directional commuter & freight trains.
Amtrak Northeast Corridor made its first advance towards high speed service in 1976, when Congress and President Ford invested $1.75 billion and state & local governments chipped in $150 million to electrify the entire line, eliminate remaining railroad crossings with over/underpasses and add fencing where needed in the NYC-Washington segment. In 1978, President Carter pushed for more Northeast Corridor project funding to make the entire Boston-NYC-Washington corridor function like Japan’s 155 mph High Speed Rail (HSR) system, but Congress would not grant it.
Over 1981-92, Presidents Reagan and Bush I hit the pause button on further Amtrak capital improvements as other nations advanced their HSR projects. When the Ford-sponsored projects completed by 1984, speeds remained 40-90 mph in Boston-NYC segment and 30-110 mph in NYC-Washington segment, though Amtrak service was safer and more dependable.
At its operational worst, the Northeast Corridor uses many old tunnels and bridges built over 1873-1920 that were not designed for high speed, high frequency and high dependability. Old movable bridges 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. Sometimes the old power systems fail or old overhead electric wires (catenary) could not transmit enough voltage to the pantograph receptors atop high-speed electric trains.
Ideally, Northeast Corridor should have 4 modernized track where no commuter or freight trains cross the 2 Amtrak tracks. In reality, commuter trains switch across those tracks in few places to reach a maintenance rail yard or splinter off to a different commuter rail corridor. Old track switches force Amtrak trains to slow down in several stretches where 4 tracks compress to 3 tracks, then 2 tracks through old bridges & tunnels. Many chokepoints delay Amtrak trains until commuter and freight trains can switch back to 4 tracks. Those “Slow Zone” factors rendered a lousy 3 Hour 20 Minute Amtrak NYC-Washington Travel Time after upgrades completed in 1984.
The situation was worse for 231-mile Boston-NYC rail segment. The rail segment has more movable bridges, over a dozen railroad crossings, poor track bedding, old track switches, inadequate overhead electric catenary & power systems, inadequate signaling & communication systems. On top of that, the rail segment has a devil’s abundance of curves. Those unsavory conditions produced snail-like 4 Hour 30 Minute travel time that attracted fewer riders. At lower ridership, Amtrak cost-justified half as many trains in Boston-NYC rail segment.
While President Reagan and President Bush I cut additional funding of Amtrak projects from 1981-92, Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, West Germany, United Kingdom, South Korea and Spain made HSR projects a priority. By 1993, there were a dozen Asian and European HSR lines operating or under construction.
Bill Clinton Starts Poor Man’s High Speed Rail
By 1993, U.S. population growth and increased commercial flight demand lengthened airport queues and travel times nationwide. Denser population and excessive regional flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington airports made Northeast Corridor congestion worse than most other regions. Flights that used to encompass 2 Hour 30 Minutes total travel time ballooned to 3 Hours 30 Minutes. Driving I-295 Tollway and I-95 Freeway in the Northeast Corridor became less attractive too, as their average speeds slowed to 60 mph, followed by 55 mph in the 2000s.
The 457-mile Northeast Corridor had about 45 million residents in 1993 — higher than any rail corridor of similar length in Europe. Lengthening flight & highway travel times coupled with population density spelled market opportunity for Amtrak. Fast trains would not be crippled by time-consuming airport queues and lengthy taxi rides to Central Business Districts (CBD).
President Clinton wanted to build TGV-like service, the only problem was getting Congress to authorize sufficient funding. TGV service in 274-mile Paris-Lyon corridor cost $6 billion to build from 1973-1981. Building TGV-like service in a 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor that has longer bridges, old tunnels, more curves and 22 more years of inflation would require about $22 billion, if funding was completely authorized by Congress and the President in 1993. Though most rail projects take 2-7 years to complete after construction start, lengthy bridges & tunnels often take 8-12 years. If fully funded, all Northeast Corridor work would likely complete by 2005-06.
To help America recover from economic recession in 1993, Congress approved $2.3 billion economic stimulus funds for President Clinton’s USDOT to invest in the Northeast Corridor HSR project. If Clinton raised another $14 billion in federal funds for the project, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland would allocate funds that could have totaled to $5 billion. Anticipating higher foot-traffic at train stations, private companies would have signed long-term retail, hotel and dining contracts that would bring another $1 billion or so to the HSR project.
With that $22 billion total, world-class HSR was possible in America’s largest economic region. A powerful obstacle, the Highway Lobby, prevented that possibility. They influenced Congress to torpedo that scale of HSR funding.
Strategic Mistakes by Clinton’s USDOT
By not pursuing world-class HSR more aggressively, the Clinton Administration made avoidable mistakes.
First, his USDOT wasted $1 billion on various MagLev feasibility & engineering studies. Germany gave up on MagLev in the 1990s because its benefits did not outweigh the uber-expensive cost. Since Japan has corridors far more population-dense than any in East Asia, Europe or the Americas, it continued MagLev as a cost-controlled R&D project on an 18-mile segment through mountains. Like America, Japan has strong citizen rights that increase the cost of land acquisition and labor for infrastructure. To reduce landowner concerns and lawsuits, Japan is building 90% of its MagLev in tunnels, which cost nearly twice as much per mile as surface track. Given that cost reality, Japan focused on completing its national High Speed Rail System before MagLev. Those factors were widely known by 1993. No other democratic nation with strong citizen land & labor rights should have considered MagLev until Japan proves its cost-benefit in commercial operation.
MagLev does not begin commercial operation in the first 178 miles between Tokyo and Nagoya until 2027. It won’t operate in the full 272 miles of Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor until 2035, at best. MagLev costs are estimated to be $82 billion in Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor that will have over 80 million residents — about 35 million more residents than the Northeast Corridor had in 1993.
Second, Clinton’s USDOT failed to focus on building a world-class segment as Northeast Corridor HSR Phase 1. Given Congress downscaled his Northeast Corridor HSR funding request, his USDOT should have invested all Northeast Corridor funds in 226-mile NYC-Washington segment, where railroad was completely separated from autos & people and about 20 daily roundtrip service existed. Upgrades there would deliver speed, frequency, capacity, dependability and ridership boosts faster than anywhere else. That success would make it easy for the next President to justify funding Phase 2.
Third, Clinton could have used political muscle to obtain more funding for Northeast Corridor HSR Phase 1. Congress only approved $2.3 billion in economic stimulus funds and $2 billion more in standard Amtrak project funding over Clinton’s 8-year administration. By 1995, the booming U.S. economy generated more political muscle for Clinton to flex. If he tactfully horse-traded, Clinton could have obtained $4 billion more standard funding from Congress. The $9.3 billion ($2.3B + $1B + $6B) federal funds would have attracted around $4 billion matching funds from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and private companies for about $13 billion when land, materials and labor costs were half as much as today.
Instead, President Clinton’s USDOT spread $4.3 billion across 457-mile Northeast Corridor. The funds modestly improved intercity passenger rail, but left the hardest work unbuilt. In summary, Clinton’s USDOT delivered Poor Man’s HSR, as illustrated in the next video.
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 (FRA) limits Acela to 150 mph in that stretch. Over the years, 17 more miles between New London and Old Saybrook in southeastern Connecticut eliminated railroad crossings, added new track & bedding, switches, catenary, power systems, communication & signaling systems for 35 total miles that support 150 mph.
The rest of Boston-NYC rail segment has severe curves, many roadway crossings, movable bridges, old catenary, old power systems, old signaling, 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 an unsatisfying 3 Hour 35 Minute Acela Boston-NYC travel time.
In 226-mile NYC-Washington rail segment, Acela speed ranged from 30 to 135 mph. The crippling 30 mph speed is caused by several miles of sharply curved 1873 tunnel that constrict 4 tracks to 2 tracks leaving southbound from Baltimore Penn Station. The 135 mph speed limit is imposed by inadequate catenary, power systems, communication & signaling systems, old track switches and bumpier track than TGV. There’s also two places in New Jersey where slow commuter trains use old switches to cross high speed tracks. For safety, Amtrak limits train speeds through both track sections.
Nevertheless, Acela averaged 83 mph for 2 Hour 42 Minutes travel time in NYC-Washington rail segment — faster than travel time from CBD to CBD via flights & taxi rides. 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% on-time performance compared to 70-75% on-time performance by plane appealed to business travelers. Acela featured 16 daily round trips. Amtrak Northeast Regional features 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, even if he disliked Amtrak elsewhere. Bush II attended Yale in New Haven and Harvard next to Boston. New Haven has lousy airport service. On school breaks he must have rode trains from New Haven to NYC and Boston. Bush II knew that Congressmen rode Acela from Washington to NYC fundraisers. He could count on state Chambers of Commerce who supported Northeast Corridor upgrades for economic growth reasons. The annual federal budget was finally generating a surplus, so Bush II only needed mild horse-trading with Congress to finish upgrading the Northeast Corridor.
Even with rising land, material & labor costs, a $2 billion per year USDOT investment in Northeast Corridor HSR over 2001-08 for $16 billion would be a rounding error compared to annual Defense spending. More importantly, the federal budget was generating an operating surplus, so new taxes were not required. Couple that USDOT investment with roughly $6 billion that would have been contributed from Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and private companies. If the funds were committed by early-2001 to lock-in construction contracts, Bush II would have finished work started by the Ford Administration for 457 miles of Modern HSR by 2013.
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 alternative between Washington CBD and NYC CBD grew to 4 hours, even when planes left on-time.
In contrast, Amtrak Northeast Corridor travelers could soon 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. There were 4 Business Class cabins, 1 First Class cabin and 1 Cafe cabin. All seats had great legroom and Acela’s on-time performance was appreciably better than flying. There was no long taxi, shuttle or rental car ride from airport to CBD. A few years later, 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.
Given the magnitude of the Great Recession from 2008-2011, Congress and President Obama would spread $13 billion in economic recovery funds more broadly on 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. Even small stops add 3-4 minutes to travel time. Now, the best Acela NYC-Washington travel time is 2 Hours 49 minutes. Add 30-40 minutes for Northeast Regional rides, depending number of additional stops. Acela Boston-NYC travel time is now 3 hours 35 minutes with 62 mph average speed.
Since Acela and Northeast Regional still represent time saving, productivity, comfort and schedule dependability advantages over airlines, twice as many people ride trains than fly between Washington and NYC. The percentage of people riding trains and flying planes in Boston-NYC segment is roughly equal. In 2019, the profitable Acela and Northeast Regional trains grew to 12.5 million annual ridership and Amtrak as whole is nearing breakeven.
Commuter rail patronage sharing Northeast Corridor assets in DC, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts also blossomed.
More Acela & Northeast Corridor Progress Coming
Before leaving office, President Obama and 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, power systems, signaling, communications, track switches and track smoothing) between New Brunswick and Trenton in New Jersey.
President Obama and VP Biden also convinced Congress to give Amtrak a $2.45 billion loan for nextgen high speed trains. They are being built in America by Alstom, the French company renown for TGV trains. 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.
The rise in Northeast Corridor HSR demand 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 projects to modernize HSR in the Northeast Region. You might be thinking “Ouch”, but it illustrates the profound cost of delay since the Carter Administration proposed world-class HSR service in 1978. 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.
On the bright side, there’s enough construction underway and committed funding to complete small-ticket upgrades by 2022 for Amtrak to permit nextgen Acela reaching 160 mph in 23 miles of New Jersey. If the $26 billion funding gap closes in 2021, many NYC-Washington segment projects will complete by 2026, enabling Acela NYC-Washington travel time to shrink to 2 hours 30 minutes. When new bridges, tunnels and other major upgrades complete by 2033-35, Acela top speed can rise to 186 mph and shrink NYC-Washington travel time to 2 hours. Due to more stops, Northeast Regional NYC-Washington travel times should only be 25 minutes longer.
Though progress continues in Boston-NYC segment as well, do not anticipate significantly shorter travel time until the federal funding shortfall is closed. If it closes in 2021, Acela can meet these performance metrics by 2033-35, with Northeast Regional travel time of 25 minutes longer in each segment:
231-Mile Boston-NYC rail segment
• 110-150 mph over 150 miles
• 84 mph average speed for 3 Hour Travel Time
• 30 minute Peak & 50 minute Off-Peak service
• 92% on-time HSR performance
226-Mile NYC-Washington rail segment
• 125-186 mph over 190 miles
• 113 mph average speed for 2 Hour Travel Time
• 15 minute Peak & 30 minute Off-Peak service
• 97% on-time HSR performance
But wait, there’s more. New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region has an extensive commuter rail network, but does not make best use of NYC Penn Station. This network, once optimized, can boost job growth and college access throughout America’s largest economic region. There is a regional plan to make strategic investments that combine Long Island Railroad, Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit into a unified commuter rail system that vastly improves mobility. Sharing many assets with upgraded Amtrak Northeast Corridor, the plan would create through service at NYC Penn Station and a modern regional rail system like the RER serving Paris region. Many tourists visiting other parts of France take the TGV, then switch to RER at a Paris train station. Maybe your kids will use Amtrak and regional rail to chop it up with college friends at NYC Penn Station one day.
For more insights on the challenges and progress towards HSR across America, see Interstate High Speed Rail, Part 1.