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 running late. The next Acela train would arrive an hour before the next Northeast Regional. That would be so late that Mother won’t be awake when her son from California visits. So late that her mouth-watering, “slap somebody good” 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 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 hot slice of Mother’s sweet potato pie.
Nevertheless, my experience illustrates that Acela & Northeast Regional service fall well short of world-class High Speed Rail. How could that be in the wealthiest country on Earth? That experience prodded the travel publisher and transportation analyst in me to discover why.
Old Infrastructure Cripples Northeast Corridor Railway
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 attracts the most domestic and international tourists. Northeast Corridor features the most Americans riding Amtrak, Commuter Rail and Metro Rail trains everyday. It has passenger train culture.
Think of Northeast Corridor as two railway segments connecting at New York Penn Station, America’s busiest intermodal transportation center. Today, 363 miles of 457-mile Northeast Corridor railway are owned by Amtrak. State transit agencies own the rest. Each weekday, 2,000 commuter trains, 140 Amtrak trains and 60 freight trains use it.
Northeast Corridor operates best where it has 2 tracks for bi-directional Amtrak high speed trains, 2 tracks for bi-directional commuter trains and freight trains, and 1 Siding track intermittently placed for slow freight trains to pull aside.
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, more weather events trigger frequent repair of old bridges, tunnels, power, overhead electric wires, signaling, and track switches. They were not designed for high speeds, high frequency and high reliability passenger rail. Yet, the most frequent cause of Amtrak Northeast Corridor schedule delay is when trains constrict from using 4 tracks down to 2 tracks shared with very slow freight trains and slow commuter trains. Call those track constrictions and old infrastructure “Slow Zones.”
The worst Slow Zone limiting speed, frequency and relability of Amtrak and commuter trains is between New York Penn Station and Newark Penn Station.
New York Penn Station should have the same number of tracks entering & exiting both sides to prevent train queues. That is not the case today. 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 map) 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 become a temporary Slow Zone lasting days to weeks.
Old track switches (called “Interlockings” on map) at Allied, Portal, Dock, Rea and Hudson junctions handle a mix of Amtrak and commuter trains (red tracks). More commuter trains from Hoboken (brown tracks) merge with red tracks heading to Newark Penn Station. Portal Interlocking contains an old movable bridge. Even though Swift interlocking permits 90 mph, for safety, Amtrak only runs 35-75 mph over that 10-mile Slow Zone. Cliff Interlocking limits speed to 35 mph just south of Newark Penn Station. By comparison, most HST leaving French stations reach 93 mph about 3 miles after leaving a station, then accelerate to higher speeds.
The second worst Slow Zone is where American railway began. In the 1828, privately-owned railroad opened in Baltimore region, then spread across the country. Their 30-50 mph train service was considered fast until about 1900. A legacy of Baltimore railroad is that a curvy tunnel opened in 1873, is still used by Amtrak, commuter and freight trains. That ancient tunnel forces trains to exit & enter the west side of Baltimore Penn Station at 30 mph for several miles.
Another Slow Zone approaching Baltimore is 2-track Susquehanna River Bridge opened in 1906. Though that bridge has been modestly upgraded, it causes 4-to-2 track constriction and is not designed for 185-200 mph speeds, like those for French HSR.
Infrastructure conditions are worse north of New York Penn Station. NYC-Stamford-New Haven-New London-Providence-Boston corridor segment had even more old movable bridges, old track switches, and old power systems. Amtrak trains must cross commuter & freight rail tracks in more rail junctions. Tracks constrict from 4 to 3 to 2 tracks in several segments. There were over a dozen gated railroad crossings limiting Amtrak speeds. Combined with a devil’s abundance of curves, they produced a lousy & bumpy 4 Hour 30 Minute ride time.
Bill Clinton Starts Poor Man’s High Speed Rail
When President Clinton took office in 1993, Northeast Corridor had grown to 45 million residents. More people flying caused longer airport queues for ticketing, luggage checks, security screening, boarding/unboarding and airplane taxi on runway. As the densest corridor in America, increasing flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington made their collective airport queues worse than any other region. From Washington CBD to NYC CBD, Total Air Travel Time ballooned to 4 hours.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 in Northeast Corridor was over.
President Clinton’s U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and state governments wanted Northeast Corridor HSR as an alternative to highways and airports. Infrastructure in 274-mile Paris-Lyon HSR corridor cost $6 billion to begin construction in 1973 and open in 1981. That $6 billion inflation-adjusts to $19.5 billion beginning 1993. It was a good indicator that, if America wanted world-class HSR, it would not be cheap.
Northeast Corridor already had overpasses at every railroad crossing in Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-NYC-Stamford segment. Amtrak and commuter transit agencies owned land in the right-of-way to add more parallel track. With small adjacent property acquisitions, Northeast Corridor could form 250 miles of straightaway & mildly curved track. Only a few railroad crossings in Stamford-New Haven segment and Boston-Providence segment needed overpasses. Two major railway tunnels, a NYC bridge and aerial viaduct could be modernized at less cost than new infrastructure. The same French company that built TGV, was selling proven High Speed Trains that could be assembled here by American workers.
By committing all funding in 1993, federal, state & local government partners could lock-in construction contracts just before rising health care costs exploded labor costs. Furthermore, the 1981-funded, 1988 completed renovation of Washington Union Station cost $29.4 million ($47.3 million inflation-adjusted to 1993). It made Washington Union Station a tourist attraction and would soon drew many times restoration cost in retail taxes from its shopping mall inside.
Collectively, New York Penn Station, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Boston South Street Station, Baltimore Penn Station, Stamford Station and Newark Penn Station represented 6 times higher foot-traffic than Washington Union Station. USDOT and the states could convince real estate developers to invest as much as $1.5 billion for shopping mall & hotel-inclusive redevelopment of New York Penn Station, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Boston South Street Station, Baltimore Penn Station, Stamford Station and Newark Penn Station.
Clinton’s USDOT needed $14 billion fully-committed federal funds authorized by Congress. A rule-of-thumb is that state & local partners contribute one third of large transportation project costs. That would trigger Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland DOTs to commit $4.5 billion. Clinton’s USDOT could anticipate real estate developers investing $1.5 billion to upgrade train stations. Freight rail companies would invest $100 million in more siding track. The figures would sum to $20 billion.
New bridges and tunnels take 8-12 years from start to finish. Therefore, 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor could be modernized with 165 mph Top Speed in a half its route by 2005. Far more travelers and commuters would mode-shift to trains in the corridor.
The powerful airline and highway lobbies feared a challenge from HSR. The highway lobby didn’t care for enhanced commuter rail either. They influenced Congress to kneecap federal funding before using electric transportation to fight Global Warming became a thing. 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.
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 longer queues were most evident at Northeast Corridor airports. Though flight time remained 50 minutes, air travel time between the Central Business Districts (CBD) of Washington and NYC, including taxi rides and airport queues, grew to 3 hours 45 minutes. In bad weather and traffic congestion to/from airports, air travel time often reached 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. 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 good options upon arrival:
• short walk with luggage to the curb, then short taxi/shuttle ride to destinations nearby
• 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
In 2019, Acela NYC-Washington ride time was 2 hours 48 minutes. When Taxi/Uber rides are included, train travel time between destinations in or near each CBD ranged from 3 hours 15-45 minutes compared to typical 4 hour Washington-NYC air travel time that included Taxi/Uber rides. The best Acela NYC-Boston ride time was 3 Hours 35 minutes. When adding Taxi/Uber rides to/from train stations, Acela NYC-Boston travel time is 0-30 minutes longer than air travel time in that segment.
Acela’s 88-89% schedule reliability beat the 73-80% schedule reliability of airlines — an advantage particularly important to business travelers.
Washington-Boston, NYC-Washington, NYC-Boston, Philadelphia-Boston, Philadelphia-Providence, Washington-New Haven, Baltimore-New Haven, Washington-Providence and Baltimore-Boston flights only have 10-30 minutes of cruising altitude when you can open a laptop for work or entertainment. In contrast, all Amtrak ride time is available for work or entertainment. By visiting a Cafe Car and restroom at your leisure and no turbulence, trains have comfort advantage over air travel.
Northeast Regional offers fares competitive with most Coach Class airfares, but takes 15-70 minutes longer in the corridor due to more stops.
Obama’s Tempting, But Unfulfilled High Speed Rail Promise
President Obama promised a bigger & broader Interstate High Speed Rail system when he took office. Northeast Corridor, California, Chicago-Midwest, Southeast and Florida needed $50 billion from the 2009 economic stimulus for their HSR projects. Northeast Corridor alone needed $15 billion in USDOT grants to attract $5 billion from state, local & private partners. That $20 billion would have been a difference-maker.
Obama only approved $13.5 billion of economic stimulus funds for Amtrak-HSR and his USDOT thinly spread it across many states. Obama didn’t mind that thin-bread because he believed that in 2011, he would get bi-partisan Congressional approval to fund $55 billion/6 years in HSR projects along with more funding for Highways and Rapid Transit. Unfortunately by then, Republican-controlled House of Representatives would not vote to increase Amtrak-HSR or Rapid Transit funding. Consequently, Northeast Corridor HSR achievements during the Obama Administration were limited to:
• Modernization of 24 miles between New Brunswick & Trenton
• Partial modernization of 30 miles between Washington & Baltimore
• Delaware added a 3rd track to separate freight & commuter trains from Amtrak trains
• Concrete rail ties & track-shaving equipment enables smoother rides
• Some Amtrak maintenance facilities were upgraded.
Just before leaving office, President Obama 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. In 2022, nextgen Avelia Liberty trains will replace current Acela trains. They accelerate & brake faster and tilt 5-10 mph faster in curves.
By early 2020, Amtrak was handling 5% of passenger traffic in the Northeast Corridor, and transporting more travelers in the corridor than airlines. Northeast Corridor HSR success was finally leading Amtrak to profitability. Then Pandemic Shutdown butchered ridership and slowed project construction for 19 months.
Countering a little of that bad news, the grand New York Penn Station-Moynahan Hall opened. When things return to normal, its expected to handle 650,000 daily riders with amenities comparable to the grand train stations in Europe.
In 2022, Acela will have 8 more train-sets to operate 40% more frequently. The old Acela 5-cabin train-sets offering only First & Business Class fares will be replaced with Nextgen Acela 8-cabin train-sets offering First, Business & Coach Class fares and a better stocked Cafe Car. By 2025, enough small infrastructure upgrades will complete for nextgen Acela to reach 160 mph on 60 miles in the 457-mile corridor.
More upgrades are coming to 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 $117 billion in vision projects in Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1. To help achieve that vision, Amtrak, state and private partners commit $17 billion of that amount.
The U.S. House of Representatives wants to replicate Interstate High Speed Rail benefits across America. As much as I like it, I don’t think enough Congresspersons and President Biden would pass it.
But if Congress and President Biden authorize $140 billion/6 years starting in 2021, Northeast Corridor will reach 140-160 mph over 250 miles, 2 hour 29 minutes Acela service between NYC and Washington and 3 hours 10 minutesBoston-NYC Acela service by 2030.
By 2035, projects eliminating the Slow Zone between Newark Penn Station and New York Penn Station complete.
In Northeast Corridor HSR Phase 2, consensus is growing for Amtrak to build 2 dedicated tracks between Philadelphia and Baltimore that bypass Wilmington to enable 185-220 mph. Those tracks would be used by Washington-Philadelphia-NYC Acela “gold-level” service and Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia-Newark-NYC Acela “silver-level” service. Acela gold-level service should achieve these performance metrics by 2040:
226-Mile NYC-Philadelphia-Washington Corridor Segment
• 160-220 mph top speed over 180 miles
• 113 mph average speed for 2 Hour ride time
• 15-minute Peak and 30-minute Off-Peak train frequency
• 97% schedule reliability
The 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. With 2 dedicated tracks, Avelia Liberty can reach 140 mph in this segment.
Fixing 57-mile Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment is the heavy lift in Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 2. There are 10 coastal railroad crossings that limit speeds to 35-80 mph. Given so much development around coastal track, it is economically impractical to widen the existing Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment to 4 tracks.
The exciting possibility is Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment can reach 220 mph by implementing a $64-66 billion Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1. Bypassing 50 miles of coastal curves, its 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 for existing route to NYC.
Aside from faster speed, there’s another compelling reason for an inland railway bypass. Global Warming is 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.
Like I-95 Highway in southeastern Connecticut, a moderately in-land bypass can protect Amtrak Northeast Corridor against sea level rise, yet still be close to coastal Connecticut cities like New London and Mystic. Amtrak prefers NEC Bypass Alternative 1 because it represents tremendous Acela time savings at less expense while including a combined New London/Mystic Station. Southeastern Connecticut protest against NEC Bypass Alternative 1 currently outweighs support.
In contrast, Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternatives 2 would skip from Kingston to Hartford, eliminating Acela service in southeastern Connecticut. That’s not popular either.
For the most part, protestors want to maintain Amtrak coastal service. 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.
Even if America, China, Europe, Japan and India slow greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 onwards, sea level will likely rise 1 foot by 2040 and 2 feet by 2050. A 2-foot sea level rise will have bad economic, transportation and ecological consequences. A 3-foot sea level rise will be devastating to coastal area without high seawalls.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy proved that coastal threat by temporarily raising sea level 10 feet in lower Manhattan. 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 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 above proves, southeastern Connecticut is subject to storm surge. In the coming years, 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 seawall. It will be impossible to get flood insurance on coastal property. More property owners will likely relocate in-land over the next 20 years.
It is politically easier to get more Congressional votes for $64-66 billion Bypass Alternative 1 compared to $131-$136 billion Bypass Alternative 2. My guess is Bypass Alternative 1 will be chosen when there is a new Governor and a new Senator in Connecticut by 2028.
If Bypass Alternative 1 starts construction by 2030, Acela can meet these performance metrics and harden against sea level rise by 2040:
231-Mile Boston-Providence-New London/Mystic-New Haven-Stamford-NYC Corridor Segment
• 160-220 mph top speed over 100 miles
• 85 mph average speed for 2 hour 45 minute ride time
• 30-minute Peak and 50-minute Off-Peak train frequency
• 93-94% schedule dependability
There’s more progress coming to the Northeast. Amtrak, Connecticut and Massachusetts are upgrading New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor. Amtrak and Pennsylvania are upgrading Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh corridor. Both corridors splinter from the the Northeast Corridor and will receive USDOT grants the same time as Northeast Corridor. If those two corridors build enough over/underpasses, tunnels and viaducts by 2035, Avelia Liberty tilt-trains should/can run 160 mph in them.
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 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.
That combination of upgraded Amtrak HSR and Regional Rail 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.