Interstate High Speed Rail Acela

Acela Express zooming down tracks in Connecticut

Acela Express zooming down tracks in eastern Connecticut

INTERSTATE HIGH SPEED RAIL ACELA PROMISE

by Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America

The image above only fits the potential of Amtrak. Buckle up for a terse explanation of why and how that promise may be fulfilled in the next 15 years.

The 456-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, called “Northeast Corridor”, anchors America’s most strategic region containing the largest concentration of residents, business, government, colleges, medical centers and tourists. It produces one quarter of America’s economic production (GDP). For those reasons, Congress, Presidents and their U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) have allocated the majority of federal railroad funds to this corridor.

For reasons of passenger experience, its best to think of the Northeast Corridor as two segments since American railroading began in the 1830s:

• Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-New York City
• Boston-Providence-New Haven-New Rochelle-New York City

In 1978, President Carter’s USDOT allocated a few hundred million dollars to upgrade 225 miles of passenger rail between NYC and Washington. He could not convince Congress to allocate any significant amount for the 231 miles between NYC and Boston. Carter’s funding allowed all road crossings to be eliminated via underpasses/overpasses, fenced-off tracks and better signaling that enabled Amtrak trains to reach 110 mph by 1984.

That 110 mph may sound fast, but sharing tracks with slow freight & commuter trains, curvy tracks, poor bedding under tracks, old electric power wires (catenary), old bridges & tunnels limited average speed to 68 mph for a lousy 3:20 minute Washington-NYC travel time. Passenger rail buffs aggregate those factors into simply understood Slow Zones. The 231-mile Boston-New York City segment had worse Slow Zones producing a snail-like 4:30 minute travel time. Worst of all, Presidents Reagan and President Bush I did not care for Amtrak.

By comparison, French and Japanese HSR service eliminated Slow Zones to reach 186 mph by 1993.

CLINTON STARTS INTERSTATE HIGH SPEED RAIL, SORT OF

To help America recover from economic recession in 1993, President Clinton’s USDOT allocated funding for High Speed Rail (HSR) service. He wanted speeds like French TGV in the Northeast Corridor and trains every 30 minutes.

But TGV HSR service in Paris-Lyon corridor cost $6 billion from 1971-1981 for 274-miles of HSR-only tracks. Given Boston-NYC-Washington was 456 miles, had far more curves to straighten, 100 year old bridges and tunnels to upgrade or replace, and 22 years more inflation, the 1993 cost to achieve similar results in the Northeast Corridor would likely cost $15 billion. Congress only approved $2 billion in economic stimulus funds to Amtrak and $2 billion more in Amtrak capital projects and $1 billion more in MagLev test studies over Clinton’s 8-year administration. To the public, he never fought for more.

By 1993, more rapid transit went to train stations and central business districts in Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Meanwhile Northeast Corridor tollways were slowing to 60 mph average speed. Lengthier ticket-security-boarding-flight-unboarding times at JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC and Dulles were congesting airports. Unfortunately, Clinton’s USDOT made several strategic mistakes.

Lets begin with the first strategic error. MagLev trains ran on short test tracks in Germany and Japan at jaw-dropping speeds of 267-280 mph. Due to excessive construction and energy costs, neither country would announce construction dates to move MagLev into commercial operation. They did not pencil out as being commercially viable, so both nations halted MagLev construction and continued building HSR routes. The USDOT should not have paid for expensive MagLev test studies before Japan or Germany committed to build commercial MagLev in their countries. They wasted $1 billion over 8 years on MagLev engineering studies. Equally important, they lost focus on proven HSR technology.

Second, Clinton did not fight for $4 billion more Congressional funding in his next 7 years of a growing economy. Higher federal funding would have attracted $3 billion more from the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

Third, Clinton’s USDOT should have focused all HSR funds between NYC and Washington. Acela trains were certified to operate up to 165 mph. By deferring Baltimore’s B&P tunnels and Portal North Bridge northeast of Newark because they are two of the most expensive components, they could focus on HSR-only track, repairing NYC-NJ Hudson tunnel and a new bridge over Maryland’s Susquehanna River. With speed boosted from 110 mph to 165 mph, Acela could have produced a 2 hour 15 minute NYC-Newark-Philadeplhia-Baltimore-Washington travel time that attracted public attention.

By 2001, public demand would pressure Congress to replace/upgrade Baltimore B&P tunnels and Portal North Bridge for a world-class 2-Hour travel time and start upgrading NYC-Boston corridor for an 3-Hour travel time by 2009. Once Obama arrived, Northeast Corridor HSR success would have justified more funding for California HSR, Las Vegas HSR, Texas HSR plus 110 mph Emerging HSR in these corridors:

• Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte
• Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Cleveland
• Chicago-Porter-Kalamazoo-Detroit
• Minneapolis-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis
• Los Angeles-Anaheim-Irvine-Oceanside-San Diego
• Vancouver-Seattle-Portland-Eugene

Instead of Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations focusing $11 billion on 225 miles between NYC-Washington, only $4.5 billion was spread across the 456-mile Northeast Corridor.

POPULAR, DESPITE COMPROMISES

In 2001, Acela trains were introduced on 18 miles in two HSR zones in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There wasn’t enough safety space between the HSR tracks and parallel tracks containing slow commuter and freight trains. At 165 mph, more air pressure between passing trains would create an uncomfortable jolt. Nor could Acela excessively tilt towards freight and commuter trains without maintaining a safe distance. As a result, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) limited Acela to 150 mph top speed and smaller tilt in those zones. Though more track in eastern Connecticut was upgraded, there are only 34 miles of 150 mph track between southern Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut. In total by 2019, Northeast Corridor will have ~162 miles that can operate commercially at 135 mph; 60 of those miles will support 150-160 mph.

Now the bad news. Average speed in Boston-NYC corridor is crippled by Slow Zones for 60-90 mph track in the NYC-New Rochelle-New Haven segment. Constrained by those conditions, Boston-Providence-New Haven-New Rochelle-NYC travel time is an unsatisfying 3 Hours 35 Minutes.

Nevertheless, Acela’s wider leather seats, electrical outlets at each seat, dining options and 91% on-time performance appeals to many business travelers. To better differentiate Acela, Amtrak name-changed its prior best passenger experience, “Metroliner”, to “Northeast Regional” trains that make more stops and cost half as much to ride.

Acela business class seating; credit Bob Schumin

Acela business class seating; credit Bob Schumin

Since 9-11-2001, flying between Northeast Corridor cities is a drag. Security lines, boarding delay, runway delay, de-boarding delay and taxi rides cause travel time between Washington and NYC to take 3 to 5 hours with only 70% on-time performance for most airlines, plus taxi/Uber/Lyft/shuttle time between each Central Business District.

In contrast, Acela patrons often arrive only 10-20 minutes before their scheduled train because they bought tickets online. Security is a breeze, boarding through 16-18 cabin doors is extremely fast and Acela trains run more dependably than planes. Though many planes boast WiFi service lately, you get more uninterrupted Wi-Fi on Northeast Corridor trains. About 5 minutes before station arrival, patrons gather belongings and head for station platforms. When train doors open, de-boarding/boarding completes in 3-4 minutes. Acela has been attractive enough to run at operating profit since 2008.

In the 225-mile Washington-NYC corridor, Acela runs mostly 110-135 mph for a 2 Hour 42 Minute travel time. Due to more stops, Northeast Regional takes about 30 minutes longer. Since you arrive in the heart of Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark and New York City, there is no long ride to central business districts. Washingtonians and New Yorkers discovered they could Day Trip via 5:30am-8:00am departures and 5:30pm-9:00pm returns.

Since Acela represents time, productivity, comfort and dependability advantages over flying, twice as many people ride trains than fly between Washington and NYC. Acela and Northeast Regional have surpassed 12 million annual ridership.

Here’s where it gets personal. In July 2014, I had dinner with my Hound Phi Hound (college social club) brothers in Philadelphia 30th Street Station. I previously booked aa ride on the Northeast Regional to Baltimore afterwards.

Hounds enjoying a restaurant in Philadelphia 30th Street Station

Hound Phi Hounds, Donny Jones, Thomas Dorsey and Bob Davis chilling in 30th Street Station

After evening fun was had, I discovered that my train was running so late. The Acela Express scheduled after my late rain would arrive an hour before the next Northeast Regional. Under normal Amtrak rules, you can’t take the Acela having only paid for Northeast Regional, as that would be a sneaky upgrade. But since I didn’t cause the long train delay before the next Northeast Regional, I felt I should not have to pay for an upgrade. Fortunately, a helpful Amtrak agent (Ricarda Burrell) jumped through hoops to get me on the Acela Express without a hassle. I had another great Acela experience and made it to Baltimore on time for family pick-up.

PROGRESS UNDERWAY

In 2010, President Obama and Congress funded upgrades to miles of Slow Zone in the Northeast Corridor, highlighted by 23 miles of HSR track between New Brunswick and Trenton, NJ. Acela trains were re-certified to operate up to 160 mph, when that new stretch in New Jersey opens in 2020. Obama also funded nextgen Acela trains arriving in 2021, will likely run up to 200 mph on those 23 new HSR miles. A grand Moynahan Station replaces tacky Penn Station in the same year. Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Baltimore Penn Station and Washington Union Station also receive capacity and amenity upgrades by early next decade.

For more insights on HSR in America, see Interstate High Speed Rail Progress, Part 1

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