Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Promise
At 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 the night. There would be no hurried ride to the train station later.
After evening fun was had, I discovered that my Northeast Regional train was running late, very late. The next Acela train would arrive an hour before the next Northeast Regional train. Under normal Amtrak rules, you can’t take an 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, 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 and Northeast Regional service are well short of their potential.
Initial Challenges for Improved Intercity Passenger Rail
Boston-NYC-Washington corridor, officially called “Northeast Corridor”, contains America’s largest residential, business, government, college, medical center and tourist concentration. 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) have allocated the majority of federal aviation, highway, transit and railroad funds to this corridor. Yet New York 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.
In terms of passenger rail experience, its best to think of the Northeast Corridor as two connected rail segments owned by Amtrak and multiple state transit agencies:
226 Miles: Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-NYC
231 Miles: Boston-Providence-New Haven-Stamford-NYC
In 1978, Congress and President Carter via his USDOT, allocated a few hundred million dollars to upgrade Washington-NYC rail segment. By 1984, that funding eliminated remaining railroad crossings, fenced-off tracks and upgraded signaling for Amtrak trains to reach 110 mph. The mostly straight segment still had very old bridges & tunnels, poor track quality, inadequate electric & signaling systems for higher speeds. It also had significant chokepoints where tracks reduced from 4 to 3 to 2, then return to 3 and 4. Those “Slow Zone” factors limited average Amtrak speed to 68 mph for a lousy 3 Hour 20 Minute Washington-NYC Travel Time. They also also limited the number of commuter and freight trains per day.
The situation was worse for 231-mile Boston-NYC rail segment. President Carter could not convince Congress to allocate significant funds to it. Boston-NYC segment had many old bridges, too many roadway crossings, poor track quality, inadequate electric & signaling systems and a devil’s abundance of curves that produced a snail-like 4 Hour 30 Minute travel time and half as many Amtrak trains as the Washington-NYC segment. Worst of all, President Reagan and President Bush I disliked the whole of Amtrak, crippling USDOT funding of Amtrak improvement projects from 1981-93.
Over the same timeframe, the governments of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, United Kingdom and Spain made High Speed Rail (HSR) and station investment a priority. Their federal funding eliminated Slow Zones in priority corridors. By early 1993, there were a dozen European and Asian HSR lines operating or under construction.
Bill Clinton Starts Poor Man’s High Speed Rail
By 1993, U.S. population growth and more flights made airport Travel Time (components listed below) longer nationwide:
• curb arrival
• security clearance
• concourse wait
• origin runway taxi
• destination runway taxi
• concourse walk
• curb pick-up or departure
Excessive regional flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington airports made the Northeast Corridor problem worse than other regions. Flights that used to encompass 2 Hour 30 Minute Travel Time, ballooned to 3 Hours 30 Minutes. Driving I-295 Tollway and I-95 Freeway were no better alternatives in the Northeast Corridor, as their average speeds slowed to 60 mph.
To help America recover from recession, Congress approved economic stimulus funds for President Clinton’s USDOT to invest in 1993. Initially, his USDOT wanted 186 mph Amtrak trains in the Northeast Corridor, like the TGV in France. At the same time, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and DC were allocating state & local funds to match federal railroad funds. The 457-mile Northeast Corridor had about 45 million residents in 1993 — higher than any single rail corridor of France, Germany or the United Kingdom. An American passenger rail renaissance was possible.
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, more old bridges & tunnels, required more new over/underpasses and had 22 more years of inflation, similar results in the Northeast Corridor would require likely $22-23 billion, if completely funded over 1993-2000.
Unfortunately, the Highway Lobby influenced Congress to oppose that scale of HSR funding. Other mistakes were made too.
Strategic Mistakes by the USDOT
First, Clinton’s USDOT wasted $1 billion on MagLev pre-engineering studies. In 1993, MagLev (Magnetic Levitation) trains ran on short test tracks in Germany and Japan at jaw-dropping speeds of 267-280 mph. Due to very high Construction Cost per Mile, financial modeling in Germany revealed that MagLev would not be cost-effective for it’s many 8-15 million resident corridors. Wisely, Germany halted MagLev construction, licensed their MagLev technology to China. Germany then focused on upgrading old parts & building new parts of its national HSR and Commuter Rail network.
[NOTE: China’s form of government could take land as needed and assign low-cost labor on infrastructure projects as needed. So it purchased MagLev technology as a vanity project to symbolize its emergence on the world stage.]
Though 272-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor had 60 million residents, financial modeling also revealed that MagLev would not be viable in Japan for several decades. The project was uber-expensive because Japanese citizens had strong land & labor rights, plus 90% of the route would consist of new tunnels. Consequently, Japan limited MagLev to a cost-controlled 18-mile R&D project, while racing to finish its national HSR network by 2026. Until MagLev proves its financial feasibility in Japan, no other country whose citizens have strong land & labor rights should touch it.
[NOTE: Japan plans to open MagLev from Tokyo to Nagoya by 2027 and extend from Nagoya to Osaka by 2035. By the latter date, Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor is forecast to have nearly 80 million residents.]
Given that MagLev information was public, Clinton’s USDOT should have directed that $1 billion to the Northeast Corridor project. A future Congress and President could wait until Japan introduced MagLev in the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka corridor, then spent a couple years evaluating its financial viability.
Second, Clinton’s USDOT failed to focus on building a world-class HSR segment as Phase 1. Clinton didn’t need to appease Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island congressmen to get their funding votes for Northeast Corridor project. His Department of Defense continued awarding multi-billion dollar nuclear submarine contracts to Connecticut. Clinton’s USDOT continued pouring many billions into Boston’s Big Dig infrastructure project. Rhode Island’s priority was I-295 and I-195 Freeway construction predominantly funded by Clinton’s USDOT.
Clinton’s USDOT should have invested all Northeast Corridor funds in 226-mile Washington-NYC segment, where all railroad over/underpasses and fencing were built. Call it “Northeast Corridor Phase 1.” Most of the segment had 2 straiter tracks for Amtrak and many lengthy sections of 3rd and 4th track for slower freight & commuter trains. The benefits of world-class HSR coupled with upgraded commuter rail and freight rail could have been demonstrated faster than any other corridor in America.
Third, Clinton should have fought harder to raise more funds for Northeast Corridor Phase 1. A majority of Congress only approved $2.3 billion in economic stimulus funds and $2 billion more normal USDOT funding to Amtrak over Clinton’s 8-year administration. The booming U.S. economy by 1995 created more political muscle for President Clinton. He could have exercised a little of that muscle to convince Congress to allocate $6 billion instead of $2 billion towards Phase 1 because its HSR, Commuter Rail and Freight Rail project would have an outsized impact on the national economy. With $2.3B + $1B + $6B totaling as $9.3 billion federal funds, that would have attracted $3 billion matching funds from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. Payments from train station retail tenants would enable total funding of $12.5 billion, when land, bridge, tunnel and labor costs were half as much.
Clinton’s USDOT and Amtrak could have removed all chokepoints in Washington-NYC segment with 2 high speed-only tracks, plus upgraded 3rd or 4th track for commuter & freight trains. All electric & signaling systems could have been modernized and mild curves could have been eased. All 90-120 year old bridges & tunnels, including a replacement B&P tunnel in Baltimore, replacement Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland, replacement Portal North Bridge east of Newark and a new Hudson River Tunnel could have been built.
Instead, Clinton’s USDOT thinly spread $4.3 billion across 457-mile Northeast Corridor, leaving the hardest work undone. In summary, Clinton’s USDOT delivered Poor Man’s HSR to the Northeast Corridor.
Bush II USDOT Also Squandered Northeast Corridor Opportunity
In 2001, Acela tilt trains were introduced in the 457-mile Northeast Corridor. The trains were certified to operate at 165 mph. But only 18 miles outside Boston between southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island were ready for high speed. Even in those 18 miles, there wasn’t enough space between HSR tracks and parallel freight & commuter rail tracks. So for safety reasons, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) limit Acela to 150 mph. Over the years, there have been more upgrades in that segment accumulating to 34 miles of 150 mph track between southern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut. But too many sharp curves, 10 roadway crossings, old electrical & signaling systems and old bridges limit speed to 30-90 mph in the remaining 197 miles of Boston-Providence-New Haven-Stamford-NYC segment. That results in only 65 mph average speed for an unsatisfying 3 Hour 35 Minute Boston-NYC travel time.
In Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-NYC segment, Acela speed ranged from 30-135 mph shortly after leaving stations. Nevertheless, Acela averaged 83 mph for a 2 Hour 42 Minute travel time — faster than travel time via aviation mode. Acela also provided 16 daily round trips, wide seats with legroom, WiFi, electric outlets, a food car and 89% on-time performance that appealed to business travelers. The complimentary Northeast Regional features 19 daily round trips that make more stops, but cost half as much per ticket. Those conditions propelled Acela and Northeast Regional trains to operating profitability.
President Bush II knew the compelling value of improved Northeast Corridor rail service, even if he disliked Amtrak elsewhere. Bush II attended Yale in New Haven and Harvard in Greater Boston. New Haven has lousy airport service, so on school breaks, he must have rode trains from New Haven to NYC and to Boston. Chambers of Commerce supported more upgrades to the Northeast Corridor. Bush II also knew that Congressmen frequently rode Amtrak from Washington to NYC fundraisers, so he could count on their support. There was a federal budget surplus, so he could mildly pressure Congress to finish upgrading Washington-Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia-Newark-NYC-New Haven-Providence segment for economic reasons.
Even with inflated land & labor costs, a $2 billion/year USDOT investment in Northeast Corridor over 2001-08 would total only $16 billion — a drop in the bucket compared to a trillion dollar federal budget. Couple USDOT investment with $6 billion matching funds from Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. That $22 billion would be sufficient to replace old bridges & tunnels, purchase land to ease curves, eliminate remaining roadway crossings with overpasses, add 3rd & 4th track where needed for commute & freight trains, and modernize all electrical & signaling systems. Trains would no longer have to wait for swing bridges to close after tall boats pass through rivers. Freight shipping costs in the corridor would decline. Private companies would invest to upgrade train stations and pay for train naming rights. President Bush II ignored this opportunity.
Acela, The Little Engine That Could
Once 9-11 happened, extra time and hassle was most evident in congested Northeast Corridor airports. Curb-to-curb travel time between Washington and NYC grew to 4-5 hours with 70-73% airline on-time performance.
In contrast, Northeast Corridor travelers who switched to Amtrak would soon buy tickets online and arrive only 10-20 minutes before their scheduled train because passing through security is 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 Cafe cabin and 1 First-Class cabin. All cabins have great legroom and Acela’s 89% on-time performance was appreciably better than flying. Patrons enjoyed Wi-Fi on Northeast Corridor trains well before commercial flights had it.
Acela and Northeast Regional achieved operating profit in 2006 and have maintained it ever since.
Congress and President Obama invested $13 billion in economic recovery funds on Amtrak and other HSR projects nationwide. In Washington-NYC segment, Acela added stops at BWI Airport, Trenton and Metropark to attract more patrons. Now, the best Acela travel time is 2 Hours 49 minutes. Northeast Regional takes 30-40 minutes longer. Passengers arrive in the CBDs of Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark and New York City, so there is no long taxi or Uber/Lyft ride to CBDs. Many Acela business patrons Day Trip between their CBDs 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 annual ridership. Commuter rail patronage in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts has also blossomed since 2000.
More Acela Progress Coming
Before leaving office, President Obama (VP Biden, an ardent Amtrak rider) convinced Congress funded a number of Northeast Corridor upgrades, highlighted by 24 miles of straight high speed track between New Brunswick and Trenton. Current Acela trains are re-certified to run at 160 mph in that stretch of new high speed-only track, when it opens in 2020. Speed and capacity improvements also complete in 31 miles of Washington-Baltimore segment and 6 miles of Wilmington-Newark, DE segment by 2021.
President Obama and Congress also funded high speed trains being built in America by Alstom, the French company renown for building TGV trains. Over 2021-22, Avelia Liberty trains will replace all current Acela trains and run at 186 mph on those 24 new HSR miles. Avelia Liberty trains will tilt better to take mild curves 10-12 mph faster.
More train frequency and capacity are coming too. Acela will have enough Avelia Liberty trainsets for 30-minute Peak service between NYC and Washington. The Acela version of Avelia Liberty trains will have 9 cabins, with expansion capability to 12 cabins — the latter is equivalent to capacity of two 747 jets.
Increasing HSR and commuter rail demand is also driving capacity and amenity enhancement to NYC Penn Station/Moynahan Train Hall complex, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Boston South Station, Baltimore Penn Station and Washington Union Station.
Over 2020-24, Amtrak has prioritized $32 billion of tunnel, bridge, track, electrical, signal and station upgrades in the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak, state, local and private sources are committing to fund 58% of it, while the current USDOT has only committed to fund 12%. Amtrak and its state partners have completed or nearly completed environmental clearances for another $13 billion of infrastructure work. Since major bridges and tunnels are involved, even if the 2021 Congress and President authorize USDOT to fund it, that work may not complete by 2035. Until then, customer service reps like Ricarda Burrell may have to come to the rescue.
In closing, the 56 million-resident Northeast Corridor needs Presidents and Congress to step up for passenger capacity twice that of today, plus these attractive features:
226-mile Washington-NYC Segment
• 110-186 mph away from stations
• 113 mph average speed for 2 Hour Travel Time
• 15 minute Peak & 30 minute Off-Peak service
• 96-97% on-time HSR performance
• Upgraded commuter rail and freight rail service
231-mile Boston-NYC Segment
• 70-150 mph away from stations
• 82 mph average speed for 2 Hour 45 minute Travel Time
• 30 minute Peak & 50 minute Off-Peak service
• 90-91% on-time HSR performance
• Upgraded commuter rail and freight rail service
More state DOTs are recognizing that Pittsburgh-Harrisburg-Philadelphia, Niagara Falls-Buffalo-Albany-NYC, NYC-Albany-Plattsburg-Montreal, Springfield-Hartford-New Haven-NYC, Washington-Richmond-Raleigh need to be developed into 125 mph Amtrak corridors with frequent service feeding Northeast Corridor stations.
For more insights on the challenges and progress towards HSR across America, see Interstate High Speed Rail, Part 1.