Interstate High Speed Rail Acela Promise

Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Interstate High Speed Rail Acela

Passenger concourse inside Philadelphia 30th Street Station; (c) Soul Of America

At dinner with my Hound Phi Hound brothers from college, I chose a restaurant in Philadelphia 30th Street Station for convenience because I booked a ride on Amtrak Northeast Regional train to Baltimore that evening. Though there would be no hurried ride to the train station later, an investigative adventure began. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America

Donny Jones, Thomas Dorsey & Bob Davis at 30th Street Station, Philly

Donny Jones, Thomas Dorsey & Bob Davis at 30th Street Station

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 train, as that would be a sneaky upgrade. But since I didn’t cause the long delay before the next Northeast Regional train and it was late, 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 fresh slice of Mother’s sweet potato pie.

Nevertheless, my experience illustrates that Amtrak Acela and Northeast Regional service falls short of world-class High Speed Rail service in the wealthiest country on Earth. That experience prodded the transportation analyst in me to discover why.

Initial Challenges for Northeast Corridor High Speed Rail

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 generates the most air, highway and passenger rail traffic. It attracts the most tourists.

Though Congress and Presidents invest the majority of federal highway and aviation funds to this corridor via U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) grants, the corridor causes 1/3rd of America’s flight delays, in large part, because there are too many regional flights. Interstate driving also slows through Boston, Washington, NYC and Philadelphia highways, respectively ranked as the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 9th most congested highway systems in America by INRIX.

Why doesn’t Amtrak attract more travelers from those regional flights and interstate drives? The main answer is, Amtrak and commuter trains use old infrastructure not built for modern travel. Before examining the challenges to modernize Northeast Corridor railway infrastructure, its important to understand what world-class high speed rail service should be.

Japan and France are widely considered the world leaders in High Speed Rail (HSR). Both have economic conditions that determine how much HSR construction they can afford each year. The also have citizen land rights and labor rights similar to America, that affect where and how HSR can be built in their country. France however, has population density more similar to America. Therefore, France offers the best model for how America should build HSR infrastructure and operate high speed trains.

France Showed How To Build High Speed Rail

French HSR and high speed trains began construction in 1973 in the 264 miles between Paris and Lyon. French high speed train service, pronounced Train a’ Grande Vitesse (TGV), was launched between those cities in 1981. French HSR was built with the precision of a Swiss watch.

It consists of modern aerial viaduct, bridges, tunnels, long straightaway, extremely mild curves and premium track bedding to make the route level. When track runs on the surface, there are over/underpasses at every railroad crossing and fencing to prevent people, animals and automobiles from crossing them. Continuous welded rail is aligned within 1 millimeter of tolerance by concrete ties and track is shaved to enable smooth rides at high speeds. To maintain smooth rides, track is precisely measured from end-to-end on a frequent basis, with swift repairs.

Though France already had electric railway between large cities, its lower voltage power systems and looser-strung overhead electric wires (called “catenary”) were insufficient to power high speed trains. So France built new high voltage power systems and high-tension catenary to transmit high voltage to pantographs atop TGV to first reach 168 mph (270 kph), then 186 mph (300 kph).

Though a trained conductor drives each TGV, the French HSR System includes automatic train control to prevent trains exceeding speed limits and to detect any track problem before braking distance. More broadly, French HSR System has state-of-the-art signaling and communications to manage all train movements in the system. Those combined features enable the outstanding safety record of French HSR, where no loss of life has occurred in commercial operation since TGV began.

French HSR developed state-of-the-art operational practices that many other countries follow. Freight trains are never permitted on HSR tracks, since their heavier weight throws track out of alignment faster than lighter weight TGV and commuter trains. Depending on curvature in part-of-route, TGV speeds ranged from 137-167-186 mph (220-270-300 kph). All TGV adhere to the same speed for each part-of-route, so that no TGV is slowed by the train in front.

TGV enters metro areas at 99 mph (160 kph), then maintain it as as long as safety-rated before slowing to 19 mph (30 kph) to enter the track switches of station areas. Modern track switch lay-out is optimized for TGV to enter and exit quickly. Though TGV and commuter trains share route in metro areas, commuter trains use parallel track to avoid blocking the faster acceleration/deceleration of TGV.

Those operational practices shave valuable minutes from ride time and permit up to 12 TGV/hour on French HSR. Aside from speed, frequency, safety and comfortable rides, TGV is lauded for generating foot-traffic that attracts shopping mall companies to train stations and more hotels adjacent to them. Heavy retail activity makes urban TGV train stations vibrant from 6am-10pm daily.

Lastly, French government sees railway, highway and airports as equally important transportation infrastructure. Its why they invested $6 billion on the initial HSR line and continue investing in HSR expansion, though TGV profits also contribute to HSR expansion.

Underinvestment Cripples Amtrak Northeast Corridor High Speed Rail

In the 1830s, Northeast Corridor railway began in Baltimore as privately-owned freight & passenger railway for 30-45 mph trains. A remnant of the city’s rail heritage is one curvy tunnel, opened in 1873, forces all trains to exit Baltimore Penn Station at 30 mph for several miles. More Northeast Corridor tunnels and bridges opened between 1873-1920, modestly increased passenger train speeds. Hundreds of railway miles were built to train stations in Boston, New Haven, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington.

Today, 363 miles of the Northeast Corridor railway are owned by Amtrak; state transit agencies own the rest. 2,000 commuter trains, 140 Amtrak trains and 60 freight trains use the Northeast Corridor each day. Though Amtrak only handles 5% of Northeast Corridor passenger rail traffic, it transports more intercity travelers than airplanes in the corridor.

Northeast Corridor track owners

Amtrak owns dark blue track segments; the rest is owned by state transit agencies; (c) Amtrak

Given its shared usage by Amtrak, commuter & freight rail, Northeast Corridor railway spans from 2 to 6 tracks. In places where it best operates, Northeast Corridor has 2 tracks for bi-directional Amtrak high-speed trains, 2 tracks for bi-directional commuter & freight trains, plus 2 tracks placed intermittently on each side (“siding tracks”) for slow freight trains to pull aside when needed.

To further understand the challenges imposed on Amtrak service, think of 457-mile Northeast Corridor as two rail corridor segments with intermediate stops connecting at New York Penn Station, the busiest station:

231-Mile Boston-NYC corridor segment
0 Mile Boston South Station
1 Mile Boston Back Bay Station
11 Mile Route 128, MA
43 Mile Providence, RI
66 Mile Kingston, RI
105 Mile New London, CT
123 Mile Old Saybrook, CT
156 Mile New Haven, CT
195 Mile Stamford, CT
231 Mile New York Penn Station

226-Mile NYC-Washington corridor segment
241 Mile Newark Penn Station
255 Mile Metropark, NJ
263 Mile New Brunswick, NJ
289 Mile Trenton, NJ
322 Mile Philadelphia 30th Street Station
347 Mile Wilmington, DE
416 Mile Baltimore Penn Station
427 Mile BWI Airport, MD
457 Mile Washington Union Station

As explained in American Passenger Rail History, federal and state governments never prioritized Railway investment equal to Highway and Aviation. In 1965, Congress and President Johnson funded America’s first 125 mph electric train (“Metroliner”) between Newark and Philadelphia. Though Metroliner service began in 1969, infrastructure safety issues reduced it to 100 mph by 1970. Everywhere else in America, passenger rail ran slower, less frequently and lost money.

In 1971, Congress and President Nixon formed Amtrak to consolidate all passenger rail lines and save them by allocating a federal operating subsidy each year. They did not invest money to improve passenger railway.

In 1976, Congress, President Ford and regional states invested a paltry sum to improve signaling and build overpasses at every railroad crossing in NYC-Washington corridor segment by 1984. Top speed safely increased to 110 mph, but remaining Slow Zone infrastructure (major curves, old track switches, 4 tracks constricting to 3 or 2 tracks, old power systems, old catenary wires, old signaling, old communications, bumpy tracks) limited Amtrak Metroliner to a 3 Hour 20 Minute NYC-Washington ride time — slower than driving Interstate Highway.

There were 30-90 mph Slow Zones in 20 miles surrounding New York Penn Station, 4 miles south of Newark Penn Station, 10 miles surrounding Philadelphia 30th Street Station, 4 miles surrounding Wilmington Station, 7 miles surrounding Baltimore Penn Station and 5 miles north of Washington Union Station.

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 bridges takes a crew 15-30 minutes. Hence, the unpredictable tall ship passing can wreck a passenger train schedule.

Acela running on Susquehanna River Bridge, built in 1906

Acela running southbound towards Baltimore on Susquehanna River Bridge, built 1906; credit James G. Howes

Weather events trigger more frequent repairs to old bridges, old tunnels, old power systems and old track switches. Yet, the most frequent cause of delay in the Northeast Corridor is when freight trains constrict to the same 2 shared tracks with Amtrak and commuter trains.

Since it is a giant chokepoint that affects the most Amtrak riders and limits the speed, frequency and dependability of all Northeast Corridor trains, the worst Slow Zone is between New York Penn Station and Newark Penn Station.

Newark Penn Station to New York Penn Station

Slow Zones from Newark Penn Station to New York Penn Station

Ideally, New York Penn Station should have the same number of tracks entering/exiting on both sides to prevent congestion. That is not the case. 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 diagram) bring 2 tracks into New York Penn Station. Fewer trains can enter/leave per hour from the west side than from the east side. When Hudson River Tunnels (1908) and East River Tunnels (1910) require repairs, they also become a Slow Zone factor.

Old track switches (“Interlockings”) at Rea and Hudson rail junctions, enable a mix of Amtrak & commuter trains (red tracks) and more commuter trains (brown tracks) from Hoboken to both merge with and switch heading to Newark Penn Station. Portal Interlocking also contains an old 2-track movable bridge. For safety however, Amtrak can only run 35-90 mph over that 10-mile stretch between stations. That is not high speed service.

231-mile NYC-Stamford-New Haven-New London-Providence-Boston corridor segment had even more Slow Zone factors. The gauntlet of old movable bridges, old track switches, old power systems, old catenary, Amtrak crossing commuter & freight rail tracks in rail junctions, lengthy constriction to 2 or 3 shared tracks, over a dozen railroad crossings and a devil’s abundance of curves produced a lousy & bumpy 4 Hour 30 Minute ride time.

Bill Clinton Starts Poor Man’s High Speed Rail

In 1970, Northeast air travel times (taxi + airport queues + flight + taxi) from CBD to CBD used to encompass 2 hour 30 minutes. Business people with carry-on luggage loved air travel to avoid 3-6 hour drives in the Northeast Corridor and slow train speeds.

By 1993, when President Clinton took office, U.S. population added 50 million people. Airfares became more affordable. More people flying lengthened airport queues. The 457-mile Northeast Corridor grew to 45 million residents. Excessive regional flights between Boston, NYC, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington airports made congestion worse than other regions. Traffic congestion ballooned Northeast Corridor air travel times from CBD-to-CBD to 3 hours 30 minutes.

Population growth increased congestion on I-295 Tollway and I-95 Freeway, lowering their average speeds to 55-60 mph. Driving between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, NYC, Stamford, New Haven, Providence and Boston was no longer a picnic.

Lengthening air travel and highway travel times spelled market opportunity for Amtrak. President Clinton’s USDOT and governors’ state DOTs wanted world-class HSR in Amtrak Northeast Corridor. If built to French HSR standards, travel times would not be crippled by weather events, long queues like those in airports, and long airport-CBD taxi rides. HSR in 264-mile Paris-Lyon corridor cost $6 billion when it started construction in 1973, then launched TGV service in 1981. That $6 billion beginning 1973, inflation-adjusts to $19.5 billion/264 miles beginning 1993.

Though Northeast Corridor HSR would not be cheap to build, America could build it at an attractive cost per mile for reasons I explain below.

Northeast Corridor already had railroad overpasses in Washington-Philadelphia-NYC-New Haven segment. Two major tunnels and a NYC bridge could be modernized at less cost than new tunnels and a new bridge. With only 75 miles of rural land acquisition, Northeast Corridor could accumulate nearly 300 miles of straightaway and mild curvature track. Proven high speed trains could be bought from the same company that built TGV, but assembled in America. Experienced TGV consultants could be hired to avoid costly design mistakes.

By committing all funding in 1993, our federal government and state partners could have locked-in time & material contract prices before health care costs exploded inflation. Furthermore, private companies would contribute to station redevelopment projects that anticipate high foot-traffic.

Amtrak HSR didn’t need to match TGV’s 186 mph Top Speed and 135 mph Average Speed in 1993. It only needed 165 mph Top Speed and 108 mph Average Speed to achieve initial ridership and financial success. With ridership growth to help fund new projects, more infrastructure modernization could upgrade Top Speed to 185 mph. That’s what France did as ridership and financial success spurred their HSR upgrade from 168 mph in 1981 to 186 mph in 1988.

From my studies of rail construction costs, I estimate that Northeast Corridor, if fully funded in 1993, would have been $40 million per mile vs. $74 million per mile for French HSR. Achhieving 165 mph Top Speed and 108 mph Average Speed in 457-mile Boston-NYC-Washington corridor would only have required $20 billion in 1993.

Clinton’s USDOT needed about $14 billion in federal funds. The governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland DOTs would contribute $4 billion to the project. Based on the NYC Grand Central Terminal upgrade that attracted a shopping mall company and hotelier, Clinton’s USDOT could anticipate shopping mall companies and hoteliers investing $2 billion to upgrade major train stations. Freight rail companies would invest $50-75 million in more siding track. The figures would sum to $20 billion for a modernized Northeast Corridor by 2005, optimized for HSR, commuter rail and freight rail.

Powerful airline lobby and highway lobby opponents feared a HSR challenge. The highway lobby didn’t care much for improved commuter rail either. They influenced Congress to torpedo that scale of federal funding. 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 another $2 billion standard funding for the HSR project and another $1 billion in studies for a competing Magnetic Levitation (“MagLev”) train project.

Key Mistakes by Clinton’s USDOT

The Clinton Administration made several mistakes obtaining and allocating federal HSR funding. First, Clinton’s USDOT wasted $1 billion on Northeast Corridor MagLev feasibility studies despite obvious clues not to touch MagLev.

HSR routes require new viaduct, but utilize existing station area, railroad overpasses, rail tunnels and bridges built or overhauled less than 20 years ago, provided they have mild curvature. HSR shares track switches with commuter rail, increasing the Benefits/Cost Ratio. Due to severe technological difference, MagLev can’t share railway with trains. To run faster than 186 mph HSR, 311 mph MagLev route must have less curvature.

Germany, a MagLev pioneer, realized that it would have to acquire more contested land and construct completely new MagLev infrastructure at huge expense. In 1993, it gave up on MagLev because the projected Benefits/Costs Ratio was far less attractive than its first HSR line opened that year. So Germany focused on expanding its National HSR System and sold its MagLev technology to China, whose system of government allows them to take land in less time and assign labor at lower costs.

Of all wealthy democratic countries on Earth in 1993, only Japan had a corridor population-dense enough and short enough to suggest that MagLev could produce a positive Benefits/Costs Ratio. Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka had a 320-mile HSR corridor connecting 50 million people. Like America, Japan has strong labor rights and citizen rights that delay land acquisition and increase infrastructure costs. To reduce lawsuits and design enough straightaway for 311 mph (500 kph) MagLev, Japan is building 90% of its route in tunnels and the rest on aerial viaduct.

With technology advances and rural land acquisitions, nextgen HSR was being designed for 199 mph (320 kph) Top Speed and 150 mph Average Speed by 2005. Even more travelers would be attracted to those speeds. Given MagLev construction costs twice as much per mile as nextgen HSR, Japan focused on HSR expansion while tightly controlling MagLev R&D expense over 18 miles.

By 2013, 90% of Japan’s National HSR System completed, enabling the island nation to plan ahead, since Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka HSR service would reach design capacity by 2040. So Japan authorized funding for Tokyo-Nagoya MagLev segment to open in 2027. Japan plans funding for Nagoya-Osaka MagLev segment to open in 2037. Construction costs are estimated to be $83 billion for the entire 272-mile Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka MagLev corridor, which is shorter than HSR corridor because its straighter.

Clinton’s USDOT ignored those obvious clues to avoid MagLev under his watch.

Second, Clinton’s USDOT did not prioritize our most population-dense corridor segment, NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore-Washington.

Given Congress downscaled his 1993 HSR funding request, Clinton’s USDOT would have to defer adding an expensive 2-track Hudson River Tunnel and modernizing the old Hudson River Tunnels. But they could build a new Baltimore tunnel, replace movable bridges, replace old track switches, old signaling systems, power systems and old catenary in that segment. They could purchase small amounts of land for 2 straighter high-speed tracks for Amtrak and 2 other tracks for commuter and freight trains. They could convince freight rail companies to add more siding track. That approach would yield a positive Benefits/Costs Ratio faster than anywhere else.

Third, Clinton did not flex political muscle to obtain more HSR funding. By 1995, the U.S. economy was booming. America was not involved in wars. Those conditions started producing a budget surplus and near-certain Clinton re-election in November 1996. A politically stronger Clinton could have horse-traded with the funding priorities of Senators and Representatives in Congress to obtain $6 billion more HSR funding, instead of only $2 billion more over 6 years.

The $9.3 billion ($2.3B stimulus + $1B from MagLev studies + $6B) federal funds would have attracted about $3.7 billion from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland governors. Clinton’s USDOT could reasonably estimate that $1.5 billion would be contributed from hoteliers and shopping mall companies wanting to locate at New York Penn Station, Newark Penn Station, Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Baltimore Penn Station and Washington Union Station. Public and private partnership funds would total as $14.5 billion. That funding would have enabled a 2 hour 10 minute Acela NYC-Washington ride time and more frequent service by 2005.

Shorter time would convert more flyers and drivers to trains, which in a virtuous circle, triggers purchase of more First Class, Business Class and Coach Class fares that increase profits. With Acela operating at a high level, public pressure would escalate for the next Congress and President to build a new 2-track Hudson River Tunnel, modernize old Hudson River Tunnels and modernize the entire NYC-Stamford-New Haven-Providence-Boston corridor segment.

Unfortunately, Clinton’s USDOT thinly spread $4.3 billion ($2.3B stimulus + $2B) across 457-mile Northeast Corridor. Since Northeast Corridor HSR devolved to an under-scoped project, governors contributed fewer funds. Despite that shortcoming, there was some good news. Better Amtrak and Commuter Rail service attracted more riders in the Northeast Corridor and a retail companies paid big bucks to lease space in Washington Union Station. Those big bucks helped restore Washington Union Station into a magnificent attraction.

In 2001, Clinton’s USDOT delivered Acela tilt trains capable of 165 mph, but only 17 miles from Boston suburbs to Providence were modernized. Even in those 17 miles, there were only 2 tracks shared between Amtrak and commuter trains without enough space between tracks for passing each other at 165 mph. For safety, the Federal Railroad Administration limits passenger trains to 150 mph in that stretch.

Bush II USDOT Squandered Northeast Corridor Opportunity

Over two decades, 18 more miles after Providence were modernized for a total 35 miles capable of 150 mph, but still constricted to 2 shared tracks. Hence, 231-mile Boston-NYC corridor segment has 195 miles of Slow Zones that produce only 62 mph Average Speed. The net result is 3 hour 35 minute Acela Boston-NYC ride time with much less Amtrak frequency and dependability than NYC-Washington Corridor Segment.

In 226-mile NYC-Washington corridor segment, Acela reached 135 mph Top Speed and 85 mph Average Speed when trains only stopped at Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark and NYC for 2 hours 41 minutes ride time. To attract more business travelers, Acela added Metropark and BWI Airport stops to the route. Population growth triggered more commuter trains that congest under New York Penn Station. Acela reduced to 82 mph Average Speed for 2 hours 48 minutes ride time.

Since Acela’s Average Speed never approached TGV’s 135 mph Average Speed, media critics were plenty. That negative image made Acela and Amtrak easy targets for government critics as well.

Though President Bush II was an “Oil Man” who hated Amtrak elsewhere, he knew Acela’s potential between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, NYC, Stamford and New Haven. Acela high speed trains were already running and capable of 165 mph. As a Yale alum, Bush II had college friends that rode Amtrak from New Haven to job interviews and internships in Stamford, NYC, Philadelphia and Washington. The President’s staff caught Acela from Washington to NYC for fundraisers and United Nations meetings. He knew Congressmen who rode Acela in the corridor. Chambers of Commerce lobbied to further improve passenger & freight rail infrastructure in America’s densest, wealthiest corridor. A bi-partisan Congressional majority would have supported President Bush II on Northeast Corridor HSR projects.

Clinton handed Bush II a golden opportunity to invest only $6 billion/6 years to attract $2.5 billion/6 years from states and $1.5 billion from shopping mall companies and hoteliers to modernize New Haven-Stamford-NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore-Washington rail infrastructure and train stations. He could let the next President and Congress worry about the expensive Hudson River Tunnels and complete modernization of New Haven-New London-Providence-Boston infrastructure.

Acela NYC to Washington Speed Limit

Acela NYC to Washington Speed Limit Current & Infrastructure Modernization Phase 1; credit

By 2009, Acela could have reached 108 mph Average Speed for 2 hour 10 minute Washington-NYC ride time and 75 mph Average Speed for 1 hour NYC-New Haven ride time to double Amtrak and commuter train ridership. For a rounding error in the federal budget, Bush II would have been credited for fixing most Northeast Corridor railway, reducing highway congestion and boosting American productivity. Why President Bush II passed on that slam-dunk legacy opportunity is a mystery.

Acela, The Little Engine That Could

Once the 9-11-2001 terrorist event occured, hassle and longer queues were most evident at congested Northeast Corridor airports. Though flight time remained 50 minutes, air travel time between central Washington and NYC, including taxi rides & airport queues, grew to 3 hours 45 minutes at best. In bad weather and traffic conditions to/from airports, air travel time often passed 4 hours.

In contrast, Amtrak Northeast Corridor travelers could buy tickets online and arrive 10-15 minutes before their scheduled train and breeze through security. About 3 minutes before train arrival, patrons head for station platforms. Since Amtrak station platforms are level with cabin floors and Amtrak trains have 2 doors per cabin, riders swiftly board & unboard. Since Amtrak went CBD-to-CBD, there were only short walks to the curb and short taxi rides to central destinations.

To recover from the 2008 Great Recession, Congress granted President Obama $13 billion in economic recovery funds to invest in Amtrak and other HSR projects. He planned to authorize a lot more funds for Northeast Corridor HSR, California HSR, Florida HSR and Chicago-Midwest HSR. Unfortunately, the loss of Congressional bi-partisanship from 2011-16 and the next President from 2017-20 kneecapped HSR funding.

In early 2021, Acela travel time including taxi/Uber rides is often 3 hours 30 minutes. Thats only a 15-minute advantage over the best Washington-NYC air travel time. But Acela has other compelling advantages. Its 87-89% on-time average beats the 73-80% on-time average of commercial airlines.

The longest Northeast Corridor flight is Washington Reagan Airport to Boston Logan Airport with average flight time of 70 minutes. It features roughly 30 minutes of cruising altitude when you can open a laptop for productive work. NYC-Washington, NYC-Boston, Philadelphia-Boston, Baltimore-Boston flights only have 10-20 minutes of cruising altitude. If any of those flights is bumpy, you won’t get that much time for work or a restroom break.

In contrast, all Acela and Northeast Regional ride time is available for productive work and the comfort of visiting a Cafe Car and restroom at your leisure.

Northeast Regional trains, whose fares cost one third to one half that of Acela, attract nearly 3 times more passengers than Acela. But they add 30-35 minutes to ride time, depending on number of additional stops. Since Acela and Northeast Regional represent more schedule dependability, productivity and comfort advantages over flying, twice as many people ride trains than fly between Washington and NYC.

The best Acela NYC-Stamford-New Haven-New London-Providence-Boston ride time is 3 Hours 35 minutes at 62 mph Average Speed. When adding taxi/Uber rides to/from train stations, Acela travel time is slightly longer than air travel time in that segment. Amtrak travel and air travel split evenly between Boston and NYC.

Acela and Northeast Corridor Progress Coming

Before leaving office, President Obama with urging from Amtrak rider Vice-President Biden, convinced Congress to fund the modernization of 24 miles between New Brunswick and Trenton, New Jersey. Amtrak funded the modernization of 30 miles between suburban Washington and West Baltimore. Delaware added a 3rd track at Wilmington Station to prevent freight & commuter trains from slowing Amtrak trains.

President Obama also 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. Over 2021-22, Alstom’s Avelia Liberty trains will replace current Acela train-sets. Avelia Liberty trains accelerate & decelerate faster and tilt 10 mph faster in curves. By 2023, enough small infrastructure upgrades will complete for nextgen Acela to run 110-160 mph on more miles between Newark and Washington for a reduction to 2 hour 33 minute ride time.

Passengers are frustrated when current 5-cabin Acela sells out, nor are they impressed with the Cafe Car menu. Nextgen Acela will gain 8 more train-sets to operate 35-40% more frequently, 8 cabins and a better stocked Cafe Car. Amtrak also purchased track shaving equipment to enable smoother Acela and Northeast Regional rides between NYC and Washington.

Northeast Corridor ridership growth is driving capacity, architecture and amenity upgrades to New York Penn Station-Moynahan Hall, which handles 650,000 daily riders and Washington Union Station. Though smaller in scale, major upgrades are planned for Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Boston South Station, Baltimore Penn Station, Newark Station and New Haven Station as well.

Amtrak has identified $45.2 billion in vision projects to complete Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1 to remove the biggest chokepoints. To achieve that vision, Amtrak, state and private partners commit $15.1 billion. Federal funding rules say that a Benefit/Cost Ratio of 1.0 or higher makes a project more competitive for federal funding. Amtrak Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1 is well above that ratio, yet the 2017-20 President’s USDOT committed only $3.84 billion. So there’s currently a $26 billion federal funding shortfall.

The U.S. House of Representatives supports Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1 plan and wants to replicate Interstate High Speed Rail benefits across America. If Congress and President Biden close that $26 billion shortfall in 2021, Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1 can complete by 2030. Acela speed profile will look similar to the green line on Northeast Corridor Speed Limit chart, with higher frequency and 95% schedule dependability.

Respected group advocates like the U.S. High Speed Rail Association recommend that Congress and President Biden invest enough to complete Northeast Corridor HSR Phase 1 asap, while simultaneously funding HSR projects in California-Las Vegas, Chicago-Midwest, Texas, Florida, Southeast and Northwest. A robust Interstate High Speed Rail System, coupled with upgraded commuter rail, more Metro Rail and electric buses will significantly cut air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions from Transportation — America’s largest sector contributing to Global Warming.

A second phase of Northeast Corridor Modernization is needed to further shorten ride times, increase dependability, and increase capacity as the Northeast region hurdles past 60 million population. To continue diverting more people from airports and highway to railway, it will then be easier obtaining political support for Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 2 to achieve these Acela performance metrics by 2040:

226-Mile NYC-Newark-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington Corridor Segment
• 185 mph top speed over 175 miles
• 118 mph average speed for 1 Hour 45 minute ride time
• 15-minute Peak and 30-minute Off-Peak train frequency
• 97% schedule dependability

Boston-New Haven-NYC Segment, A Larger Challenge

Before getting too excited about Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 2, lets circle back to fixing the slow Boston-NYC corridor segment.

NYC-New Rochelle-Stamford-New Haven segment has overpasses at every railroad crossing and most of the segment has 4 tracks. Where the segment has 2 or 3 tracks, it can be expanded to 4 tracks by 2026. Modernizing track switches, signaling, power systems and catenary can also complete by then. Modernizing East River Tunnels, rail bridges and rail junctions between Queens and New Rochelle cost more, but can complete by 2030. Then Amtrak will have 2 dedicated tracks without chokepoints from NYC to New Haven. Though curves will remain, nextgen Acela will safely tilt at 90-125 mph, and run more frequently with higher dependability in this segment.

Acela Speed Limit New Haven to Boston

Acela Speed Limit New Haven to Boston; credit

New Haven-Old Saybrook segment requires a few miles of property acquisition to expand from 2 shared tracks to 2 tracks for Amtrak and 2 tracks for commuter rail & freight rail. If Amtrak gets 2 dedicated tracks, nextgen Acela can raise to 125-150 mph in this segment.

Boston-Providence-Kingston segment also requires modest property acquisition to expand from 2 shared tracks to 2 tracks for commuter rail & freight rail. Since it has more strait-away, 2 dedicated tracks will enable nextgen Acela to reach 185 mph in this segment.

Fixing Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment is the heaviest lift. There are 10 coastal railroad crossings, 1 in-land railroad crossing and 1 movable bridge that limit speeds to 35-80 mph. The movable bridge will be replaced in Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 1. Given so much development around coastal track however, the current Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment can not be widened to 4 tracks. There are sound reasons to question whether the 10 coastal railroad crossings should receive overpasses, given the high cost to spot-remove properties for speeds unlikely to exceed 90 mph.

Old Saybrook-New London-Kingston segment can reach 185 mph by implementing Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1, a 50-mile bypass of coastal curves. Its the light blue bypass on the CTMirror’s map of Boston-Providence-New London-New Haven-Stamford-New York railway. This CTMirror article also explains more costly Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 2 that bypasses the coastal Connecticut and coastal Rhode Island for upstate Connecticut and ghastly expensive Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 3 using more of Massachusetts to bypass Rhode Island and more of Connecticut.

There’s another compelling reason for a bypass. Global Warming is melting glaciers faster that forecasted in 2000. Hence, sea level is rising with higher storm surges. A respected Bloomberg BusinessWeek report indicates that Global Warming is accelerating with devastating consequences to Northeastern coastal property, railway and roadway. Even if America, China, Europe, Russia, Japan and India slow greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 onwards, sea level will likely rise 1 foot by 2040 and 2-3 feet by 2060. Anything above 3 feet will have devastating economic and transportation consequences.

In-land bypass is the best solution to protect Amtrak Northeast Corridor against sea level rise and storm surge. Though Amtrak would no longer use current Mystic and New London stations, the bypass would include a combined New London/Mystic Station and greatly improve Amtrak service to Old Saybrook, New London/Mystic, Kingston and Providence. Equally important for the economies of coastal Connecticut cities, it would eliminate Amtrak Alternatives 2 & 3 and become a backup route for commuter rail.

For those benefits, Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1 must overcome protestors who want to maintain the status quo — Amtrak and commuter rail along coastal Connecticut. Protesters enlisted support from the Connecticut governor, Congressmen and coastal mayors to prevent an in-land bypass. Unfortunately, their decision has short term viability.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy proved that coastal threat by temporarily raising sea level 10 feet in lower Manhattan. Surge waves were high enough to flood a NYC subway station. 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 flood wall and infrastructure hardening to protect against sea level rise and storm surge. Many other large coastal cities will receive hundred of billions of dollars in federal funds for flood wall and infrastructure hardening too.

As illustrated by the Hurricane Irene video above, coastal Connecticut is already subject to storm surge. In the coming years, it will be harder to get flood insurance on all coastal property. Competing for federal funds against the large coastal cities of America, coastal Connecticut towns stand less chance obtaining enough federal money for a lengthy 4-foot flood wall. Though difficult for current protestors to accept, many property owners will need federal and state assistance relocating in-land over the next 20 years anyway.

For faster, more dependable, higher capacity NYC-Boston service, an Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative will likely be approved by 2030 as part of Northeast Corridor Modernization Phase 2.

There are so many other worthy HSR projects to be funded, its hard to imagine Congress approving $267-308 billion Bypass Alternative 3 — enough to build HSR from Washington to Atlanta. And given 4 U.S. Senators in Rhode Island and Connecticut tend to coordinate with 10 U.S. Senators in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine before voting on USDOT budgets, either $64-66 billion Bypass Alternative 1 or $131-$136 billion Bypass Alternative 2 will likely be approved.

If Amtrak NEC Bypass Alternative 1 is agreed to by 2030, Acela can meet these performance metrics by 2040:

231-Mile Boston-Providence-New London/Mystic-New Haven-Stamford-NYC Corridor Segment
• 185 mph top speed over 80 miles
• 86 mph average speed for 2 hour 45 minute ride time
• 30-minute Peak and 50-minute Off-Peak train frequency
• 92-94% schedule dependability

Those performance metrics, smoother rides and station upgrades will mitigate highway and airport congestion as Northeast Corridor population and tourism grow. But wait there’s more.

Amtrak is modernizing New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor to eventually support 125 mph and Philadelphia-Harrisburg corridor to support 125 mph, with plans for extension to Pittsburgh. As a bonus, Amtrak can buy more Avelia Liberty trains to run 185 mph in NYC-Philadelphia segment, while bookending 100-125 mph service in NYC-New Haven-Springfield segment and 125 mph service in Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh segment.

By 2030, more federal & state funding will be allocated to Amtrak infrastructure, likely enough for NYC-Albany-Syracuse-Rochester-Buffalo-Niagara Falls extension to gain 125 mph Amtrak service and Washington-Richmond-Raleigh extension to gain 110 mph Amtrak service.

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 sharing infrastructure to many other stations for same-seat rides on each other’s systems. The plan will convert silo-like Commuter Rail lines into a world-class Regional Rail system, like the RER providing comprehensive service throughout Paris metro area.

Many travelers take TGV, Thalys, ICE and Eurostar high speed trains to Paris, then switch to RER trains. Fewer people need long taxi/shuttle rides to access cities within a 25-mile radius of central Paris. When the NYC Regional Rail Network is implemented, it will deliver similar benefits in NYC Metro Area. Philadelphia also has a Regional Rail Network Plan for SEPTA and New Jersey Transit commuter rail lines connecting at 30th Street Station.

That combination of upgraded Amtrak and regional rail service 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 or Philadelphia 30th Street Station too.

For more insights on Amtrak Northeast Corridor Vision and Interstate High Speed Rail, click the links below.

Amtrak Northeast Corridor Vision

Interstate High Speed Rail, Part 1