Accelerating Amtrak Trains

Will superfast train service in the Northeast ever happen?
August 2010
Amtrak train
Rohan Travellin/Flickr CC
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

Many great ideas citizens thought would never happen actually did occur -- the Berlin Wall fell; welfare as we knew it ended; and Times Square was revitalized.

The latest great idea that people say will never happen -- but it just might -- is building true high-speed rail in the Northeast, from Boston down to New York, through Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. This region has roughly 55 million people in densely populated cities that are 50 to a few hundred miles apart, and it has a tradition of train travel with mass transit use: Amtrak trains, pricey and unreliable, are still packed.

Yet somehow -- as with Times Square when it was still a cesspool of porn and crime, or East Germany when it was under the Soviet Union's thumb -- people in the Northeast shrug their shoulders and tend to say that nothing's going to change. They've lived so long with average quality intercity train service that they don't ask for or expect the best.

Meanwhile, countries like France, Japan, Germany, Spain, China, South Korea, Brazil and Argentina -- even Morocco and Vietnam -- either are proceeding with new high-speed lines or enjoying extensive networks that are already built.

But in this age of infrastructure, plans are afoot, even in the Northeast: This year, 11 states, Washington, D.C, and Amtrak -- with New Jersey's NJ Transit acting as the formal applicant-asked the Federal Railroad Administration for $18.8 million to conduct a high-speed rail study that encompasses both the immediate repair needs and an examination of longer-term needs through 2050.

The proposal, called the Northeast Corridor (NEC) Multi-Modal High Speed Rail Improvement Plan, would include a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, an essential legal first step for any large interstate transportation project. This effort is expected to also involve the commuter and freight rail operators using the Northeast Corridor and its tributary rail lines.

Two questions above all hover around these studies: What is truly high-speed rail? And how much should be spent on it? Bureaucracies, like people, must judge how high to aim. Is it realistic to try for true high-speed rail? Or is simply higher-speed rail enough? Already Amtrak's Acela Express trains hit 150 mph for a short section between Boston and Providence, R.I., but average travel times are less than 100 mph for the whole route. To get true high-speed rail with trains traveling at 180 mph and averaging more than 150 mph, you need separate right of way and new tracks -- a difficult thing in the crowded Northeast, not to mention expensive.

However, there is a plan to do just that, and it's worth looking at to get a sense of what's possible. A largely separate, new-track high-speed rail system could be built between Washington, D.C., and Boston for a price tag of $98 billion, according to a University of Pennsylvania graduate planning studio led by Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association (where I am a senior fellow) and Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

The plan is appealing in both its ambition and apparent feasibility. North of New York City, for example, rather than attempting to carve out new tracks through the chaotic suburbs, the high-speed lines would travel under Long Island Sound through a 20-mile, three-tube tunnel to New Haven, Conn. From there, it would continue on existing rail right of way to Hartford, Conn., and then turn northeast onto the median of Interstate 84 from Hartford to Boston, thus obtaining much of the needed corridor for new dedicated tracks in one fell swoop. South of New York, a combination of new tracks and tunnels built on utility and other accessible rights of way, as well as some existing tracks, would be employed.

This work would enable trains to travel from Washington, D.C., to New York in 90 minutes instead of the current top time of two hours and 45 minutes, and trains between New York to Boston would take less than two hours instead of the current three and a half hours. The new tracks would allow for greater capacity, giving the region a broad mix of local and express trains. Smaller cities would for the first time gain from high-speed travel, while the huge boost in capacity would free up track space for commuter railroads in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, thus expanding their potential.

True high-speed rail service, the plan estimates, would revitalize small and large cities, concentrating growth there and helping make possible an environmentally improved and more pleasant lifestyle. The economic impact can't be understated: Faster, more reliable movement of goods and people in such a densely populated area will allow the economy of this mega-region to grow and flourish for decades to come.

Of course, this is just a plan from a graduate school class. But both Yaro and Taylor are key players in regional and national planning, and top professionals from the United States and Great Britain were included on the project. Taylor and Yaro hope their study will influence the formal studies being conducted.

There is no question that the Northeast has the need, demand and potential for true high-speed rail, and given what's at stake, the price tags being thrown around -- from $50 billion to $100 billion -- are not that large.

Maybe it's time to do it, just like those other things people thought couldn't be done.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist |