A New York-bound route would attract far more passengers than one heading for Boston.
Montréal is one of North America’s most appealing cities and it’s only a few dozen miles from the border. As a result, both American and Canadian politicians have been arguing for the expansion of rail service from the metropolis south into the United States. Yet, after decades of work, little of consequence has actually been completed. But with stimulus funds for high-speed rail soon to be distributed, it’s worth considering what routes would be most appropriate for possible service.
In 2000, at the request of the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the Federal Railroad Administration designated the Northern New England route as an “official” high-speed corridor. This series of lines would include connections between Boston and Portland, Boston and Albany, Springfield and New Haven, and Boston and Montréal. The three states began studying a connection with Canada and released a report detailing potential services in April 2003. The study advocated 110 mph top speed service on the 329-mile route, providing a 5h48 trip between Boston and Montréal. New Hampshire, more focused on expanding highways into Boston, abandoned interest and the project has laid dormant since.
But the federal stimulus reawakened the possibility of funding the project with national money. Upgrades of the partially abandoned route could be sponsored by the Department of Transportation.
Yet, the City of Montréal and the State of New York have a different objective: connecting the French-Canadian city with Gotham. In the 1970s, hyperactive Montréal mayor Jean Drapeau attempted to connect his city with New York via TGV, a project that was ultimately abandoned due to lack of governmental commitment. New York’s state rail plan pushes an improvement of the connection between Albany and Montréal, but only after the link between Buffalo and Albany is substantially accelerated.
A connection to Montréal may be long-off, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on the minds of U.S. and Canadian transportation planners. Rather, it could be an important route — if it’s planned and routed correctly. What follows is a comparison of a hypothetical major investment on the two most prominent visions of high-speed routes between the cities, at average speeds of 180 mph. By comparing the routes at high speeds rather than the 70 or 80 mph averages typically proposed by the investment-weary states, the ultimate advantages of the different routes can be more easily discerned. The conclusion of this post — that a connection between New York and Montréal would be a far more valuable investment than one between Boston and Montréal — would be the same no matter the speeds of train service offered, but demonstrating consequences at 180 mph allows for best-case circumstances to be analyzed.
* A note at the end of this post describes some implementation problems with the routes described.
The map above shows the route of the proposed Boston-Montréal corridor and potential service routing off the line onto existing Amtrak routes. The 329-mile route between the two cities would take almost two hours to complete (and about one hour from Montréal to White River Junction, where the existing line branches off).
When developing high-speed rail networks, a 3h30 travel time constitutes the upper limit of how far people are willing to choose rail travel over air routes. However, I have also included information on travel times of five hours to Montréal with the intention of demonstrating potential future expansions of true high-speed service and the implications for customers willing to travel further. I produced these maps by calculating existing travel times on Amtrak from Boston, White River Junction, and Montréal; the map assumes no improvement of service on any of the other lines shown here.
As the map demonstrates, only one major metro area, Boston, would be within 3h30 distance of Montréal, with several smaller cities such as Burlington also within striking distance. Excluding Montréal, about 5.1 million people live in the metropolitan areas affected by this service, almost all of them in the Boston area. Expanding time to 5h would reach 1.2 million more people and allow travel to Springfield and Portland.
One major problem with this planned route is that trains would enter North Station, not South Station, where most service from Boston originates. This means that it would be impossible to continue service from Boston to Providence or Springfield, unless the North-South Rail Link connecting the terminals is ever built. Yet, even with the North-South Link, service would still only reach 9.1 million in 3h30 (including Providence and New London) and 4.2 million more in 5h (including Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford).
The longer route between Montréal and New York City, via Albany, at around 380 miles, would provide service to Montréal to a far larger group of individuals — a total of 41.7 million in nine states and the District of Columbia. That’s because the slightly longer than two hour trip between Montréal and New York would provide a direct connection to the center of the speedy Northeast Corridor. In addition to New York and Albany, cities within 3h30 of Montréal would include Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Stamford, New Haven, and Springfield. Within five hours: Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington, Hartford, New London, Providence, and Syracuse.
In other words, a New York route would provide service to Montréal in five hours or less for the majority of the Northeastern seaboard, with the visible exception of Boston, which would be more like 6h30 away save for improvements along the Boston-Albany route. Despite the more expensive costs related to the longer length of this corridor over the previous described, this route would provide a rail option for a far larger number of people — 41.7 million, to be specific — and would therefore make up its value as a result of much higher likely ridership. Here is a chart comparing the two corridors:
|Building Rail to Montréal|
|Boston-Montréal Corridor||New York-Montréal Corridor|
|Population* within 3.5 h||5.1 million||29.9 million|
|Population* within 5 h||1.2 million||11.8 million|
|Total population* affected||6.3 million (13.3 million with N-S Link)
|Daily flights to Montréal from cities within 3.5 h||10 flights (from Boston)||41 flights (from New York and Philadelphia)|
|Daily flights to Montréal from cities within 5 h||—||18 flights (from Washington and Hartford)|
||10 flights||59 flights|
* Population in metro areas of more than 100,000 along the route (not including Montréal).
Even if the New York corridor were twice as expensive as the Boston route (it wouldn’t be), it would still provide more travel benefits to more people per unit of cost. These numbers indicate unambiguously that the route from New York would be vastly more productive than the one from Boston. It is in the national public interest to ensure that funding go to the former, rather than latter, route.
But the only government-approved national rail map we have suggests that the Boston corridor is the one that deserves high-speed rail. Meanwhile, the six senators from Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire are undoubtedly collectively stronger than New York’s two — which means that by measure of governmental influence, a Boston-routed corridor seems more likely to move ahead. That fact says a lot about the problems with the American political system and our unwillingness to submit national policy to an objective test. If our high-speed rail dollars are to be well-spent, we have an obligation to compare the benefits of multiple corridors and invest in the most effective option.
Note: there are several technical problems that would have to be addressed for both potential routes to allow through-running.
- In New York, the Empire Connection, the line on the west side of Manhattan that trains would take to enter Penn Station, heads east as it enters the facility. To allow trains to continue southwest to Philadelphia and beyond, the driver would have to go to the other end of the train (it would reverse directions). To speed things up, there could be another driver ready to assume controls as the train entered New York, to allow for a seamless and potentially stop-free transition.
- In Boston, trains arriving at North Station would similarly have to reverse directions to go northeast to Portland. A direct connection to service emanating from South Station (west to Springfield or southwest to Providence) would not be possible unless Massachusetts built a connection either through the North-South Link or around the city at some location. This seems unlikely. Otherwise, passengers would have to change stations to transfer to other trains, slowing down connections and making through-routing impossible.
- Trains would have to be bimode diesel/electric for through-routes reaching away from either proposed high-speed corridor and the main NEC.