» A full regeneration of the line, speeding trains between New York and Boston in just over three hours, would cost $10.2 billion.
After releasing studies last week that described the costs and benefits or new long-distance rail services, Amtrak has produced a report evaluating opportunities for its most important line, the Northeast Corridor. Long in the coming, the study documents capital needs for the tracks connecting Washington, DC and Boston and provides some preliminary cost estimates for decreasing travel times. With most federal rail capital funds now likely to be earmarked for states pursuing new rail programs like California, Illinois, and Florida, however, Amtrak will have to justify a dedicated revenue source for rail improvements in the northeastern region.
As the report notes, “Reaching a state of good repair on the Northeast Corridor after years of deferred investment and adding needed capacity to the Corridor will be expensive. Currently, there is no obvious existing mechanism to provide the required level of investment resources.” Amtrak’s study, though direct in its assessment of the railroad’s needs, does not indicate where the money will come from for any improvements. Those decisions will have to be made by Congress.
The Amtrak Acela Express moves between New York and Washington as quickly as 2h52 and between New York and Boston in 3h34. Those travel times are difficult to improve using existing equipment and tracks, though one effort earlier this decade to speed trains between New York and DC in just 2h30 by stopping only at Philadelphia resulted in inadequate revenue as a consequence of lower than expected ridership. Either way, Amtrak has been unable to meet the original goals of the Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail Improvement Program, which sponsored significant upgrades in tracks, stations, and catenary in the 1990s with the goal of 5h30 overall corridor travel times.
Despite the fact that trains average only about 80 mph along the corridor today, Amtrak has managed to snag 63% of combined air and rail travel between New York and Washington, compared to 37% before Acela’s implementation. But the rail company only represents about 6% of total corridor travel ridership, so it could see a lot of growth with faster services. That, however, won’t come easily.
Part of the problem is the corridor’s huge maintenance backlog, which has reached $8 billion and which will require an investment of more than $700 million a year over the next decade to reach a state of good repair. That figure will be touched in fiscal year 2010 as a result of stimulus spending, but Amtrak’s limited regular subsidies make similar annual investments difficult to envision in later years unless there is a major effort on the part of the federal government to provide new funds.
In addition, the Northeast Corridor suffers from increasing congestion due to growth in train travel and increasing population. The map below, included in Amtrak’s report, illustrates the sections of track that are most prone to delays and which will be unable to support increased Amtrak services until new tracks have been laid or curves have been realigned.
In order to decrease trip times to 2h15 between New York and Washington and to 3h15 between Boston and New York, Amtrak estimates that it would have to invest $10.2 billion in track upgrades along the corridor. The most prominent roadblock to real service improvement is the set of tracks between New Rochelle and New Haven, which are owned by Metro-North Railroad and which currently limit trains in many sections to 60 mph. These Connecticut and New York sections are currently being renovated, with expected completion between 2015 and 2018; no significant improvements in trip times between New York and Boston can be achieved before the completion of that work.
The New York-Washington segment, which is straighter than the northern section, suffers from the weight of its antiquated electrical supply equipment. Unlike the New Haven-Boston section, which has constant-tension catenary, allowing speeds up to 150 mph, the southern line’s trains cannot accelerate above 135 mph. Newly added intermediate catenary supports, which could be installed for cheap, would shorten spans between lines, allowing increased speeds, but full constant-tension would be needed for 200 mph operation — if someone pays for it.
In addition, because of problems with the truck stability of Acela Express trainsets and because of the age of Northeast Regional equipment, Amtrak will have to buy a full set of new trains over the next decade, according to the study. The fastest of these new vehicles will be able to reach 200 mph, up from 165 mph today. These trains would be able to decrease trip times along the full length of the line by a total of around 20 minutes.
Overall, though, none of the specific investments pinpointed by the rail agency would result in a massive decrease in travel times. A new tunnel through Baltimore, for instance, would save commuters a full two minutes. Only with concentrated investments along the entire corridor will major improvements for commuters come. The map below shows the modifications that would allow for the reductions in trip time noted above.
Three-hour trip times between New York and Boston are unrealistic in the short-term, according to the report, because of the huge investments in track replacement that would be necessary to handle the curve problems of the Connecticut shoreline. A true high-speed operation, which could complete travel from Boston to Washington in 3h30, would only be possible with a mostly brand-new track alignment between New York and Boston.
Nonetheless, even the incremental improvements documented here are unlikely to happen unless the Congress decides to invest again in upgrading the corridor. “In Amtrak’s view,” states the report, “continued reliance on annual appropriations to fund the Northeast Corridor capital program will continue to frustrate efforts to achieve a state of good repair and meet capacity and trip time goals for the corridor.” There must be a new effort to convince the House and Senate of the importance of improvements for America’s original high-speed corridor, which is arguably more important than those proposed for other parts of the country. Only a new Northeast Corridor Improvement Project, with dedicated, long-term funding, will ensure the realization of faster services along the line.
Images above: Northeast Corridor Capacity Constraints and Potential Improvements, from Amtrak