High-Speed Rail Northeast Corridor

What Would It Take to Fully Invest in the Northeast Corridor?

» Penn Design group proposes almost $100 billion investment between Washington and Boston. Amtrak confirms it’s evaluating constructing another Hudson River tunnel.

If you thought California’s more than forty billion dollar plan to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles with high-speed rail was an unreasonably large investment, you’ll be doubled-over by what a University of Pennsylvania student group has proposed for the Northeast Corridor: a $98.1 billion spending spree that would transform America’s most productive region by speeding commutes between Boston and Washington to just 3h15.

The plan advocates the construction of new rail tunnels through downtown Philadelphia and Baltimore, a bypass around Wilmington, and, get this, a twenty-mile tunnel under the Long Island Sound from Ronkonkoma to New Haven. Trains would average 155 mph on the trip. These investments, the students suggest, would be enough to triple ridership on the intercity rail network by 2040. I wouldn’t doubt it.

The problem, of course, is that while the plan is well-documented, beautifully illustrated, and, I’m sure, technically feasible, it stands absolutely no chance of being realized, bar some unforeseen willingness on the part of the U.S. government to drop tens of billions on one program and a multi-state agreement binding the Northeast region’s taxpayers to the construction of the world’s single biggest infrastructure project. I would love to see such ease of transportation between these cities, but in the next twenty years, the most we’re likely to get is Amtrak’s current ten billion dollar plan to speed trains from 6h30 between the extremities of the corridor to 5h30. This in spite of the fact that the Northeast Corridor, with the nation’s highest densities and highest potential train ridership, is theoretically perfect for high-speed rail.

But there are two fundamental obstacles to a significantly improved Northeast Corridor: financial limitations and differences in political interest.

Though the Northeast is an incredibly rich region, it has no capacity to raise sufficient funds to pay for an investment on the scale of what the Penn Studio has suggested. Not only are all the states in a fiscally difficult situation today, but they are underfunding their existing roads, transit, and intercity rail systems. Because the Northeast has some of the nation’s oldest infrastructure, it also has the most pressing maintenance needs. If the region were to suddenly benefit from a massive increase in tax revenues, that money should probably first be spent on making sure the subways and highways are working as they should, no small task.

Just as important, the U.S. government, despite its decision to allocate $10.5 billion thus far to the high-speed rail development program, is handicapped by the fact that it must spread the money across the country. If the Northeast deserves a federal contribution of $50 billion for its high-speed program, the rest of the country will demand another $200 billion for their own needs. Where, exactly, will that money come from? The two-year period in which the U.S. government appeared to be guided by a Keynesian impulse to stimulate the economy through infrastructure creation has come to a definite, and probably premature, end.

Of course, the lack of adequate funds is determined by politics; if they wanted, state leaders could approved tax hikes to pay for far more than just maintenance. They could, for instance, band together to promote a regional gas tax increase. Yet the situation in the Northeast is paralyzed by poor decision-making and an unwillingness to look across state lines for compromise.

For example, the $8.7 billion Access to the Region’s Core tunnel, which will connect New Jersey and Manhattan by 2017, will not include connections into the existing Penn Station complex; this makes it possible for only trains terminating in Manhattan to use the tunnel and fundamentally blocks off Amtrak use of the facility. As a result, the national rail operator is now studying the construction of yet another tunnel under the Hudson River, a consequence of the fact that New Jersey simply didn’t care enough to find a way to share. (Note that Amtrak’s study is far from final; while the tunnel may be needed, there is no funding for the project.)

The Northeast has internalized its decision-making at the state level, refusing to come to clear agreements about where the region’s priorities should be focused. This is partly due to the fact that many of the state capitals are not along the Northeast Corridor itself — Albany, Hartford, Harrisburg, and Annapolis — but also due to the fact that high-speed rail sections through some states may be actually more beneficial to residents of other states. For instance, though the link between New York and Philadelphia runs primarily through New Jersey, its users are primarily not from that state; this makes it outside New Jersey’s political interest to invest in true high-speed rail there.

Thus, one wonders whether the kind of mammoth investments necessary to outfit the Northeast Corridor for true high-speed rail should be prioritized. California and Florida are developing cheaper and far less complicated plans to run fast trains between their biggest cities, and it’s actually possible to imagine that their schemes will come to fruition. They benefit from the fact that each project remains within state borders and California’s voters made a very large $10 billion commitment to actually funding their line, a feat to which no Northeast state has come close.

Similarly, in the Midwest, there’s a relative consensus in thinking that Chicago is the region’s core and that primary rail links should head in and out of there. This has made agreement about where investments should go simpler and explains that region’s relatively advanced plans for intercity rail.

People in the Northeast complain that the federal government’s high-speed rail funding allocations have gone to other regions, but the Obama Administration may have its priorities right. Instead of choosing to throw its funds into the mind-numbingly complex project that is the Northeast Corridor — where even minor improvements cost billions of dollars — it has picked intercity rail programs that will significantly improve service at a lower cost in the short-term. If Northeastern states want to see similar allocations in the coming years, they must get their act together by developing regional funding sources and establishing more lines of agreement.

Image above: Philadelphia alternative alignment proposed by Penn Design Studio, from Penn Design

104 replies on “What Would It Take to Fully Invest in the Northeast Corridor?”

Looking at the report, the price tag would drop from $98 billion to $82 billion if they just run the train along the existing Northeast Corridor through New York to New Haven. How much time would this add? If it’s a lot, I’d rather sped a couple billion straightening the existing NEC between NYC and New Haven. Most trips start and stop in NYC anyway, so it wouldn’t be that big of a deal if a train lost some speed in the last few miles around the city. It would be easier to extend the ARC project to the ESA project after the water tunnel is finished rather than build brand new tunnels again.

The Wuhan-Guangzhou high speed train travels the 500 miles between those two cities in 2:57. If Washington and New Boston are 420 miles apart, I would expect $100 billion to buy us a 2:30 ride, not a 3:15 one. If a brand new line is what is necessary to achieve those speeds, I would prefer brand new, high speed bypasses around major cities than incredibly expensive new tunnels through the city center. For example, I’d prefer a new elevated alignment along the Garden State Parkway, across the Tappan Zee to I-287 with a stop in White Plains over a 20 mile “chunnel” across Long Island Sound. If you need a stop in midtown, the existing Penn Station would be sufficient.

“The Wuhan-Guangzhou high speed train travels the 500 miles between those two cities in 2:57. If Washington and New Boston are 420 miles apart, I would expect $100 billion to buy us a 2:30 ride, not a 3:15 one.”
How many stops are there on the Wuhan-Guangshou line or crowded cities to run through? Achieving 220 mph speeds along the NEC route is not that simple because of the dense spacing of the cities and stops. Starting from DC, there are major stops at BWI, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philly, (some at Trenton), Newark, NYC, Stamford, New Haven, Providence, Boston. Only a few legs there long enough to make it worthwhile to accelerate to and stay at 220 mph speeds.

In the report from Penn Design, they recommend running a “Northeast Express” from Boston to DC with only one stop in NYC. The Wuhan-Guangzhou line has 18 stops. I don’t know how many of those stops are made by the trains that achieve the fastest overall travel time. My point is that for $100 billion, I’d expect an average speed approaching 200mph, which I’d think could easily be the standard in the coming decades.

The very ambitious Univ Penn proposal should be compared to the NorthEast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan, released in mid-May. That plan calls for a total of $52 billion over the next 20 years, but the price tag also covers upgrades to the four main feeder corridors to the NEC (Richmond to DC, Keystone East, Albany to NYC, Springfield to New Haven). An article on the NEC Infrastructure Master Plan (NECIMP) might be worthwhile. I think the NECIMP shows the influence of the commuter rail & state agencies who are focused on improving capacity for their commuter rail system and not on speeding up the corridor end to end.

You mention NJ as an example of a state that is not as interested in true HSR. I would argue that it is the CT agencies that are the least interested. CT, as a whole, is the slowest part by far for the NEC. But, from CT’s viewpoint, if you are in New Haven or Stamford, you don’t see that much benefit in faster trip times to NYC or Boston. The NECIMP all but gives up on major improvements to the NEC in CT. Can’t do much about the New Rochelle to New Haven part without spending multiple billions & fighting some powerful and well heeled interests for eminent domain – or digging a hideously expensive tunnel bypassing much of SW CT. But there are options to follow the I-95 ROW in parts of eastern CT that should be able to knock 15 to 30 minutes off of the travel time. I rather see a realistic major NEC upgrade plan that calls for DC to NYC times of 2:10 and NYC to Boston times of 2:40 than a plan that would take 20 to 30 years in EIS reports and endless debates.

Take a look at the full report, they actually say that most of the current upgrades will be needed anyway, they estimate about $40 billion over and above the core HSR project.

The existing four-track mainline between New Haven and New York is already running at basically maximum capacity at rush hour. To enable new 150mph service, you’d have to build at least two more tracks, because all four tracks get eaten up by Metro North’s commuter trains (which transport 120,000 people/day on the NH line!). Now as impressive and awe-inspiring as a six-track electrified mainline would be, there’s just not enough space to add two more tracks along the majority of the route.

The only “easy” option to add more service between NY and NH, would be to piss on the third rail by commandeering the extra Merritt Parkway (CT Route 15) )extra right of way. For you see, when the Merritt Parkway was built in the 1930s, they were smart and bought a 300ft wide right of way. They built the freeway on the northern 150ft half of the right of way, leaving the entire southern half for eventual widening. But because the highway came under the guise of a protected Historic Landmark status, this right of way is basically sacred. The NIMBYs wouldn’t even part with 15′ of that spare right of way to build a paved bike path, so getting it for HSR would be for most accounts, impossible for the foreseeable future.

However, I do love this plan. Yes it’s expensive. Yes we’re probably all too stubborn and short sided to get it to work. But at least the facts and numbers say it’s feasible.

The Merritt Parkway ROW is much too curvy for any type of rail line. In fact, it’s so curvy because it’s designers wanted to avoid the straight ugliness of a railroad right of way.

Couple of comments:

1) The Acela is running at a surplus, and as such, it is helping to fund all of the services which aren’t running at a surplus. They might be able to fund some of their own improvements if they could dedicate their funding to the route they run on.

2) The Acela could be running at even higher surpluses if they had kept equipment costs lower and bought more trains with higher capacity. The TGV duplex, which can be bought at lower cost, with lower maintenance costs, with higher capacity, would have been a much better bet. Furthermore, the tilting speed advantage which is so costly makes about a 3 minute difference in speed from Boston to New York.

3) Something is severely wrong with the NE regional service. There is absolutely NO reason why a train service with ridership that high should not be running at a HUGE surplus. They are using low cost locomotives with low cost cars, and they are transporting at extremely high load factors with huge capacities. I don’t know whats up, but its fishy.

4) Since capacity is the largest factor in the limitations of the NE Corridor, steps should be taken to increase capacity before we even think about speed increases. Sure, speed can increase ridership…but how the hell do you service that ridership if you can’t service your currently low-speed ridership? How about running 16 car shinkansen trainsets with capacity for 1324 passengers? Or maybe coupling some TGV Duplexes for ~1000 passengers?

Part of the problem is that high speed is considered a luxury and low speed for economy. Why not run ALL trains at high speed, and separate luxury and economy with First, Business, and Coach? Running at uniform speeds increases the capacity of the line by a great deal, and by increasing capacity, you lower unit costs, resulting in higher surpluses.

Then, when you have increased capacity so that you are capable of serving more customers than you have demand for, then you increase speeds.

The politicization of running a business (like the NE corridor should be considered) is not pretty.

Whatever surpluses are coming from Acela and other services along the NEC, I find it highly unlikely they could ever amount to enough to make even the smalled dent in the corridor’s capital needs.

Quite … according to a recent performance report, Acela’s operating surplus was about $60m April Year to Date, so double it to make a full fiscal year to $120m.

At 5% real interest rate, an annuity of $120m capitalizes to $2.4b. At 3%, an annuity of $120m capitalizes to $4b. Even if it is a 20% local match in a Federal:Local 80:20 match, it’s only $12b~$20b total.

At current earnings you have a point. But by focusing on capacity instead of speed, they might be able to harness the existing demand for the line and increase earnings substantially.

Higher capacity is like a wonderdrug for railroad profitability. When trains have low capacities (like the Acela’s pathetic 303 passenger trainsets), there is little room for surplus. By expanding the capacity of each train drastically, demand can be met and surpluses can grow by multiples…not percents. Operational break-even points drop inversely with capacity increases because marginal cost per rider is so minimal it is almost negligible.

As of right now, the Northeast Corridor can’t even pay for its maintenance costs, with a backlog of $10B if I remember correctly. Lets work on capacity first, increase operational surpluses, and try to get the thing sustainable before we work on speed issues.

And remember that is excluding capital depreciation … given additional capacity to run additional services, the Acela operating surpluses may well be able to contribute to maintaining rolling stock and buying more, but its an order of magnitude low to be hoping to use as a major funding source for a ~$100b price tag project.

It all depends on competence levels. For example, it’s a commonplace that the NEC is at capacity. This absolves Amtrak of the need to try to fit more trains in by using the German or Japanese trick of running high-speed commuter trains. It could take over some of the Trenton-NY expresses, with non-reserved seating between Trenton and NY and reserved seating elsewhere. It could acquire EMUs instead of loco-hauled trains, increase seating density, or drop the space-hogging cafe cars. But it doesn’t have to do any of that because it can cry capacity and the government will fund completely unnecessary projects like six-track tunnels to Penn Station. Why try to minimize costs when you can seek rent instead?

Or they could run longer trains. The major stations on the NEC have 16 car platforms. But then Amtrak runs into it’s other capacity problem, lack of cars.

It’s good to see someone putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to show what it would take to have a truly first-rate HSR service in the Northeast. Too often, HSR plans start from the present compromised position, then reality forces further compromise. At least with this plan it becomes obvious what the compromises cost in terms of speed and travel time compared with an ideal situation.

It also is the first plan that tries to deal with the Westchester-Fairfield bottleneck and recognizes that HSR is incompatible with running on the same tracks as commuter rail and slower-speed regional services.

this makes it possible for only trains terminating in Manhattan to use the tunnel and fundamentally blocks off Amtrak use of the facility.

Amtrak, according to railfan rumor, will be getting 4 more slots per hour at peak into the existing Penn Station. That should take a while to absorb. There’s no reason why Amtrak trains couldn’t go into the new part of the station from the south ( railroad west ) they just won’t be able to get to Sunnyside. Tolerable when there’s a reason to close both of the existing tunnels.

If I remember correctly they are expecting to reach capacity again in approximately 2035. That gives us ten years to look over the options and begin DEIS work etc and have new infrastructure in place in time.

Railfan rumour is wrong. Amtrak gets four slots in total per hour at peak. Not four more slots. Amtrak intends to use the four as: (1) Acela, (2) Regional, (3) Keystone, (4) Long Distance.

They get four at peak now. The new tunnels double capacity. NJTransit is going to be shifting lots of it’s traffic to the new part of the station. They don’t hit capacity constraints again until 2030-2045.

“They get four at peak now. The new tunnels double capacity. NJTransit is going to be shifting lots of it’s traffic to the new part of the station. They don’t hit capacity constraints again until 2030-2045”
Actually, what the new NJT tunnels will do is provide for additional direct service to the Penn Station Extension (or Penn Station Deep as I think they should call it) instead of people switching trains at the Secacus station with only minimal relief from the current traffic through the 2 Hudson river tunnels. I believe Amtrak will get 2 additional slots per peak rush hour when the new ARC or Mass Transit tunnels are in place. The NEC Master Plan in the less solidly defined long range plans calls for 2 additional tunnels that Amtrak can use under the Hudson (for a total of 6) and 2 additional East River tunnels (for a total of 6 there as well). Very big ticket projects.

The fifth track at Secaucus and the ramp to the former Erie lines isn’t the only thing going on. When the new Hackensack River bridges are completed anything that passes through Newark will be able to go to either set of tunnels, including Amtrak trains. Trains on the Morris and Essex lines will be able to get to the new part of the station without entering the existing NEC. Raritan Valley trains will no longer terminate in Newark. …. everybody in New Jersey except for passengers at Princeton, will, in theory, be able to get a one seat ride into Manhattan.

The ridership will build but not so fast that there won’t be excess capacity in 2025. Might be close to it in 2027 but that gives them 17 years to figure something out. Much more likely they won’t reach capacity until 2030, 2035 so there’s 20, 25 years to figure something out.

They might want to consder planning a location for a new back up station to unload and add passangers to Amtrak and New Jersey trainset in that they are putting to many people into one train station. They should plan that if something happens New York’s trains would become cut off from the rest of the mainland.

Between Boston and New York, how fast could the Albany-T be if pursued as a 220mph corridor on the Albany-Boston and Albany-NYC legs? That serves both broader MA and broader NY state interests.

Think big Bruce, where does Albany fit in with Boston to Buffalo and on to Toronto, Cleveland and Detroit and Montreal to New York and onto Philadelphia and DC? Get Montreal to NY down to three hours and NY to DC down to 90 minutes and taking the train from Montreal to DC begins to look good especially if they do customs and immigration on the train instead of at the terminal.

( Vested interest in NY to Montreal in three hours because then I could be in Montreal in an hour or NYC or Boston in two )

It could be as fast as you are willing to pay. That being said, Boston to Albany will probably (in terms of practicality) never have service averaging over 100mph…a constraint caused by a severe lack of even moderately straight railroad rights of way to build along. If it could be built along I-90 you might be able to get 125mph…but that is still pretty iffy.

The land acquisition cost for anything straighter than that would be so astronomical that it would severely overshadow any benefits to be gained from the line.

“It could be as fast as you are willing to pay” does not address the question.

Yes, it obviously goes without saying that Boston / Albany willing to break out of the 125mph max speed class would not be on existing railway rights of way. There are some Midwestern and Western rail alignments that could offer both the space to build and sufficiently long straight sections to bear consideration, but in the Northeast that’s be a rare beast indeed.

The question is, with an Express HSR tilt-train, and an all new alignment, what transit could be achieved?

If you are gonna go for an all new alignment just draw a straight line, Won’t be cheap but 45 minutes between Boston and Albany opens up all sorts of possibilities. Throw in a tunnel between North Station and South Station while we are at it.

With an all new alignment, yes there should be an envelope study on a fastest feasible all greenfield corridor, as well as available space in existing transport rights of way.

Line of sight, the Lakeshore makes about 25mph Boston to Albany with a transit of 5:40. According to the Wikipedia machine, that’s about a 200 mile corridor (an alignment that is roughly 70% efficient), so an average running speed of about 35mph.

Along that alignment at an average running speed of about 80mph, would be a transit of 2:30. At an average running speed of 100mph, it would be 1:50.

According to the Maps.Google machine, the road distance between Boston and Albany is 170miles, or an 82% alignment efficiency, so 80mph=>2:10, 100mph=>1:45, 150mph=>1:10.

And of course, its not automatic that the Express HSR from Springfield west would have to run straight to Albany, if running more directly westerly gives a short route to NYC – it might aim to junction closer to Hudson NY.

Of course, serious investigation of an Empire Cross alignment might bring Connecticut into play in bidding for one of the two Hartford/Springfield general alignments, either via New Haven or Danbury. But having more alignment options studied is no bad thing.

If we’re doing new-build….

Leave the Springfield-Boston area alone for now. Build a fast route west from Springfield, MA to Chatham, NY, which cuts off the absolute worst part of the route.

I tried to flesh out this question as a matter of curiosity once before, but I don’t remember where my calculations are. I actually sat down with a map and tried to figure it out by measuring angles and creating a speed map. (Yes I need a better use of my free time).

I did two separate calculations, one following existing railroad rights of way with a cut across open land, and one that mostly followed I-90.

Following railroad rights of way it was around 2 hr 45 minutes to get to Albany and following I-90 it was around 1 hr 25 minutes. That was done assuming use of the new AGV rolling stock specs, so it wasn’t tilting trains. Maybe you could shave 10 minutes off the railroad route and 5 minutes with the interstate route if you used modern tilting trains.

Interestingly, the eastern side water level route from Albany to NYC has several existing sections where 200mph or more could be reached. There are multiple curves, but from the looks of google earth, most could be straightened with minimal land acquisition costs. I believe my estimate for that section was about 1 hr 10 minutes using existing track curves and a little less than an hour using straightened rights of way.

The downside/upside to that route is that without pretty expensive modification, you are confined to using Grand Central Terminal. While I have always liked Grand Central more, it is a terminal and not a through station and would not be able to connect with the NYC to Washington routes without a taxi transfer.

Um. they haven’t used Grand Central for long distance trains in years except when they can’t use the Empire Connection into Penn Station, 1991 if I remember correctly.

Ummm, what Adirondacker said. Looking at the Amtrak route, the Adirondack uses Penn Station, the Empire uses Penn Station, Ethan Allen uses Penn Station, the NY leg of the Lake Shore uses Penn Station.

Seems to me there must be a way to get from Penn Station to head north toward Albany.

There is a way currently in use, but it is far inferior. It uses the west side of the Hudson. The route is far more curvy and makes its way through much more urbanized areas and around protected areas. It is only single tracked for most of the distance, and it is on very narrow rights of way which pass through industrial areas (costly to relocate, which means costly to widen rights of way), as well as a state park if I remember (damn near impossible to widen). Straightening and widening the route to the west of the Hudson would cost much more, probably on the scale of 2x what it would cost to get to the same speeds capable on the east Hudson river level route.

The eastern side of the river, the famous water level route of the New York Central, was the route of the first real high speed train, the 21st Century Limited. It was designed from the very beginning to be as fast as possible for the investment. It was previously quadruple tracked all the way to Buffalo, so the rights of way shouldn’t need to be widened. But in order to use it, Grand Central would be the most cost effective station to use. And since Metro North are the only current tenants, there is plenty of capacity for them.

The only way to use Penn Station while using the eastern route would be to build a route through Long Island or to build a bridge to cross the Hudson.

There is a way currently in use, but it is far inferior. It uses the west side of the Hudson.

For freight. Works great for freight. Passenger trains from the west cross the Hudson in Albany and stay on the former NY Central main line until they get to the Bronx, they cross over the Spuyten Duyvil near the Spuyten Duyvil station and use the freight tracks down to Penn Station. It’s double tracked and doesn’t have any other traffic on it …. for now. Metro North has plans to run Hudson Line trains to Penn Station someday. Plenty of capacity until they get up to multiple trains an hour.

The freight tracks didn’t.

They haven’t been used for freight in decades. The MTA built the West Side Yards and as part of that project the unused freight line was reworked for passenger service. The trains duck under the West Side Yards and arrive in Penn Station on the south side. Not very fast but Spuyten Duyvil to Grand Central isn’t particularly fast either.

The Empire Connection has two single-track bottlenecks, one at the entrance to Penn Station and one at the crossing of Spuyten Duyvil. The latter would have to be raised for any capacity increase anyway, so it could be double-tracked; the approach areas on both sides are not developed, so unless they tried to build an iconic bridge it shouldn’t create too many problems. I have no idea about the former.

Regarding the Empire Connection, the Sputen Duyvil swing bridge was constructed to allow for an expansion to two tracks (without rebuilding the foundations or mechanism) in the future.

The Penn Station connection is actually quite problematic, but the tracks come in between 10th and 11th Avenues around 42nd St. The buildings in that area are pretty short for New York City; I anticipiate that it would be possible to demolish appropriate buildings to build a second connection to Penn Station.

I find it hard to take this study seriously. It’s student work. Very good student work, remarkably good student work. So good that it’s tempting to think of it as a real study. But it isn’t.

A real study would begin with desired service and then work out what infrastructure is needed to support that service. When there are obstacles to creating that infrastructure, you’d start tradeoffs between service and construction. There’s no evidence these students worked like that. I don’t know where their ridership estimates come from. They don’t cite any ridership model. And it’s suspicious that the ridership number stays invariant under fare changes (even though they cite Yonah’s post on fare structures). It looks to me that they started by asking how they could build the fastest Washington-Boston line and then asked what could be done with it.

A real study would apply cost-benefit analysis to each segment. Basically they have half a dozen ideas over and above the ideas that have already made it into Amtrak’s Master Plan: (1) bypass Baltimore Penn Station, (2) bypass Wilmington, (3) bypass 30th St. Station, (4) use the LIRR RoW and a tunnel under LI Sound instead of the Hell-Gate Line and ConnDOT/Metro-North New Haven Line, (5) Use the Inland Route rather than the Shore Line from New Haven to Boston, (6) cutoff sections of the Inland Route by using the medians of I-84 and I-90. But these are not separately evaluated. I am sort of attracted to the Baltimore idea. I’m not attracted to the Philadelphia idea. But there’s no data given to help me decide which of these makes sense. Only the whole package is evaluated: take it or leave it.

A real study would give a little more detail on these ideas. Why do they think they can run a high speed line through the center of Nassau County, running partly on the LIRR Main Line RoW, partly on the Hempstead Branch RoW and partly on the old Central of LI RoW that was abandoned in 1939, without the sort of NIMBY opposition that they claim running a high speed line through Connecticut would arouse? Why cut north from Ronkonkoma to tunnel under the Sound (apparently just east of Port Jefferson)? What’s magic about that section? It’s almost the widest part of the Sound. There’s the casual mention of “some tunnel or viaduct sections to avoid grades” along I-84. Where? How many? They may, in fact, be right. But too many glossy pictures and not enough detail creates suspicion.

An envelope study is useful, but for working out what incremental projects to pursue and what major new alignment sections to pursue, it is no replacement for an alignment option feasibility study.

I wanted to add to this that a real study would also say something about curve radii, which are the only reason not to the use the Shore Line. But SNCF’s proposals for the US do not say anything about it, either. On the other hand, with SNCF there’s at least an implicit understanding that the track standards would be the same as the LGVs’.

The PennDesign study isn’t necessarily intended to be a “real plan”. It is an academic exercise, and students did what was possible in 4 and a half months (while juggling 3-4 other classes). But, a lot of work went into it so we hope it is built upon and used in the best ways possible.

The intention was more to say: when we look at the Northeast Corridor, there is a lot of potential. Let’s think bold, different, big. Let’s not just look at Amtrak’s incremental improvements and take them as is. It does not get us up to speed (pun intended). Students took this opportunity to generate more creative conversation of what the Northeast Corridor could look like with high-speed rail.

These students used the resources available to generate the most accurate facts possible. But, models, facts and figures (TGV for speed and California estimates plus others for cost estimates), and case studies were used to give ideas of what this could actually look like.


I didn’t intend to criticize the study within its intended limits. The problem with the study is it succeeded well beyond its limits and people took it to be more than it was. That’s a massive compliment to the eighteen people who put it together (less than half of whom were actually transportation-oriented).

The problem is not the fact that the study is bold, different, and big. It’s that it’s often bold, different, and big, for the sake of being bold, different, and big. Many of the bigger-ticket items it proposes could be done at vastly lower cost with better or equal performance. The biggest example here is that straightening the Shore Line curves west of New Haven both costs less than tunneling under the Sound and requires fighting less NIMBYism.

Well, if you consider the distance from Boston to DC vs from San Francisco to LA and you consider the relative populations of the cities along the corridors, the price compares well to the price for California HSR.

But this all underscores why the federal government should primarily be the one funding and planning what is, after all, an interstate transportation system. The $8 billion for HSR did not fund a single project that crosses a state line. You mention the midwest as an example of states with a unified vision, but they’re all starting their work away from Chicago. There is the same problem, for example, that it is Wisconsin’s job to build the line that shuttles people between the twin cities and Chicago, and to their credit they’re doing some work, but since they’re building it they’re going to focus on connecting Milwaukee and Madison. Oh, and they’re building a terminal station in Madison, meaning trains will be unlikely to serve Madison and also the twin cities. That’s Wisconsin, how much do you think the relatively small state of Indiana is going to invest in rail lines to move people between Ohio/Michigan and Chicago?

Yes, the Indiana Problem has been raised before – the political key is to be willing to fund the transit through Gary from Michigan to Chicago, and then use the fact that GD Gary Has IT??? to get Indiana on board the Indianapolis / Chicago and Fort Wayne / Chicago sections that are key to the eastern parts of the Midwest Hub and the later stages of the Ohio Hub.

However, if you consider that in the distance between Boston and DC, Boston/NYC and NYC/DC transport markets both dominate Boston/DC, while the LA Basin / SF Bay transport market dominates any intermediate transport market, the incremental benefit in going from Regional HSR to Express HSR in California is substantially higher, while the incremental cost is lower, since the primary costs are getting out of the Bay and the LA Basin respectively, which a serious Regional HSR system would have to do in any event.

I’d add that Boston-DC, in the absence of a startling rise in the price of Jet-A, is likely to remain more of an air route than a train route. Even at a sub-3:30 train trip Washington-Boston, air is faster. Logan is really close to the center of Boston; National is really close to the center of Washington. NYC-DC, on the other hand, even the current essentially regional HSR beats air.

“I’d add that Boston-DC, in the absence of a startling rise in the price of Jet-A, is likely to remain more of an air route than a train route. Even at a sub-3:30 train trip Washington-Boston, air is faster. Logan is really close to the center of Boston; National is really close to the center of Washington.”
True. But if you are leaving from a company located along the Rt. 128 corridor and heading to Philly or Wilmington, the HSR train proposed by the UPenn group would be faster. It still might be faster from Rt. 128 in MA to Baltimore or the areas north of DC in MD if you were traveling to BWI. Rt. 128 station to BWI station is an half-hour shorter than the end to end WAS to BOS run. Important to not lose sight that a train route connects a bunch of stops in-between, not just the end points as an air route does.

Actually, I bet making a Sacramento-San Francisco-San Jose triangle and a line from LA to San Diego would each yield a much higher cost to benefit ratio than the LA-San Francisco route that California decided to build first. I still think they made the right choice.

If they prioritized, I’d think they should start with the NYC-DC section, in particular the stretch between Philly and NYC. If they got that running at 200mph, and didn’t charge an arm and a leg for the trip, they could run packed trains every 15 minutes.

Yes, the incremental benefit of freestanding Express HSR corridors over Regional HSR from the Bay to Sacramento and from the LA Basin to San Diego is substantially smaller, which is why the correct stage 1 is the LA Basin to the Bay, where the incremental benefit of Express HSR is substantial.

Obviously, once the trunk is in place, then due to network economies, the net benefit of Express HSR to San Diego and Sacramento increases, but that would not be a reason to not develop complementary Regional HSR corridors.

” But this all underscores why the federal government should primarily be the one funding and planning what is, after all, an interstate transportation system. The $8 billion for HSR did not fund a single project that crosses a state line.”

A number of the smaller of the $8 billion HSR awarded projects do cross state lines: $12 million for Milwaukee to Chicago, the Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac line project crosses 3 states, the SEHSR corridor awards went to VA & SC with $25 million for Richmond to Raleigh improvements, the “Knowledge” to Vermont corridor with $70 million to MA to reroute the Vermonter & future service expansion and $50 million to Vermont for the route north of MA.

I do agree with the concerns that the HSR planning process may be too state oriented with too much left up to particular state agencies that will focus on projects that will help their local commuters at the expense of developing improved and faster intercity rail. The mid-west HSR plans could easily end up rather patchy with the western half with IL, WI, MO, Iowa lines getting built, Michigan getting some upgrades. But the proposed lines in IN, OH, KY not getting built due to the politics in those states and thus creating a large gap between the eastern HSR/Intercity rail corridors and the western half of the Mid-West HSR/Intercity corridors. Which is pretty much what exists now with less than a handful of Amtrak LD trains crossing those states.

The flip side of that is that an municipal and county account based system would allow projects to make appeals directly to the cities being served, without having to worry about opposition from parts of the state that feel they are being left out.

“But this all underscores why the federal government should primarily be the one funding and planning what is, after all, an interstate transportation system. The $8 billion for HSR did not fund a single project that crosses a state line.”

Yes. Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. :-(

Is someone at UPenn from Long Island? ;) J/k, but this idea is intriguing, including a real proposal for a 4th NYC airport, much better than a 2-hr NJTransit trip to Stewart. Surely a super-express would include a stop serving Philadelphia’s metro area of 5 million people?

Effort should be made to maintain service to the central stations of the biggest cities, including Baltimore and Philadelphia. It’s true both stations are in areas that could use redevelopment, but an important point is connecting services and feeder lines. How do these tunnels allow for the important flexibility of HSR trainsets being able to continue onto unimproved local lines? What about when Baltimore gets commuter rail to Westminster and conventional rail to Harrisburg to Penn Station? What about NYP-PHL-HBG high-speed service?

As long as we are starting from Utopia (new ROW in the Northeast) and working backwards, I have long thought that an optimum new city pair to connect would be Hartford and Providence. These are two million-plus metro areas without even an interstate for competition, HSR would be an instant hit. This could work with the UPenn proposal or an inland route from Hartford along I-84 and I-684 to White Plains and the Metro-North Corridor.

Next up: bringing true HSR to the NEC feeder corridors, including Richmond/Norfolk, Harrisburg/Pittsburgh, and the New York-Albany-(Burlington, VT?)-Montréal and Boston-Albany-Buffalo-Toronto cross

ConnDOT has been trying to build an Interstate highway from Hartford to Providence for years, but has been stymied by a coalition of NIMBYs and environmentalists because they can’t find a route that wouldn’t destroy sensitive wetlands.

Rail could succeed where highways failed, because it only requires enough land for two tracks. There is an existing, mostly separated rail right-of-way, currently used as a rail-trail from Bolton to Willimantic.

I wonder how high land values would rise once Long Island was no longer so isolated. Or if New Haven, a hub of the project, would become the next Stamford and attract international businesses.

The Long Island Sound crossing has been proposed as a highway bridge in the past; perhaps a long railroad span could lower costs, because that part of the plan is very intriguing.

This should be under the dictionary definition of “overbuilding.” They’re, um, looking for another Hudson tunnel, on the off-chance that the 48 tph the combined existing and planned tunnels offer is not enough. Riiiight. And building new tunnels in downtown Baltimore and Philadelphia, where all or nearly all trains would stop anyway so the time savings would be minimal. And building an underwater tunnel…

If the goal is 1:45 NY-Boston nonstop, then it can be done without new tunnels and with hardly any eminent domain. You’ll need a few bypasses in Connecticut on I-95 and US 1, new ROW on I-95 between New Haven and Kingston, higher superelevation, and better tilting trains. For 1:30 with stops in New Haven and Providence, take about 100 houses in Darien and Milford and a big box building in New Rochelle, and build a tunnel in Bridgeport.

And everyone who tells you that the four-tracked New Haven Line’s 20 tph puts it at capacity should look at how many trains the Zurich S-Bahn runs on two-track lines before ever commenting on American transit issues again.

The only way to use the Connecticut Turnpike for rail is to tear it down. It’s elevated in many places, has lots and lots of bridges. Tunnels might be cheaper. You ain’t never gonna build an El over Ye Olde Boston Post Roade.

For the most part, the parts of the Turnpike that would serve as useful bypasses are not the elevated parts. Where the turnpike is elevated, it’s usually possible to build an elevated rail line next to it without making noise any worse than it already is.

The only part of the Post Road that’s necessary is entirely commercial, and even that is avoidable at the cost of imposing a 165 km/h slow zone. NY-Boston would still be doable in 1:30, but it would require more timetable precision and have less opportunity to recover from delays.

On the core line (Hardbrücke to Stadelhofen): 16 trains per hour per direction on weekdays during the day, and about 24 trains per hour per direction at peak times.

Alon, I agree with you that it makes more sense to upgrading New Rochelle-New Haven segment. Investing $5B more makes a lot more sense, even if post-upgrade curve radii limit to 125 mph top speed, but average speed, capacity and punctuality make huge jumps. From there, it seems that adding $10B above Amtrak’s NEC Master plan should enable upgraded 180 mph New Haven-Providence-Boston service + 180 mph New Haven-Hartford-Springfield service. The Philadelphia Market Street Station & tunnel route tries to hard to please airline folks with a direct station – I doubt the cost/benefits pencil out.

Two pieces of their Study that merit serious scrutiny is a new Baltimore tunnel + Charles Street Station and the Wilmington Bypass. I’d like to see tradeoff analysis on both, but know Baltimore well. Its a given that Baltimore has to build new tunnel capacity, but alignment is the question. Penn Station doesn’t draw more Amtrak passengers because the current commuter rail and light rail services leave much to be desired AND the station is Not downtown. Unlike 30th Street Station, which is already Philly’s premier intermodal transportation center, Charles Street Station can become Baltimore’s premier intermodal transportation center for HSR, Heavy Rail, Light Rail, BRT and taxis. Tunneling 5 miles to enable 180mph pass-thru trains to an architecturally striking station in the heart of downtown adjacent to the existing heavy rail. Baltimore could coordinate the existing heavy rail with the coming east-west light rail line and HSR express line, and a better conceived north-south Charles Street light rail line. The station would also be 2 blocks from another light rail line, 4 blocks from the convention center & Inner Harbor hotels, 5 blocks from a popular commuter rail terminal and top-rated U. of Maryland Med Center. Such a station could be another brilliant gem in Baltimore public planning.

Thomas, central alternatives such as Charles Street were rejected for cost reasons. They require downtown tunneling, which is the most expensive, and involve more environmental impacts and disruption.

This is doubly true if the plan is to bring commuter rail and full-speed nonstop trains (which would be limited to about 240 km/h, due to curves just outside the tunnel). These would require the station to have four stopping tracks and two bypass tracks, raising costs further. Without commuter rail, the station would be poorly connected to suburban transit.

The benefit is a slight reduction in travel time for stopping trains, with no extra capacity. The cost of this is too high for the benefit; I’d recommend spending the extra billion dollars or more of this project on cutting off worse curves in Connecticut.

Unlike 30th Street Station, which is already Philly’s premier intermodal transportation center

But 30th Street is not downtown. The PRR and Philadelphia had great hopes of shifting “downtown” out to 30th Street but it hasn’t happened…. yet. For that matter Penn Station in Manhattan isn’t “downtown” either. It’s far away from the employment center on the East Side and far from the employment center on Wall Street. Far from the entertainment center and employment center of Times Square.

Smaller downtown – Newark’s Penn Station is on the extreme east side of downtown. It’s other station, Broad Street, is on the extreme north side.

“But 30th Street is not downtown. The PRR and Philadelphia had great hopes of shifting “downtown” out to 30th Street but it hasn’t happened…. yet.”

Consider these facts and insights that solidfy Philly maintaining 30th Street Station as it HSR hub:

1. Philly built 7 “West of City Hall” skyline blocks in the last 20 years along Market Street-JFK corridor; It now reaches 2101 Market with the Mirano high-rise, see

2. After the recession, more planned projects in that transit-rich corridor will break ground.

3. 23rd Street is the last perpendicular street intersecting JFK and Market next to the Schuykill River; thus Center City expansion along Market Street-JFK corridor to 30th Street Station could complete in less than 15 years.

It seems to me that Amtrak/USDOT/PennDOT money would be better spent on ROW to curve straighten more of North Philly before trains have to slow down for a stop anyway.

Next consider these facts and insights that explain why Baltimore should shift its HSR hub to a new Charles Center Station:

1. New tunnel & trackage work must be built to separate freight and commuter trains from HSR trains running through Baltimore. So at lest $1 Billion will be spent.

2. Baltimore’s major office, hotel and residential development shifted to the Inner Harbor, Harbor East and Harbor South AWAY from Baltimore Penn Station.

3. Baltimore already has a HRT station located at Charles Street & Baltimore Street.

4. Baltimore’s and Maryland’s number #1 transit priority is to build an east-west LRT line with a Charles Center subway station on Lombard Street, which is one block south of and parallel to Baltimore Street.

5. The well-respected governor of Maryland is a former mayor of Baltimore.

6. Baltimore City owns the property of a large closed theatre (called the “Mechanic Theatre”) sitting atop the Charles Center HRT station and the Federal Building is located on the same Charles Center superblock; so government forces can ally to build a major new HSR Station at this location.

7. The combo BART+ Muni Metro Stations under Market in San Francisco provide a model of how to build the combo LRT-HSR station with a convenient walk-through to the Charles Center HRT station. Thus, it would become Baltimore’s modernized version of DC’s Union Station.

Lastly, a boutique hotel is planned for Penn Station, which next to U. of Baltimore and will be well used by CRT, LRT and the new Charles Streetcar commuters for decades to come. So any additional monies spent to improve tunnels and tracks would not be wasted.

I’m know I’m too late for prime discussion but several points struck me as I read this discussion and the Penn plan.

1. Trains that stop anyplace other than city centers counteract all the advantages of higher train speed you get via straighter lines, cheaper land, etc. Airports will always win the fast trip to non-quite-central location awards, particularly in the NE corridor. Reagan, Philly, La Guardia, Newark and Logan simply are not very from from their respective downtowns.

2. I agree with those who say that the average speed of this line would have to beat anything in China. The government is far more likely to invest in a record-setting project than it is to pony up $100 billion for something that would seem obsolete on the day that it opened. That might seem childish. Hell, it probably is childish, but it’s true. That said, the time differential between a 3h15m trip and a 2h30m trip is significant. Yes, it’s only 45 minutes of difference but the second seems like a short and manageable trip — something you might do on a whim — in a way that the second simply doesn’t.

3. If folks like us want new public transit — and I think it’s safe to say that anyone who reads The Transport Politic really, really, really wants to see super-fast trains in the U.S. for both practical and impractical reasons — then we need to focus really, really, really hard on reducing both costs and delays. No, it’s never going to be as cheap or as fast to build here as it is in China. But we’ve gotten to a point where we simply cannot build much of anything thanks to a political process gone crazy combined with flat-out corruption and construction companies/construction unions who see government work as an excuse to work really slowly and charge triple the normal rate.

How is it unaffordable to build now when it was it possible to cover the U.S. with rail in the 19th century when we carried the rails by mule and flattened the land with pick axes? How does it take a decade to add a couple extra lanes to a five mile stretch of highway now when the entire highway system was built in basically 20-years, back when we didn’t even have any computers to manage the logistics. Yes, I realize labor is more expensive, but that’s why we have labor saving devices, and in basically every form of heavy industry that is not financed by the government, the labor saving devices have more than counteracted the rise in labor costs, making the production of nearly everything faster, cheaper and better. If we really want any of the stuff we blog about here, we need to find ways to stop the excuses, cut the costs and get excellent work at probably one fifth the current going rate.

Without making serious strides in this area, pretty much everything that’s discussed here and everything that actually gets done in public transportation will only have mild effects at the margins. There is no big surge in ridership without a revolution at the cost level.

This is a very good initial proposal. Via Long Island is the long term solution. Rather than routing from the island’s tip towards Providence, this is the first LI proposal I’ve seen that pursues the more obvious mid-LI to New Haven route. Multiple times the potential travel demand when considering auto traffic (which will be predominate) and potential connecting bi-directional commuter routes.

A mid-LI to NH crossing would allow auto & truck toll financing to help fund this portion. Could do a Chunnel type auto shuttle train or build as a road and rail bridge, whatever is more cost effective and politically viable.

Some flaws, primarily arising from the Utopian aspects and limited technical knowledge of such college design projects (but it is still far better than the usual techno-wankers and spammer here could come up with, who’ve already weighed in with their jealous critiques.)

1. 3rd freight track for the Sound crossing is a wasteful non-starter. Little existing freight traffic and little future demand. LI will continue to be a green and clean bedroom and office environment, heavy industry not invited. (And please spare us the gadgetbahn musings, freight will continue to move via traditional rail or trucks. We don’t care that you googled TGV Postes or wind tubes.) 30% cost savings for the tunnels right there.

2. Philly tunnel unnecessary. 30th Street Station will work just fine. Good transfers are no big deal. Far, far cheaper to tweak existing approaches. Not worth the multi-billions to save less than 5 minutes for NYC-DC non-stops. If you must serve the airport directly you could still just tie back into the existing line before 30th Street Station at less than 1/10th the cost. But there already is a shuttle from the station to the airport. 100 years of subsidizing a 4x hour shuttle would be a fraction of the cost of a direct route in. Cost/benefit for a 20-mile new Philly route is dismal, especially when competing with projects like connecting Boston’s North and South Stations, a cheaper project with multiple times the ridership potential.

3. Same for the Baltimore tunnel proposal. Stick with Amtrak’s tunnel plan to the existing station and the freight bypass tunnel. This would allow the MARC Camden Line to be extended north through the Mt. Royal tunnel (currently freight with no excess capacity) to a station near the Amtrak station (that can be connected with an enclosed pedestrian walkway/moving sidewalks) and to the proposed NEC station northeast of the city (Martin Field or somesuch?) Use the remaining cost difference for a streetcar extension from central/east downtown north past the Amtrak station. Far more bang for the same bucks. Completely underground intercity stations are very, very expensive, even more so when shoehorned under existing downtowns.

Nonetheless, I commend these students for creating a great vision proposal. The LI-NH-Inland route has a good shot of happening in the next 50 years. Thought provoking and well done!

Let me get something straight. You agree that the Philly and Baltimore tunnels are a waste, but think the much more expensive LI-NH tunnel is a good idea? Excuse me, but what are you smoking?

Ah yes, the transport spammer strikes again.

BTW, sarcasm and ignorance is a bad combination. Mlynarik knows what he’s talking about. You, not so much. Find your own schtick, please.

It is ok not to understand, we all go through the learning process. Repeatedly throughout our lives. However reflexively posting every thought the instant it pops into your head is a bit much, especially with an attitude. Questions are good. Know it all statements based on reading an article somewhere are not. Repeating all over the transport blogs supposed truisms developed over minutes of contemplation are not. But your passion for transport issues is very, very good.

So I leave you with this: The Philly, Baltimore, and LI Sound crossing routes are of similar length but are very, very different in a myriad of aspects. Might be good to figure out how, why, and the implications of such.

Jim, it’s not anonymous, and it’s not a waste. I’m fairly sure he’s a presence on a transit forum or blog – almost certainly a California one (or else he wouldn’t mention Richard Mlynarik), probably BATN (actually, his level of condescension reminds me of an anonymous commenter who got banned on Caltrain-HSR for being too obnoxious). He’s speaking to that gallery, not to this one. I’ve seen this thing happen before, with another person from a New York railfan forum (that’s Mr. “Shut up, immigrant, everyone knows Penn Station has 600,000 daily riders excluding the subway”). What appears like drive-by trolling to a blog’s regulars is heroic deflation of others to a forum of lurkers.

The key problem with a Long Island tunnel is that capacity *through* Long Island is full — the LIRR already needs major expansion. There’s no point in a via-Long-Island routing until that’s dealt with.

How is it unaffordable to build now when it was it possible to cover the U.S. with rail in the 19th century when we carried the rails by mule and flattened the land with pick axes? How does it take a decade to add a couple extra lanes to a five mile stretch of highway now when the entire highway system was built in basically 20-years, back when we didn’t even have any computers to manage the logistics

By far the biggest impediment and cost escalator is NEPA.

Common sense reforms that could slice 70% off planning time and costs doesn’t mean raping the environment, it just means taking on the enviro-zealots, NIMBY’s, and bureaucrat fiefdom mindsets.

I think that’s a good point: we can save big on the costs and delays — without thoughtless projects. I’m not advocating a return to the days when you could go to work in the morning and come home to find that your house had been torn down for a transport project the local boss had dreamed up at lunchtime that day.

The considerations are similar on every big project and we have enough experience with those considerations that teams of smart people can work through them in weeks rather than years, even when you factor in public comment.

Each of the individual safeguards and protections we have put in place over the past 50 years to guard against the excesses of a Robert Moses may seem like a good idea, but collectively they have paralyzed the government, as we found out when Obama tried to stimulate the economy by funding only “shovel ready” projects and discovered that even late state projects took so long to start that he could only get 10 percent of the stimulus money (or whatever the exact figure was) working in 18 months. We need to balance safeguards with the ability of governments to actually function.

I’d like to take a slightly different tack. Look at just the Boston-New York segment. The study implicitly asks the question: What’s the best way to implement true HSR between New York and Boston? It answers with a completely different route than currently used which would cost $32B + 25% for overhead = $40B + 3% EnvMit = $41B + say half the cost of the trainsets = $44B. Ridership would increase from the present 8-9 million/yr to around 11.5 million/yr. So for a cost somewhat larger than the cost of California HSR Phase I, you get less than 4 million more riders per year. If this is the answer, maybe we don’t want to ask the question. (Yes, I know the ridership numbers are squirrely and I know that there are objections to the chosen route, but the point of an exercise like this is to get a feel for the problem.)

What’s wrong?

I think it’s their opening assumption that the primary value proposition for HSR is to tie a single megaregion together. That isn’t the case. In California, HSR is primarily to tie two megaregions together: to link (Richard Florida’s terms) Nor-Cal to So-Cal. Connections within Nor-Cal (the Bay area to Sacramento) or within So-Cal (LA to San Diego) are secondary and relegated to Phase II. This isn’t an isolated case. The original LGV — Paris-Lyon — connected Paris with what Florida calls the Euro-Sunbelt: Barcelona through Marseille to Lyon. The LGV wholly within the Euro-Sunbelt — Lyon-Perpignan — is still not complete. Thalys connects Paris with the big Amsterdam-Brussels-Antwerp megaregion. AVE connects Madrid to the Euro-Sunbelt. And so on. This makes sense economically. While it’s difficult and expensive to drive HSR through a portion of a megaregion, it’s much easier and cheaper to run a line through the much more rural countryside between them. Again, look at California: the Central Valley segments are a snip compared to the Peninsula. The problem with New York-Boston is that it’s all like the Peninsula. There is no Central Valley-like segment.

It happens that the existing New York-Washington rail line is (perhaps) upgradeable to support HSR. This is an accident, not to be expected elsewhere. The Northeast Corridor is not a natural HSR route. Amtrak (and some state agencies) happened to own it, so it became Amtrak’s showcase.

If we want to look for (true) HSR in the Eastern US, we should look for inter-megaregional connections (while still exploiting the upgradeability of New York-Washington): Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Chicago, Atlanta-Charlotte-Washington-New York, Washington-New York-Montreal. Of these, the last is probably the easiest, certainly the shortest. And Canada wants it (or at least Montreal and Quebec do). I rather wish Penn Studio had worked on that. Well, perhaps next semester.

In nice round numbers NYC to Montreal is the same distance between Boston and DC. Again in nice round numbers it’s 400 miles and the midpoint between the two is somewhat north of Albany. Totally new ROW would be needed between Saratoga Springs and Plattsburgh. Through the Adirondack Park. That’s not going to be cheap or easy.

California’s HSR will connect 20 million people. There are 20 million people in Metro New York. In other words the bits on the map between New Haven and Trenton serve as many people as all of California’s HSR system. Or Boston to DC serves 2 and half times as many people as the California system will. At two and half times the cost it works out to about the same cost per passenger.

Montreal gets very, very tricky when you consider how much we have tightened the Canadian border crossings of late. What was once a wave-through has become a full-body cavity search for every traveler. It’s so bad that it’s nearly sliced the once-tight relations between Vancouver and Seattle, which were close to becoming a single city with a dual core.

The busiest HSR route in the world today is the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen, which runs within a megaregion. While Richard Florida tries to dissect Japan into separate megaregions for Tokyo and Osaka, Japanese geographers have identified just one Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka-Fukuoka megaregion. Florida’s methodology for megaregions is to look at population density and then carve up things he thinks shouldn’t be together, which yields really weird results – for example, one of the megaregions Florida has identified in India has little urban development, but has high rural density.

But if you want inter-megaregional connections, the Eastern one that looks best in principle is New York-Albany-Buffalo-Toronto. Unlike New York-Albany-Montreal, it runs mostly in flat terrain. It also connects regions of larger population than the Montreal route. But in practice, international connections may not be the best of ideas, with the border crossing problems and the relative lack of economic integration (outside the immediate Niagara Falls area).

As long as the border crossing takes 2 hrs, the next stop from NYC-Albany-Buffalo is not Toronto, it’s Cleveland-Detroit-Chicago.

Difference between ‘can’ and ‘will’ comes into play here. I don’t predict more common sense or reasonable regulations regarding travel any time soon. Too many monsters lurk under the beds and in the closets for the authorities to get real.

Not that it matters at this crossing. The difference between an HSR line that continues from Buffalo to the Canadian border is about 10 or 15 minutes. So ending HSR at Buffalo, or continuing to Cleveland and nevermind Toronto, is not a deal-breaker. If the numbers work, go ahead and build NYC-Albany-Buffalo. Add the Canadian extension later.

The Albany-Montreal route, on the other hand, doesn’t make much sense at all if passengers have to sit at the crossing for 2 hours.

At some point we could wish for regular, or H(er)SR Amtrak service Chicago-Twin Cities-St Cloud-Fargo-Grand Forks-Winnipeg, and HSR running Quebec-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto-Hamilton-Detroit-Chicago. But that’s pretty far down the line.

If you do it on the train it takes no time at all. Cursory check at the platform to make sure you have a ticket and documents, do the detailed customs and immigration while the train is in motion. Think of the train as an oddly shaped border crossing lounge that happens to be in motion.

But doing border processing in the station creates a limit on train frequency. Suppose that in Montreal there’s a set of sterile platforms: to enter them you have to go through US Immigration, to exit them you have to go through Canadian Immigration. If there are, say, 10 manned booths and it takes on average a minute to have your passport stamped and the agent size you up, then it would take half an hour to clear a 300 passenger load, so it wouldn’t make sense to run trains more frequently than every 30 minutes. Run them more frequently and you just pile people up at the platform exit, and you do terrible things to your load factor leaving.

At Niagara, they’ve been experimenting with frequent crosser pre-clearance. You get yourself checked out and your retina scanned. When you want to enter the US, you go to an automated booth where you slide your machine readable passport and submit to a retina scan (to ensure you’re the same person as the passport belongs to) and the booth lets you through. Since this is automated, it’s just a capital cost to scale. Some similar technology for frequent train travelers might be necessary for US-Canada HSR to become possible. This is the sort of thing that Chretien should be talking about when he visits.

Doing it on the train still takes some time – more so than on the platforms, because the inspectors have to move along. If there are no stops between Buffalo and Toronto then it’s doable, but then you lose all service to Mississauga, Hamilton, and Niagara Falls.

Do customs and immigration at Toronto you can’t stop the train in Mississauga or Hamilton unless you also want to set up customs and immigration in Mississauga and Hamilton.

Southbound passengers in Niagara Falls ON can take the shuttle bus to the Niagara Falls NY station. Northbound passengers can take the same shuttle bus to the Niagara Falls ON station. Same thing with Hamilton. Mississauga is close enough to Toronto that southbound they can leave Toronto with a car closed and board all the passengers in Mississauga on one car. Alternately since Mississauga won’t be a major stop, do customs and immigration at the station. Still would have to board them on an empty car so they stay separate from the passengers who haven’t been through customs and immigration.

They used to do customs and immigration on the trains to and from Montreal while in transit in Quebec, no reason why they couldn’t do it now.

Customs and immigration take some time, so what works on a slow train may not work on a fast train. Obviously this should be done now – it’s by far the cheapest hour to shave from the trips – but in the future, some other solution may be necessary.

The intention of border preclearance is to have it at multiple stations, including those in the western suburbs, Hamilton, and Niagara Falls. To keep costs low, fares would be lower to stations other than Toronto, in order to encourage people from Mississauga, Brampton, and Oakville to use a suburban station instead of Toronto Union Station.

It takes 60 minutes for an hour to pass whether or not you are spending it in line at the station or whether you are on the train heading where ever. If it only takes 30 minutes to get from Toronto to the border, have enough border control staff on board to get it done in a half hour. If they don’t want to spend the money on that much staff seal the train between Rochester and Toronto. Run a local between Rochester and Toronto where everybody gets the old timey experience of passing through customs en masse in Niagara Falls.

There’s no reason for border control at the station to take an hour. US non-resident border control takes 20 minutes at Canadian airports with preclearance, and even at JFK terminals other than terminal 4. Canadian border control takes less.

IF it’s so quick and speedy why not do it on the train? They can take care of it between Mississauga and Hamilton.

I’ve begun to strongly suspect that given the current customs-and-immigration insanity, the future for Niagara Falls lies in local trains stopping at each station with coordinated schedules and a pedestrian walkway across the border.

The Canadian station is already right next to the border bridge. The American station is going to be moved right next to the border bridge. Establish a major pedestrian crossing with customs and immigration, and enclosed walkways, and you have a solution which is relatively cheap, satisfies the customs services, and is actually effective. I suggest removing a lane from the existing underused road bridge for the purpose of creating two sealed corridors (one NY-Canada, one Canada-NY).

“If there are, say, 10 manned booths and it takes on average a minute to have your passport stamped and the agent size you up, then it would take half an hour to clear a 300 passenger load, so it wouldn’t make sense to run trains more frequently than every 30 minutes. Run them more frequently and you just pile people up at the platform exit, and you do terrible things to your load factor leaving.”

In what alternate universe will there be demand for a NYC-Montréal HSR more than every 30 minutes? There likely won’t even be demand for a train every hour until years or decades after service starts.

Expedited customs at the Canadian stations (à la Eurostar’s reserved area at Paris-Gare du Nord) should be the way to go, eliminating stopped trains at the border. Passengers should know to arrive 20-30 minutes prior to the train’s departure (still compares favorably to 2 hours at airports) for a quick screening and passport check.

US-Canada HSR trains, having crossed the border, should only stop to discharge passengers at suburban Toronto or Montréal stations on the way to TO or MTL, and should only stop to receive passengers on the way to the US. There can be expedited customs screening at the Hamilton, Mississauga, etc. stations prior to boarding, so that all passengers have been checked once the train arrives, and the station stop takes no longer than it would in the US. Passengers being discharged would go through Canadian customs before “entering” Canada.

One point on Albany-Montréal routing: would it make sense for a new HSR to go to the east of Lake Champlain, hitting Burlington on the way? This would add a decent population center, support of 2 US senators, and appears to be more forgiving terrain. It also opens up the possibility of direct HSR ski trains to the Vermont mountains for tens of millions on the Eastern seaboard.

In what alternate universe will there be demand for a NYC-Montréal HSR more than every 30 minutes?

Washington-New York-Montreal 30 minute service plus Boston-New York-Montreal hourly service plus Springfield-New York-Montreal two-hourly service plus Harrisburg-New York-Montreal two-hourly service equals 4 tph into Montreal. And that’s just counting existing or currently planned double-tracked, electrified potential runthroughs with PTC.

One point on Albany-Montréal routing: would it make sense for a new HSR to go to the east of Lake Champlain, hitting Burlington on the way?

Yes. There are four possible New York-Canada routes: (1) via Albany and Burlington to Montreal, (2) via Albany through the Adirondack Forest Preserve to Montreal, (3) via Syracuse then along the I-81 corridor and along the St. Lawrence to Montreal (with a spur to Ottawa) and (4) via Syracuse and Rochester to Toronto. Personally, I like the first, but I’m not aware that anyone’s done any sort of rigorous comparison.

I think a train from New York City to Montreal would be great and even if it ran twice a day one in them morning and one at sun set would be good maybe they could even have it come four times a day that would be fairly good in that Montreal all and Lake Champlain and Rutland have fairly large bus systems that go from the train station.

A maglev train inside a semi evacuated (airless) tube allows for speeds up to 2000 mph with minimal energy because there is little air resistance. A good place for these rails would be inbetween the interstate routes. Either dig a hole and put it in there or elevate it or both. With the banking capabilities it would easily be able to make the turns under ground. And if you dont want to to run unbetween the interstate anymore you could run it off easily.

Videos that inspired me:

Well, that settles that. Top that if you can, China!

ps has anyone seen my jet-pack? Must have left it down the pub…

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