» Unfunded, $117.5 billion proposal would speed trains from Boston to Washington in just 3h23. Amtrak wants a full new corridor along the entire line, including a new inland route through Connecticut.
After months of sitting on the sidelines as states and regional agencies promoted major new high-speed rail investments, Amtrak has finally announced what it hopes to achieve over the next thirty years: A brand-new, 426-mile, two-track corridor running from Boston to Washington, bringing true high-speed rail to the Northeast Corridor for the first time.
The report, released today at a press conference in Philadelphia, suggests investing $4.7 billion annually over the next 25 years on the creation of a route that would allow trains to speed between New York and Washington in 96 minutes and between New York and Boston in just 84 minutes. The line would run along a corridor that could stretch in new tunnels under the city centers of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, and along new rail rights-of-way through Connecticut. New stations would be built in every city the project would serve. This Next-Generation High-Speed Rail, as Amtrak is calling it, would produce overall average speeds of about 140 mph by 2040 (top speeds of 220 mph), compared to 75 mph today. It would undoubtedly significantly expand the mobility of residents of the Northeastern United States.
Amtrak claims that once in operation the line could produce an annual profit of almost $1 billion a year (in 2010 dollars), increasing overall intercity rail ridership along the corridor from about 12 million today to 38 million by 2050. Total construction costs would be $117.5 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars, or $42 billion in 2010 dollars, about the same as the California High-Speed Rail project.
But it is worth being skeptical of the political chances for the project’s implementation. The timing of the plan’s release could not be much worse. With anti-rail and austerity-focused Republicans likely to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives in this fall’s elections and little serious talk of increasing funds for fast train projects in the immediate term at the national level, a vast increase in capital financing for Amtrak is hard to imagine.
Amtrak has rarely publicly advocated for such a major investment. Last year, the publicly owned agency’s vision for the Northeast Corridor suggested $10 billion in upgrades producing a 5h30 total trip time between Boston and Washington. Today’s announcement is of a completely different magnitude, but it falls in line with the agency’s recent push to operate true high-speed lines in places like Florida.
The proposal is even larger than that suggested by a University of Pennsylvania planning group earlier this year, which I dismissed as mostly unrealistic, thanks to its grandiose proposal for a new tunnel under the Long Island Sound and a new corridor through Center City Philadelphia. Yet Amtrak’s management clearly thinks there is a possibility of major investment here, which is why this new program would not only build that new tunnel under Philadelphia, but also connect New York’s Penn and Grand Central Stations and involve the construction of an entirely new greenfield route through much of the region.
The fact that the Congress has thus far only committed $10.5 billion total to high-speed rail projects across the country does not seem to have fazed anyone in Amtrak management, though it may have resulted in the decision to propose spreading out spending over a 25-year period, rather than, for instance, building it all in ten years. Under the plan, the sections from Baltimore to Wilmington and from Philadelphia to New Rochelle would be completed by 2030, with the rest done by 2040.
Amtrak will need a massive and long-term commitment from the federal government to make this project possible. It will have to find a way to build a coalition between Republicans and Democrats on the matter, since each party will inevitably be in power at some point over the next thirty years. It will have to make a strong case for why investing in the system fulfills national objectives. In the report, it is clear that the agency hopes to portray the Northeast’s strong contribution to the overall U.S. GDP as one of the primary reasons to invest in infrastructure there.
There are therefore long odds for this scheme, but that does not mean it is without merit. In order to implement truly high-speed rail in the Northeast, there is basically no choice but to commit to the construction of an entirely new corridor, since the existing tracks are already mostly at capacity surrounding the major metropolitan areas. Upgrading them could cost as much or more as building from the ground up.
And Amtrak understands the value of building the new line in terms of interconnections with the existing network. Under the service plan suggested in the report (shown below), trains from the southern part of the new corridor could run through along the existing Coastal Corridor in Connecticut and Rhode Island; similarly, trains coming from Harrisburg along the existing Keystone Corridor could interline with the new route at Trenton.
Amtrak will have to assemble major political force behind this project to see it through. This will not be a simple project, either from a funding or construction standpoint. But for the nation’s densest and most economically productive region, it may be the best way forward.
Images above: Amtrak’s proposed routing for its new high-speed rail service, from Amtrak