A 21st Century NEC: Identifying Our Top Priorities

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This post is the first of a series focused on examining the top investment needs of the Northeast Corridor. The post below introduces the Phase 1 Priority Investments identified by the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan. Upcoming posts will focus on the general state of good repair needs on the Corridor and specific infrastructure investments necessary to improve service and create new capacity.


>>With high-speed rail as a long-term goal, the Northeast must secure the $14 billion in Phase 1 Priority Investments identified by the NEC Master Plan to achieve necessary repairs and service improvements right now.

High-speed rail is still many years of planning and construction away from being up and running.

Recognizing this fact, the Northeast should begin by focusing on improving the existing NEC in the near-term. In May 2010, the region completed a three-year planning process that resulted in the NEC Master Plan, which outlines $13.8 billion in Phase 1 Priority Investments that we can pursue right now. These Phase 1 Priority Investments would make critical improvements toward achieving a state of good repair, add capacity in key bottlenecks, and reduce travel times along the entire NEC.

The Master Plan

nec_master_cover_200.jpgPlanning on the NEC is not easy. It requires coordinating with the line's multiple owners and stakeholders, and accommodating its intercity, freight, and commuter rail operators. The NEC and its branch lines pass through twelve states from Maine to Virginia plus the District of Columbia, and support the operations of nine commuter railroads and seven freight railroads. Ownership of the these lines is also split. While Amtrak owns the majority of the mainline NEC, key portions are owned by the states of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and CSX owns the majority of two other branch lines.

Facing these obstacles, the NEC Master Plan is a remarkable achievement for the Northeast Megaregion. The planning process was performed the by the NEC Master Plan Working Group, which included representatives from all 12 northeastern states, Washington DC, Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), eight commuter railroads and three freight railroads.

In May 2010, the Working Group released its plan, which identified the major rail improvements necessary to bring the NEC to a state of good repair and (meet the growth in travel demand through 2030.

Phase 1 Priority Investments

Right now, the Master Plan itself is nearly too big to fathom. In total, it recommends $52 billion in investments by 2030 - a daunting figure that is beyond what we can fund in the near term.

Recognizing the need to start smaller, the Master Plan provides a small first-step to initiating progress. In what it calls the NEC Main Line Phase 1 Priority Improvements, the Master Plan lists $13.8 billion in projects that represent the most important projects for the NEC to pursue right now.

The Phase 1 Priority Investments have three major goals:

1. Perform the most critical repairs necessary toward achieving a state of good repair
The Phase 1 Priority investments will dramatically improve service reliability on the NEC by replacing century-old infrastructure on the line's busiest sections. As riders know, the line is frequently subject to failures caused by aging equipment and decades of poor maintenance.

2. Improve trip times by increasing speeds on existing tracks.
These investments will enable Amtrak to achieve substantial time savings on the NEC. Consider the Acela - Phase 1 investments will reduce travel time by 8 minutes between Washington, DC and NYC, and another 8 minutes between NYC and Boston. New rail capacity also means more trains and better service. For example, with these improvements, Amtrak plans to introduce new, limited-stop express service that will reduce travel time by 15 minutes between Washington, DC and NYC.

3. Create new capacity in the busiest sections of the line
These investments will also provide badly needed capacity at the line's most delay-plagued bottlenecks. Already, key stretches of the corridor in New York and New Jersey are operating at 100% capacity. Amtrak and the commuter railroads cannot add new trains. As we continue to grow, the situation is only poised to get worse. Unless we add new tracks, travel demand will exceed capacity in virtually every major city on the NEC by 2030.

Capacity Analysis on the Northeast Corridor. Source: NEC Master Plan

To these ends, the Phase 1 investments touch nearly every part of the line, balancing repairs to existing infrastructure with targeted expansions. Key investments include:

  • Over $6 billion for the repair and/or replacement of tunnels and bridges, including almost $2 billion for the replacement of Portal Bridge in New Jersey and $1 billion for tunnels under Baltimore, MD;

  • Over $2 billion for the rehabilitation of the electrical and signaling system between Washington, DC, and New York City, including the installation of constant tension catenary wire that will increase speeds on the Acela service;

  • Approximately $1.5 billion for improvements and expansions at key rail terminals; and more.

At $14 billion, these projects will have a major impact, by enabling the NEC to meet the needs of all users over the next ten years. We must make make these projects a reality. If we do not invest, the NEC will remain what it is now: unreliable, slow, and inadequate for the growing travel demand of the Northeast.

The Challenge Ahead

The NEC Master Plan is evidence that there is no lack of planning or direction for the NEC. The real problem is getting the money.

The biggest obstacle toward achieving funding is Congress. It's obvious that the Northeast states are eager to see these investments. In the most recent round of grant applications to the federal high-speed rail program, virtually every state in the Northeast applied, in addition to Amtrak. But states rely on federal dollars to make the vast majority of their transportation investments. What's more, the regional, multi-state character of the NEC means that the federal government is the most logical source for most of the funding. If a project in one state will benefit the whole corridor, then all states have an interest in making the investment.

Unfortunately, Congress's commitment to the NEC has been anything but consistent. Earlier this year, the federal government showed a new level of generosity through the federal high-speed rail program. In April 2011, the FRA ruled that the NEC would be eligible for grants under the federal high-speed rail program. Later this year, that designation paid off. In May, the program awarded Amtrak $450 million to pursue a series of upgrades to reduce travel time and improve reliability on the NEC in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (a project identified under the Phase 1 Priority Improvements). Maryland, Connecticut, and Rhode Island also received grants to jumpstart Phase 1 Priority projects within their state borders.

But now Congress appears to be trying to erase that progress and undermining future investments. In July, the House voted to approve legislation that would rescind all federal high-speed rail grants that have not yet been obligated. If approved by the Senate (a possibility considering the complex negotiations occurring between the House and the Senate), the legislation would effectively cancel Amtrak's and the states's NEC projects.

Recent developments in Congress make securing future federal investments even harder. The recent transportation proposal from the House, for example, proposes cutting Amtrak's funding by 25% below current levels. Following the debt ceiling debacle, the newly announced "Super Congress" is tasked with making $1.5 trillion in government spending cuts and could very well go after transportation spending.

The truth is that the Phase 1 Priority Investments are not expenditures - they are investments. If we wish to continue our economic growth, we need a reliable transportation system and new capacity to meet current and future demand. The Federal government must make a bigger commitment to passenger rail on the NEC.

Stay Tuned

Reflecting the complex needs of the NEC, the Phase 1 Priority Improvements represent a mix of repairs, capacity improvements, and service upgrades. Please stay tuned as we continue this series, which will break down the most critical needs of the Northeast Corridor and explain why we must make improvements right now.


Acela: John H. Gray. Licensed under Creative Commons. Flickr.

Acela in CT: Licensed under Creative Commons. Flickr user Fortyseven.


As goes our will to expand and improve service on the Northeast Corridor, so goes our position as a world economy. The United States of 1900 would be ashamed of us for even thinking of not going forward with an audacious plan to improve the movement of peoples and goods along such an industrious stretch of land as that between Washington and Boston. Back then we were more like China, whose rail offerings have far surpassed ours. If we really are to retain our relevancy in the world, and be able to offer our citizens world-class options for movement around a region that is only going to increase in size over the next 20 years, then the improvement of the NEC is an absolute must.

I definitely agree with the above in the goals of the Infrastructure Master Plan prioritization. Replacing old, slow, moveable bridges, catenary, and terminal capacity will enhance the current infrastructure and bring it up to a SOGR and higher reliability. Next question I have is which terminals would receive more capacity? I would like to see an I-95 HS track from New Haven-Providence in the case of a popular Chicago-Boston service via Springfield. Those funds definitely need to be used up. The catenary has been a major issue for NJ Transit and would reduce service delays.

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