PennDesign: A HSR Vision for the Northeast Megaregion

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>>In 2011, a studio at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Design released an exciting proposal for high-speed rail in the Northeast, providing advocates with a realistic and attainable vision for improved rail service in the Northeast Megaregion.

High-speed rail (HSR) will transform what it means to travel in and through the Northeast Megaregion. With virtually no examples of HSR to draw from in the Western Hemisphere, that transformation is difficult to grasp for many Americans. Their questions are many: What will HSR in the Northeast look like and where will it go? How much will it cost and who will pay for it? What will it mean when we can travel from downtown to downtown at speeds of over 200 mph?

PennDesign HSR Studio

penn_hsr_cover250.jpgAt the University of Pennsylvania, School of Design (PennDesign), a team of graduate students have produced some exciting answers. Under a design studio led by the Dean of PennDesign, Marilyn Jordan Taylor, along with Robert Yaro, President of Regional Plan Association, students released a detailed proposal for HSR for the Northeast in May 2011, entitled High-Speed Rail for the Northeast Megaregion: From Vision to Reality.

The proposal is the result of several years of planning and student work. In 2010, students completed a concept for HSR in the Northeast Corridor that included alignments and service patterns. In 2011, students took those concepts and went on to consider the challenge of turning their vision into a reality, proposing a complete implementation plan and detailing the full benefits of a HSR system.

The proposal is worth reading, because it is extremely thorough and, for a student project, is remarkable in its seemingly professional quality. In addition to making the case for HSR investments, the proposal addresses the key challenges to implementing HSR in the Northeast: public and private financing, operations and institutional governance. The proposal was also fully reviewed by many transportation experts from around the world and draws upon their experience with other successful HSR systems.

Provided below is a detailed overview of their vision for high-speed rail in the Northeast. In later posts, we will details the proposal's case for why we must construct HSR, and the proposal's realistic plan for how we can achieve HSR in just 25 years time.

The Vision: An Overview

PennDesign's vision for HSR would better connect the major population centers of the Northeast Corridor by dramatically improving travel times. The plan proposes a daring and visionary alignment that would bring regional service to new parts of the Northeast, avoiding severely congested sections of the existing corridor, and create a multi-tiered service pattern that would improve rail transportation in virtually every major city in the Northeast Megaregion.

The basic features of the HSR system in the PennDesign proposal include:

  • Alignment: From Washington, DC to NYC mainly utilize existing rights-of-way on the existing, except for in key places like Philadelphia. Forge a new route from NYC to Boston that reaches new communities on Long Island and takes advantage of existing highway rights of way in CT and MA. Continue to improve conventional rail service on the existing NEC.
  • Speeds: Top speeds of 220 mph with an average speeds around 150 mph
  • Travel time: From Washington, DC to Boston in 3:28 (or approximately half of the current travel time).
  • Capital Cost: Less than $100 Billion.
  • Ridership: 37 million annual riders by 2035.


The PennDesign team had to find a route that meets the technical needs of HSR, while still managing to serve the highly developed and densely populated urban centers of the Northeast. In order to achieve true high-speed service at 200 mph or greater, trains need long stretches of flat, straight and uninterrupted track that are dedicated to HSR service, meaning they are not shared with slower freight or conventional trains that would limit travel speeds.

A Google map of the PennDesign Proposed Alignment

View Larger Map

Southern Alignment

On the southern half, between NYC and Washington, DC, the alignment mainly takes advantage of existing rights-of-way. The proposed alignment south of NYC (pictured below) would parallel the existing NEC, which has the proper geometry to support HSR operations along most of its length, with variations in key major cities. In Baltimore and Philadelphia, for example, the alignment calls for the construction of new tunnels under the cities to provide a straighter route that would allow for faster speeds and also, as is the case in Philadelphia, to locate the HSR station closer to the CBD.

Northern Alignment

On the northern half of the corridor, between NYC and Boston, the proposal offers a new alignment that differs drastically from the existing NEC. The new alignment could provide service to Grand Central in New York City and then would travel east along new tracks to Long Island. Upon reaching Ronkonkama - MacArthur Airport - the line would turn north and travel through a new tunnel underneath the Long Island sound to New Haven. From there, a new, inland route that would bring HSR service to Hartford, CT, where it would begin breaking east to Worcester, MA before finally reaching Boston South Station.

While the northern alignment would be challenging in certain segments, it is certainly practical from a construction and operations perspective. First, it is not beyond the scope of many international HSR projects. For example, at 16.2 miles, the proposed tunnel under Long Island sound would be about half the length of the Channel Tunnel, which connects the UK and France, at 30.1 miles. Other new sections, like the route through central CT, take advantage of existing highway routes on land which is largely already under public ownership. Second, the new alignment solves the challenges of the existing NEC in southwestern CT. The section of the existing NEC between New York and New Rochelle is already heavily congested with Amtrak and MetroNorth service and there is little room in the surrounding communities to expand the right of way. In the eastern half of the state, the existing NEC is too narrow and winding for true HSR, and would require the construction of too many new bridges. Finally, the new alignment provides service to heavily populated areas that currently either have no intercity rail service or are under-served, including densely populated Long Island, JFK Airport (the busiest in the Northeast), and key regional centers like Hartford, CT and Worcester, MA.

Higher-Speed Conventional Rail

While shifting HSR to Long Island and inland through New England, the PennDesign plan pays a significant amount of attention to the existing shoreline route through Connecticut and Rhode Island. The proposal envisions a "figure-eight" service plan where HSR on the new alignment and conventional rail service on the existing NEC are well coordinated and provide intermodal connections at key stations in New York, New Haven, and Boston.The plan also incorporates the $14 billion in Phase 1 Priority Investments outlined by the NEC Master Plan, which entail important upgrades to capacity and travel times along the existing NEC, as well as substantial improvements toward a state of good repair.

Multi-Tiered Service Patterns

The plan includes a tiered service pattern along both the new HSR alignment and the traditional, shoreline route. By mixing limited-stop express service with regional and local service, the proposal successfully achieves fast travel times, while still providing service to most cities no the existing NEC. While the fastest, express services would operate on the new HSR alignment, conventional intercity service with more frequent stops would also rely on the existing NEC track.


The proposal calls for three main tiers of service:

  1. Express - Serving only the major cities of the Northeast (Boston, NYC, Philadelphia and Washington, DC), creating a service that is highly competitive with air travel.
  2. Limited - Serving major hub cities as well as medium sized cities, like Baltimore, New Haven, and Hartford.
  3. Regional - Serving smaller cities along the new alignment.

In addition, a specialty service at regional airports could enable HSR to reduce the need for many more short-haul flights in the Megaregion, enabling passengers to connect to long-distance flights to destinations around the world. High-speed commuter service would shuttle long-distance commuters between the most popular destinations along the route. Finally, the proposal calls for improved regional service along the Shore Line.


Travel Time

Trains running on the new, dedicated HSR alignment would achieve a top speed of 220 mph and maintain average speeds of approximately 150 mph. On the limited-stop Express service, HSR would enable the NEC to finally meet (and easily surpass) the trip-time goals established by Congress in the early 1990s and to achieve a substantial reduction in current travel times:


Travel times on the Shore Line would also improve. Following the Phase 1 Priority Investments, service between Boston and NYC on the existing NEC would be reduced by 15 minutes, from 3:30 to 3:15.

Ridership and Revenue

PennDesign's proposal projects significant growth in rail ridership as a result of the introduction of HSR service. The proposal includes three sources of additional rail ridership. Specifically, HSR will:

  1. Capture a higher percentage of the intercity travel market in the Northeast Megaregion, which will grow with population and employment gains.
  2. Induce travel demand by creating new travel opportunities.
  3. Attract a new segment of long-distance commuters taking advantage of faster travel times between residential and employment locations.

Upon the completion of the entire HSR alignment in 2035, the proposal projects annual ridership would reach 37 million on all intercity routes, and 64 million by 2050. The PennDesign team argues that HSR could reduce congestion and air travel delays by diverting a projected 27 million automobile drivers and 2 million air passengers in 2035.

The strong ridership projections mean strong revenue for HSR. The proposal projects that HSR would turn a considerable profit for HSR operators. In 2035, an estimated $6.3 billion in revenue (including $4.5 bilion in fare revenue) would easily exceed $3.9 billion in operating costs. Thanks to its strong ridership, the route between NYC and Philadelphia would be the most profitable stretch of the system.

Final Thoughts
The PennDesign Proposal is an enormous step forward in the planning for HSR in the Northeast. As the government continues to sit on its hands, the students and professors at the University of Pennsylvania have laid out a clear picture of what HSR could actually look like in the Northeast.

For rail advocates, the proposal is of extraordinary value, because it signals to decision-makers that HSR is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, but a realistic, attainable project that our region is already pursuing in earnest. And while Amtrak has also released its own vision (PDF) (which we will detail in an upcoming post), the PennDesign proposal has an independent voice that is not affected by the politics that surround passenger rail in America.

While this vision is exciting, the most valuable component of the PennDesign proposal is its plan for financing and construction, which provide a pragmatic path forward for the Northeast. Stay tuned to Back on Track: Northeast as we continue to examine additional aspects of the proposal in future posts.

High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Megaregion: From Vision to Reality. University of Pennsylvania. 2011. Link.

1 Comment

Forgot one major station- Secaucus (that links 10 NJT lines)

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