Amtrak's Vision for NextGen High-Speed Rail on the Northeast Corridor

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¬ĽAmtrak has a strong vision for high-speed rail that embraces the concept of public-private partnerships, but retains leadership over infrastructure and operations in the Northeast Corridor.

Over the past several posts, Back on Track: Northeast has highlighted the proposal for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor by a studio at the University of Pennsylvania (PennDesign), which developed a vision for completing a dedicated, two-track high-speed rail system in just 25 years. While the PennDesign proposal is exciting, it is not the only plan for high-speed rail in the Northeast.

amtrak_hsr_cover_250.jpgIn September 2010, Amtrak released a summary of its own plans to institute a next generation, high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), in a report entitled, A Vision For High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor (PDF). This report is expected to be followed up with a more detailed plan to be released in the next few months. While there are many similarities between Amtrak's vision and the PennDesign proposal, they differ in several key ways.

For starters, the document that Amtrak has released to the public so far is not as thorough or comprehensive as the PennDesign reports. Amtrak's proposal cannot be considered quite as objective as the one created by the UPenn students, for while the PennDesign proposal does not prescribe who should actually run the service, Amtrak clearly sees itself as the primary intercity rail operator in the corridor and does not recommended anything that would jeopardize that status. Furthermore, while Amtrak studied the alignment proposed by PennDesign and recommended a parallel path from Washington to New York, ultimately Amtrak chose to pursue a route between New York and Boston that is vastly different than the one PennDesign deemed most feasible.

There are many important reasons why the Amtrak proposal is worth strong consideration. First, Amtrak has more experience with passenger rail on the NEC than any other entity, and their high-quality plan is indicative of their NEC expertise. Already, Amtrak has begun pushing its high-speed vision, and has a far-reaching advocacy network and strong political ties in the nation's capital. Furthermore, even if Amtrak does not turn out to be the operator of the future high-speed service, they will continue to operate intercity trains on the NEC for a decade or more as the system is built out. As a result, their proposal will inevitably have a strong influence over the future of the NEC.

Overview of the Amtrak's Next Generation High-Speed Rail Proposal

  • Alignment: Existing alignment from NYC to DC; new, inland alignment from NYC to BOS
  • Top Speed: 220 mph
  • Travel Time: Washington, DC to NYC in 1:36; NYC to Boston in 1:23
  • Capital Cost: $117 billion
  • Ridership: 37 million by 2040

Proposed Alignment

Like PennDesign, Amtrak is mindful of the unique design requirements for true, high-speed service, as opposed to those for conventional rail. Amtrak's proposal asserts, that trains need a minimum curve radius of 3 miles to maintain high speeds. In addition, high-speed trains will require about five minutes of acceleration over 16 miles of straight, flat track to reach their top speeds of 220 mph. To solve these challenges, Amtrak envisions a dedicated, 430-mile, two-track system.

Amtrak's proposed southern alignment between NYC and Washington, DC, takes advantage of the existing NEC right-of-way, which already includes long stretches of straight track that can support high-speed operations. Similar to the PennDesign route, the alignment calls for major new tunnels under the cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia and NYC, where an 11.8 mile would be the system's longest.

Southern Alignment

amtrak_nextgen_south.jpg

Like PennDesign, Amtrak's vision for the northern high-speed rail alignment is a radical departure from the existing NEC, but the two proposals came to very different conclusions. Amtrak recognizes that, north of NYC, the current NEC alignment is unsuitable for HSR. In Connecticut, west of New Haven (where MetroNorth currently operates) the tracks are already reaching capacity and nearby land development prohibits expansion. East of New Haven, curves in the alignment restrict high-speed service.

Northern Alignment

amtrak_nextgen_north.jpg

Amtrak's solution is to send the next generation high-speed trains north from NYC to Westchester County and into western Connecticut via a new, inland route. That route would take advantage of highway alignments that are already under public ownership, including Interstates 84 and 91 in Connecticut, and Interstate 90 in Massachusetts. And while this alignment wouldn't serve Long Island, it would bring intercity service to new communities, specifically the Connecticut cities of Danbury and Waterbury.

Another major feature is the alignment's new, proposed connection between New York Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal. For the first time, the NEC would stop at both of NYC's major train stations and directly connect intercity service to the east side of Midtown Manhattan, where the majority of jobs are located.

Service Pattern

Amtrak envisions four levels of service on the new, high-speed rail system:

  1. HSR Super-Express: Serving the four major hub cities (Washington, DC; Philadelphia; NYC; and Boston).
  2. HSR Express: Serving the four major hubs, along with one of two different combinations of medium-sized cities (Express A or Express B).
  3. HSR Keystone Express: Improved service on the Keystone Corridor between NYC, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg, PA.
  4. HSR Shoreline Express: Improved express service on the coastal route combined with high-speed operations between NYC and Washington, DC.

amtrak_service_schematic.jpg

Like the PennDesign proposal, Amtrak's vision calls for improved regional service on the existing route between NYC and Boston ("Regional" in the map above). In addition, the "HSR Express" service would connect the major Northeast airports (other than JFK and MacArthur Airport, which the PennDesign alignment connects).

A key point of departure from the PennDesign proposal, is Amtrak's treatment of the NEC branch lines. According to Amtrak, high-speed service on the Keystone Corridor and the existing coastal route (the "Shoreline Express" above) would enter the dedicated HSR alignment between NYC and Philadelphia/Washington, DC. The PennDesign proposal recommended that Keystone and coastal service continue to use the existing NEC.

Time Savings

According to Amtrak, average travel speed on the NEC is approximately 62 mph between NYC and Boston and 86 mph between NYC and Washington, DC. The proposed HSR service calls for an average of around 140 mph, with stop speeds of 220 mph. Such service would cut travel time down dramatically on the NEC and make rail extremely competitive with air travel:

amtrak_time_savings.jpg

In general, these travel times are comparable to those of the PennDesign proposal. Between NYC and Boston they are actually faster, most likely due to the fact that Amtrak's alignment is a shorter route in terms of overall distance.

amtrak_penn_time_comp.jpg

Cost & Timeline

Amtrak estimates that the total cost of its vision is $117 billion. According to their plan, the entire project could be completed in 30 years time (five years longer than the PennDesign proposal). Amtrak envisions a stair-step approach to implemention, with the first segment in operation between Philadelphia and NYC, then Philadelphia to Washington, DC followed by NYC to Hartford and finally Hartford to Boston. The plan proposes to complete construction of the NYC-Philadelphia segment by 2030 and the remainder of the corridor by 2040.

Ridership & Revenue

According to Amtrak, high-speed rail would significantly increase NEC ridership. By 2040, when the entire system is operational from NYC to Boston, Amtrak's conservative estimates project total NEC ridership of 33.7 million riders, compared to 23.4 million if high-speed rail is not built. Of the 33.7 million, about half would be high-speed rail riders (17.7 million) and half would ride the conventional rail (16 million). Meanwhile, 60% of high-speed rail passengers would be diverted from automobiles and planes.

According to Amtrak, these ridership figures are conservative. If more aggressive projections for population growth and highway congestion are considered, Amtrak projects that ridership would reach up to 43 million by 2040. Still, even at lower, more conservative levels, Amtrak predicts the system will turn a profit. In 2040, the proposal estimates that total revenue will reach $3.29 billion, compared to total estimated annual costs of $1.6 billion.

Financing

Amtrak's vision does not put forward a clear plan for financing their proposed high-speed rail system. Still, Amtrak has indicated that it is interested in utilizing a public-private partnership. In a March 2011 statement to Congress (PDF), Amtrak Vice President for Policy and Development, Stephen Gardner, argued that high-speed rail cannot be completed with private funding alone. Instead, Gardner argued, "federal funding for intercity passenger rail service is the only way to attract - and maintain - private sector participation and financing."

In May 2011, Amtrak announced in a press release (PDF) that it was developing a business plan that would incorporate a public-private partnership. In April, Amtrak released a request for consultants to submit proposals for the development of a business plan for the high-speed rail system. This business plan will include a full plan for financing, construction, and operations. The proposals were due in June and in August Amtrak announced that they had selected a consultant team led by KPMG, in association with Steer Davies Gleave, DWH Strategic Advisors, Sharon Greene & Associates, and TranSystems.

amtrak_hsr_mockup_500.jpg

The Role of Amtrak

Amtrak's vision for high-speed rail seeks to reaffirm the national rail corporation as the leader of the Northeast Corridor. While the PennDesign proposal left open the possibility for Amtrak or new, private operators to operate passenger rail service, Amtrak clearly sees its primary role on the NEC continuing on into the future.

For this reason, Amtrak's vision has been the subject of censure by the same voices that have long criticized the national railroad corporation. In June 2011, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, put forth legislation that would remove Amtrak from the NEC altogether, and replace it with private investors tasked with implementing high-speed rail. When he introduced the legislation, Mica specifically targeted Amtrak, saying that their vision would cost too much, take too long, and continue a pattern of government subsidization that he finds unacceptable.

In June 2011, Amtrak President Joe Boardman responded to this criticism in a hearing before the Mica's committee. Boardman argued that Amtrak should be a part of any high-speed rail plan for the NEC, and that Mica's plan put forth an unrealistic time frame and would actually be more expensive than Amtrak's vision.

Final Thoughts

It is largely this argument - the role of Amtrak - that is shaping the debate about high-speed rail in the NEC. In order for Congress to support major funding, Amtrak must remain open-minded about improving the corridor and capable of embracing some degree of institutional change. It is no surprise that Amtrak envisions a strong role for itself in a plan with its own name in the title, however, the debate must move beyond the same, tired discussion about the failures of publicly-owned railroads.

Still, Amtrak has a better understanding than anyone of the challenges of running a high-speed rail service in the United States. Their proposal is based on decades of experience investing and operating in the NEC. No matter what path is chosen going forward, Amtrak will inevitably need to be involved in some capacity. This proposal is good news because it shows that they are prepared to play a major role in the Northeast's transition to high-speed rail.


Images:
A Vision For High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak. September 2010. Link.

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