Friday, September 30, 2011

Seeking true high speed rail for the Northeast

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

Amtrak Sept. 28 unveiled an ambitious vision for "Next-Generation High-Speed Rail service" in the Northeast, superseding and complementing its existing Northeast Corridor, and designed to dramatically reduce travel times between Boston and Washington, D.C. upon full buildout in 2040.

Speaking from 30th Street Station in Phildelphia during a teleconference, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman called it "a new vision for Amtrak" and for U.S. passenger rail development, "one that we haven't seen for 100 years." Under the plan, trains traveling at speeds of 220 mph or greater would link Washington and New York in one hour, 36 minutes, New York and Boston in one hour, 24 minutes, and New York and Philadelphia in a brief 38 minutes.

Boardman, along with new Amtrak High Speed Rail Vice President Albrecht Engel, noted the new service would require about 420 route-miles of double-track right-of-way, most of it dedicated HSR right-of-way, particularly north of New York. About 32% of the new service—almost all of it south of New York—would run in close parallel to the existing NEC; 44% "will be brand new right-of-way"; and 15% would use existing infrastructure.

The New York-Boston alignment would take an "overland route" often proposed in the past, bypassing the current meandering ex-New Haven Railroad coastal route in favor of travel through interior Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. The alignment offers suggested station stops at White Plains Airport, N.Y.; Danbury, Waterbury, and Hartford, Conn.; and Woonsocket, R.I.

The overland route would allow an average speed of 148 mph between New York and Boston, with the 84-minute trip time besting current rail travel time by more than two hours, Amtrak said. An average speed of 137 mph would prevail for the 96-minute trip linking New York and Washington.

Noting that "connectivity" with other transportation modes "is critical," Boardman pointed to the numerous air/rail stations proposed for the route, which include Newark Liberty International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, and BWI Airport.

Gearing up for growth

Boardman stated that "A Vision for High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor," which could become reality by 2040, would provide HSR ridership approaching "18 million passengers with room to accommodate up to 80 million annually as demand increases in the years and decades that follow." Amtrak estimates the service would generate an annual operating surplus of $900 million. Implementation would cost $4.7 billion each year for 25 years, or roughly $118 billion. Engel said the investment would generate 2.2 times that amount in economic development along the new route, including at or near new station sites in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Hartford.

Asked by Railway Age Editor William C. Vantuono if the new alignment would be accepted by cities excluded, such as Providence, R.I., Boardman replied, "We don't intend to stop any service to Providence." Instead, the entire Northeast would benefit from the overlay of true HSR, complementing current Acela service, conventional Amtrak service, and regional rail operations such as MBTA, New Jersey Transit, and MARC.

Asked whether the vision might be too ambitious, Boardman asserted, "We don't need a five-year vision to paint highways black; we need a 100-year vision of where we need to go."

Boardman officials also stressed that their vision went far beyond the Northeast.

"This is more than an NEC story; we have intentions beyond the NEC," he said.

Boardman and Engel stressed that the envisioned HSR alignment, including station stops, "represents only one of a wide range of possible network and service configurations that could be developed." The vision has been endorsed by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), both longtime Amtrak supporters.

Last May, Amtrak released "The Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan," in cooperation with 11 Northeast states, Virginia, the District of Columbia, freight and regional passenger rail operating companies, and the Federal Railroad Administration, in order to identify and catalog the infrastructure needs of the existing NEC. The report included the NEC proper, as well as Amtrak-owned extensions from Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa., and from New Haven, Conn., to Springfield, Mass. Also included was a portion of Amtrak's Empire Corridor service between New York and Schenectady, N.Y.