Monday, October 31, 2011

A natural fit?

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

No longer content with the "static quo," Amtrak seeks to establish European-style HSR in the U.S. Northeast—and operate other planned U.S. HSR systems.

Amtrak Vice President-High Speed Rail Albrecht Engel makes two quick points: 1) Amtrak already is an operator of true HSR, "even under international 'rules,'" courtesy of its Acela service on the Northeast Corridor; and 2) Amtrak wants, and needs, to do much more.

Tapped by Amtrak last September to focus and accelerate Amtrak's HSR efforts, Engel has wasted little time in touting Amtrak's interest in making HSR as much a part of its mission as long-distance or shorter-distance conventional services.

"High speed rail happens to be the undiscovered opportunity in the United States," he says. "We seem not to have taken advantage of it. And we certainly have corridors that are prime for high speed rail." Passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act in 2008 (PRIIA) gave Amtrak the funding and the impetus to pursue HSR aggressively.

"Amtrak wants to be the operator of HSR in Florida, in California. Obviously, we'll have to compete with others vying for the same role," Engel acknowledges. "But we have some advantages, including actually operating HSR already on the Northeast Corridor." Though top speeds of 150 mph are limited to small stretches of the NEC in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Engel says such experience still counts. "We want more," he says.

Multiyear vision for NEC HSR

Amtrak on Sept. 28 released its concept, A Vision for High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), eyeing 220 mph speeds for trains linking Washington, New York, and Boston, implementing new stations and considerable new rail right-of-way to be put fully into place by 2040. Amtrak's perennial critics often harp that the corporation doesn't dream big dreams; this time, many said flatly the railroad was being far too ambitious.

Counters Engel, "Everybody started as a conventional operator. SNCF [Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français, or French National Railways], didn't just wake up and become a high speed rail operator." Instead, it implemented HSR in stages and in segments, as a brand new service to complement existing customer operations. "They picked the best city-pair they had, Paris-to-Lyon" Engel recounts.

"They learned what they could from the Japanese, who were out front of everybody at the time. They developed their own team, and were the first basically, after Japan, to put this kind of service into place. It was a strategic decision" and, at least for Europe, was treated "as a new mode."

Commitment required

Amtrak has no intention of abandoning its current NEC operations—itself struggling for decades to capture enough capital to maintain operations, let alone improve conditions. "Remember, it's not just speed; it's also customer convenience, access to downtown, etc.," Engel points out. "Amtrak operates a very attractive service in the (existing) NEC, and if we operated more trains per hour, I think we would sell more seats, because we sell out. People are attracted to Acela."

Amtrak believes a new NEC, truly HSR in nature, could capture 18 million passengers per year at the start of operations, growing to as much as 80 million per annum, in this case because of superior speeds. "True" HSR NEC service projects travel time of 3 hours, 23 minutes between Boston and Washington, 96 minutes between Washington and New York, and 84 minutes between New York and Boston, the latter city-pair benefitting the most from new, grade-separated right-of-way.

Still, acquiring roughly $118 billion (in 2010 dollars), or $4.7 billion per year until full build-out of new HSR right-of-way in 2040, is a challenge even to an Amtrak tempered by years making each federal funding dollar count.

But Engel says investing in a new NEC HSR would generate 2.2 times the investment in new economic development, including at or near new station sites in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Hartford, Conn.

Moreover, Engel believes a political commitment can be achieved, despite partisan clashing at the federal level. "We're talking 426 miles, 50 million people, access to existing transit systems," he says. "We have a demand for this service. So our models, which I think are conservative, say we're going to double the ridership."

Engel hopes the next federal Surface Transportation bill passed by Congress—the successor to SAFETEA-LU—will expressly "include a rail title," unlike previous incarnations. "Say $50 billion for six years," he suggests. "If the NEC gets $5 billion a year, we can do this."

The cost of not building HSR for the NEC (or elsewhere) can be demonstrated, he asserts. "The highway equivalent would cost much more, and yield far less capacity. "It will happen incrementally, but again highway system was built that way, in pieces." Add to that the concept of HSR in terms of homeland security and national defense (again, paralleling justification of the Interstate Highway Act.

Maintaining support, acquiring land

Finally, there is "a matter of maintaining global competitiveness," Engel says. If HSR is not built in the NEC, and/or Florida and or California, "we will lose our position globally. So I think Congress will come to [this] realization."

Though the congressional makeup will be much different in 2011, Engel believes Amtrak will have its allies. "It's comforting to know that Rep. John Mica (R.-Fla.) might assume the chair" of the influential House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, currently held by Rep. Jim Oberstar (D.-Minn.), Engel says. "Mica has said, more than once, that the NEC should be a prime HSR project," he notes.

Regardless of who chairs the committee, rail right-of-way acquisition, difficult anywhere in the United States, will remain challenging within the densely populated Northeast. Engel notes that 44% of any NEC high speed rail project price tag will be for property acquisition. "North of New York, we can't go along the shoreline, and basically we've chosen to access Hartford (though nothing is final). We did plot a specific alignment, choosing existing rights-of-way, including highways," that cover 32% of the proposed project. Still, Engel allows, "We have to take land; that won't be cheap."

But it can be done, Engel insists. "I think Amtrak's best days are ahead of it. People are recognizing that our highway mode is not sustainable (as is), due to problems with liquid fuels, imported fuels, hostile sources, etc.," he says. "And younger people seem to be much more attuned to it, at times almost looking at the automobile as a negative." When the U.S. economy recovers, and fuel costs rise, "we're going to have to use every tool," Engel says. "High speed rail is one such tool. Intercity corridor densities will keep growing, in the NEC and elsewhere." Amtrak hopes to tap that growth.