Will real HSR transform the Northeast after 2030?

Written by Anthony Perl
Acela breadbox

The Highspeed 2012 Congress, co-hosted by the American Public Transportation Association and the International Railway Union in Philadelphia from July 10 to 13, offered a smorgasbord of knowledge about high speed rail around the world. Now that I've had a chance to digest many of the ideas, information, and opinions that were presented during the Congress, two contrasting dimensions of America's struggle to make HSR work stand out in my mind.

On July 9, I joined a technical tour of the Acela service and inspection facility in Amtrak’s Sunnyside Yard. Our group rode an Acela from Philadelphia up to New York which then went to Sunnyside for a mid-day inspection. It had been at least eight years since I last rode aboard Acela. The most positive aspect of this trip was the train 2104’s load factor, which was over 90%. Arrival into Penn Station was on time, but offered quite a rough ride—compared to the Amfleet equipped Keystone service that I rode back to Philadelphia later in the day.

I had never visited the Acela service facility in Sunnyside Yard before, and was quite impressed. Compared to the ancient buildings that had kept Amtrak’s long-distance trains originating from Penn Station limping along during the 1980s and 1990s, the Acela operation epitomized another world, one in which passenger trains had a bright future. The shop floor was immaculate, the building was well lit and ventilated, and staff were using computer guided diagnostics, rather than sledgehammers, to test the trainset under inspection for any issues. None of this had been the case on my last visit to the old Sunnyside complex decades ago.

But spending a couple of hours in very close proximity to an Acela trainset also yielded an eye-opening view of what America’s struggle with developing high-speed trains looks like in practice. Like many, I had read about the cracks and other deformities that began to emerge in the Acela’s wheelsets, braking and suspension systems in 2005. What I had never seen was what the ‘fix’ to address such problems actually looked like. The photo below shows an aluminum basket that has been mounted on the Acela suspension system to catch pieces of metal that break off in service. Described by our guide as ‘the breadbox’, this basket is meant to protect line-side passengers and maintenance of way workers against serious injury or worse from the shrapnel that could be flying out from the Acela’s undercarriages at high speed.

Running the world’s heaviest high speed trains over tracks that are shared with freight and commuter trains produces more than just the rough ride I had experienced up from Philadelphia that morning. It also literally tears the train’s running gear apart over time, as manifested by the breadbox and its accumulation of contents. Just like its predecessor, the Metroliner, Acela was never able to attain its 160 mph design potential on the Northeast Corridor’s existing railroad tracks. That is why an announcement that preceded the Highspeed 2012 Congress gave me particular hope.

Acela breadboxJust before the Highspeed 2012 Congress opened, an update of The Amtrak Vision of the Northeast Corridor was released. The document made headlines by its $151 billion cost estimate, but what lies beneath that price tag is a staged renewal of the existing infrastructure that would lead into a brand new two track high speed railroad supporting 220 mph operation. After two generations of effort spent (and some would say wasted) chewing up advanced rolling stock on antiquated infrastructure, the Northeast would finally get the high speed tracks that would have been needed to achieve what President Johnson had in mind when he signed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. And when modern HSR finally arrives, offering a 94-minute trip between New York and either Washington or Boston, people will wonder why it took so long to bring such a valuable transportation improvement into being.

For the answer, they need look no further than Sir Winston Churchill’s quote on Americans’ willingness to engage in demanding and demanding tasks. He once said that “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.” While Churchill was thinking about the Second World War, his logic applies equally well to high speed rail. I just hope I live long enough to see the contribution that effective high speed rail service will make to the Northeast after so many decades that were spent trying everything else.

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