High Speed Rail in The Northeast: What Next?

Written by Alfred E. Fazio, Alfred E. Fazio, P.E., Contributing Editor
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PART I: Defining and Expanding High Speed. Considering the future of the NEC helps answer the question: What are the factors governing the expansion of high-speed rail on other railroads?

The recent nationwide initiative for the introduction of high-speed (or “higher” speed) passenger service in the U.S. has experienced mixed success. While California is progressing on its challenging path to VHSR (Very High Speed Rail), other initiatives have been criticized in political venues for their failure to introduce European- or Asian-style “bullet trains” across America.

Much of this criticism is unfair. In many cases, 100- to 110-mph service that operates with high reliability with reasonable frequencies is sufficient to meet demand and fits within North America’s existing freight railroad framework.

For purposes of this article, the term HSR will apply to services whose maximum authorized speed (MAS) exceeds 90 mph. This is in keeping with the FRA’s approach to safety standards where operation at speeds above 90 mph requires vehicle-specific qualifications and for which Code of Federal Regulations Part G high-speed track standards apply. Also, the term VHSR will apply to speeds of 150 mph or greater.

Thus, on the NEC, only the Acela Express can be considered VHSR, and only on a marginal basis, since the total territory of 150-mph operation consists of approximately 40 route-miles. However, Keystone and Northeast Regional trains (and potentially soon some commuter trains) qualify as HSR. While these categories of VHSR and HSR may not fit well with the Obama Administration’s euphoric visions of creating an entirely new high-speed rail industry (including vehicle manufacturing) in the U.S., they conform to current reality.

There are numerous transportation and system safety issues as well as engineering challenges that form the very essence of the business and safety cases necessary to foster the expansion of HSR in the U.S. Future U.S. new-start (dedicated) railroads suitable for VHSR face the quandary already challenging California: Land is available only where population is sparse (such as in California’s Central Valley), and most existing main line railroads are components of the world’s best freight rail network and therefore not conducive to HSR.

A number of projects have been supported by federal and state grants with the intention of achieving at least representative segments of HSR operation on existing railroads. While some have met with reasonable levels of success, none have resulted in high-speed operation over sufficiently long segments. Notable have been enhancements made to Union Pacific’s Chicago-St. Louis line to achieve passenger train speeds of 110 mph. Also noteworthy are the enhancements in progress to the Amtrak/Norfolk Southern Michigan Line.

Other projects funded through the Administration’s HSR initiatives, such as enhancements to the CSX RF&P Subdivision, including new interlockings and addition of a third main between Fredericksburg and Alexandria (40 miles); restoration of the second main track on Amtrak’s Schenectady-Albany route on the Empire Corridor; and restoration of the second main on the former New Haven Railroad’s Hartford line, improve fluidity and velocity of passenger train operations but do not raise MAS above 90 mph. Thus, for these types of projects to be portrayed as HSR initiatives is somewhat stretching the facts.

An exception to the quandary of available main lines vs. population density is, of course, the NEC and its three branches (Harrisburg, Hartford, Empire). Future improvements to the NEC or the associated 100-mile-long Harrisburg Line may well be the HSR initiative, other than California, that serves as a benchmark for future HSR or VHSR in North America. This railroad is to the Northeastern U.S. what the California Water Project is to California.

The Water Project must satisfy the demands of the megalopolis of Southern California for potable water, and at the same time it must continue to irrigate the rich farmlands of California’s Central Valley. So must the NEC satisfy the demands of multiple users: local commuter trips, HSR, and intercity trains that serve off-corridor destinations. This railroad, particularly the 270 miles between New York and Washington, serves a wide variety of users, many of whom place different, and at times conflicting, operational and engineering demands on the infrastructure. In addition to the existing HSR (Acela, Keystones, Regionals), the railroad carries an increasing number of commuters and also serves as a terminal railroad distributing and collecting passengers for Amtrak’s Eastern Seaboard long-hauls. At the same time, certain portions are seeing a resurgence in freight (for example, crude oil trains operating in Delaware and Maryland).

Concept of Operations

The original Northeast Corridor Improvement Project (NECIP) of 1976 to the mid 1980s established an operational configuration that supported Metroliner speeds of 125 mph and Northeast Regional speeds of 110 mph. Since that program, Amtrak has pursued an incremental approach to upgrades, achieving Acela Express speeds of 135 mph in the New York to Washington D.C. segment and 150 mph in selected New England segments. Speeds for Amfleet equipped regionals now top out at the former Metroliner MAS of 125 mph. The early NECIP Concept of Operations (CONOPS), which will be reviewed in Part II (October issue), was largely a derivative of rapid transit-type thinking: a double-track high-speed “express” railroad superimposed on a three- and four-track railroad, with locals on the outer tracks and all freight except local freight moved to the parallel CSX main line.

In development and deployment of complex engineering systems, particularly those with complex subsystems (train control, traction power, vehicles), everything must be highly integrated to achieve the total system’s target performance. The CONOPS is the basis for developing a formal Program Requirements Document (PRD). The CONOPS explains what the fully integrated and deployed system is intended to do—how it operates, clarifies its performance targets and verifies its ability to achieve its stated mission.

The CONOPS also addresses maintenance requirements and considers partially failed operational scenarios. The PRD, in turn, is accompanied by a robust safety case to become the basis of design criteria development. These criteria then guide the basis of engineering design and engineering maintenance throughout the program life. A change in CONOPS invariably leads to a reconfiguration or replacement of one or more engineering subsystems. For several reasons, the original NECIP CONOPS no longer applies to the NEC.

The Future of the NEC

In addition to operational and engineering considerations, governmental factors (e.g., PRIIA legislation that arguably makes the NEC less of an Amtrak rail property and under which the NEC may take on the characteristics of a jointly operated terminal railroad) justify reconsideration of the extent and nature of achievable HSR in the Northeast. The short version of this complex issue resembles a simple good news/bad news joke: The good news is that in the future, commuter service will pay fully allocated costs; the potential bad news (at least for HSR) is that the commuter agencies will have significantly more to say about the engineering configuration and operations of the railroad. The particular question is, given these factors, what is next for the NEC?

Considering the future of the NEC helps answer the more general question: What are the factors governing the expansion of HSR (passenger service at 90 to 125 mph speeds) on railroads other than the NEC? The balance of this article (Parts II and III, in the October and November issues, respectively) will explore some of the engineering and operational factors that have matured over the past 40 years as part of Amtrak’s incremental approach to NEC upgrades. In particular, the experiences of the past three to four years on the benchmark New Jersey High Speed Rail Improvement Project (NJHSRIP) will be reviewed. The focus will be on engineering and operational factors, and the reader must be mindful that other considerations such as political factors and business cases are also relevant. Like it or not, however, it is the engineering and operational factors that form the others.

Concepts espoused for the NEC’s future vary widely. One extreme is the so-called “Next Gen” Program, which essentially consists of “selling the house and moving.” The advertised price on this option was $150 billion. Given the history of major infrastructure works in the Northeastern U.S. (Boston’s Big Dig and the LIRR’s East Side Access), a more reasonable estimate for the cost of a new and parallel VHSR corridor is likely to be somewhere north of $300 billion.

At the other extreme is the concept of retaining status quo on the NEC with emphasis on State of Good Repair (SOGR). A more reasonable future might consist of selected Next Gen segments combined with continual incremental upgrades of the existing railroad. Presumably all of these concepts are under review by qualified professionals under an NEC Futures study sponsored by the FRA. The results of this study are anxiously awaited by all who have an interest in NEC. The analysis, one hopes, will be based on fact and not wishful thinking. An important ingredient in this effort should be hard data regarding the cost and service impacts of major upgrades to the NEC. Parts II and III of this series will speak to what would be considered a beta effort to upgrade the NEC well above NECIP standards and capability: the NJHSRIP.

Off-Corridor Considerations

Likewise, a variety of concepts exist for HSR initiatives “off” the NEC or CHSRP. Unfortunately the processes that determine future directions for HSR often ignore or greatly downplay engineering and even operational factors. As some so-called “policy makers” offer, “this decision is too important to be left to the engineers.” The pitfalls of ignoring engineering are manifold and include, but are not limited to: cost overruns, failure to achieve operational objectives, and ultimately, train wrecks.

A number of years ago, at a Railway Age “Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads” conference, a briefing was given on a proposal to add sidings to accommodate the superposition of passenger service in the 100 to 110 mph range on a busy freight main line in the western U.S. A question was raised by a well-seasoned transportation officer as to the length of siding needed to effect unimpeded overtakes by high-speed passenger trains.

A simplified analysis of the layout of such a siding, one that would be suitable for a high-speed overtake of a fast freight train, serves to illustrate the operating challenges associated with superimposing HSR upon existing freight main lines. For a high-density double-track railroad with a freight MAS of 60 mph and a passenger MAS of 110 mph, an exercise to develop a typical design for a siding or section of triple-track suitable for overtakes provides a number of insights into design of “joint priority” shared-use railways. Joint priority means that HSR trains and through freights are considered as “first class” trains. Such configurations once repeated common layouts on mixed-use railroads, such as on the former New Haven Shore Line, where a section of triple-track existed in the vicinity of Kingston, R.I., intended for passenger train overtakes of freight.

Assuming a “clean” overtake, where neither train suffers a speed downgrade, a freight speed of 60 mph, and a passenger speed of 110 mph, a third main track of slightly greater than 7 miles is required for a perfectly scheduled and executed overtake. If a reasonable schedule tolerance of 5 minutes is introduced, the required length extends to 17 miles. Note that on a joint priority railroad, this length is necessary, since neither train should be held for the other. Not considered here are other operational and safety factors that must also be introduced into the design criteria, including track centers (will they be 17 feet or will they be even greater?), movement of hazmat trains, flexibility of train movement scheduling, and dispatcher choices/priorities for delay recovery.

This is not to say that the engineering and operational challenge of superimposing HSR on heavy freight lines are insurmountable. Railroads of two generations ago were able to find adequate solutions. The question reduces to this: At what cost can engineering, operational and safety factors be addressed? All of these costs must be adequately represented (and paid for) and considered in a comprehensive business case.

The NEC as the Beta Site

Moving beyond California High Speed Rail and other potential new-starts where new alignments may be constructed, and where the selected test cases where HSR is to be superimposed on freight main lines, leaves one significant opportunity where population density and travel demand match the available main line. This is the Northeast Corridor, including the lines to Harrisburg and Albany. This well-endowed railroad services millions of people within its service area, and it already is devoted primarily to passenger (albeit other than HSR) use.

The first lesson from the NEC is that the practical limits on the extent of incremental HSR upgrades are largely driven by the intense demand for other uses (non-HSR intercity, commuter, freight) as much as by physical plant limitations and cost. As a consequence, the feasibility of high-speed trains exceeding 160 mph on the NEC is extremely remote. And even if it’s feasible, the utility and practicality of, say, 300 kph (186 mph) operation is problematic.

Consider a history lesson from another engineering-based industry, aviation. In the early 1970s, years of technical and marketing research indicated to the British and French the practicality of and commercial case for a civilian supersonic passenger aircraft, leading to the deployment of the Concorde Supersonic Transport (SST). Likewise, after careful consideration, Boeing elected to not build a version of the SST, and to invest instead in the 747. Boeing’s analysis considered a wide variety of factors, including the reduction in total trip time achieved by the SST, cost of service delivery, passenger comfort, and environmental (specifically, the anticipated restrictions on exceeding Mach 1.0 over land). Today, Boeing is still building 747s, while the few Concordes built have all been withdrawn from service.

(Parts II and III of this series will be published in the October and November issues, respectively.)


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