Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Amtrak's $151 Billion Northeast Corridor Wishlist, and California's HSR Boondoggle

Let the numbers sink in.

$151 billion.

220 mph high speed rail between Washington DC and Boston, enabling 37 minute trips between Philadelphia and New York City, and 94 minute trips between Boston and New York or New York and Washington DC.

That was the promise once envisioned for the Northeast Corridor (NEC) when Amtrak settled for the Acela service that ended up being less than half that speed. Those kinds of numbers would get me out of my car and head down to DC or Baltimore to catch ballgames on the weekend and would make business travel even more convenient for those all along the NEC.

Now, Amtrak is resurrecting the true high speed rail vision for the Northeast Corridor. It has the potential to be a game changer considering that those trips would be a fraction of the time spent flying between those destinations (not counting the travel time from the airport to the city center or the security checks).
Current travel times from New York to Philadelphia on Amtrak's sleek Acela trains are 1 hour, 15 minutes. Travel between New York and Washington currently takes 2 hours, 45 minutes and New York to Boston takes 3 hours, 41 minutes, according to Amtrak's website.

"The NEC (Northeast Corridor) region is America's economic powerhouse and is facing a severe crisis with an aging and congested multi-model transportation network that routinely operates at or near capacity in key segments," Amtrak's President Joe Boardman said in a statement.

The traditionally cash-starved railroad is funded by Congress, where Republicans have been reluctant to finance prior plans to develop high-speed rail in the United States.

Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm acknowledged a lack of federal support but said there were other funding options.

"You have to have a plan and if you have a plan, the money will follow," Kulm said.

Among the sources was $450 million in funding turned down by the state of Florida for a high-speed rail proposal there that will instead be used for rail improvements in New Jersey.

Starting sometime in the 2020s, the hyper speedy "NextGen" trains will replace Acela trains, which were first introduced in 2000, Kulm said.

The newest Amtrak improvement plan also calls for direct links to airports and listed Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and White Plains, New York, as possible candidates for Amtrak service. Some are already served by local commuter rail lines, such as Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which connects to the Philadelphia International Airport.

"The vision we will shape with the Northeastern states, Amtrak and all of our stakeholders will outlast the vagaries of politics, budgets and critics," said Joseph Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees Amtrak, of the 2012 report.
There's more than a little to be critical of when discussing Amtrak's record on high speed rail and upgrading its infrastructure. It has consistently lagged behind on its maintenance and upgrades of infrastructure, and while it has moved ahead with bridge replacement projects elsewhere on the NEC, particularly in Connecticut, the three major bottlenecks on the system are in New Jersey - the Portal Bridge, the tunnels into Manhattan, and the Harold Interlocking, which is Sunnyside Queens where LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak trains have to pass through in a coordinated ballet to keep everything resembling a schedule. Those projects would apparently be included in the overall $151 billion approach.

Something has to give on the costs involved. There's no reason why Amtrak's costs to upgrade are anything approaching $335 million a mile for the NEC between Boston and DC. It costs France's SCNF far less to build a mile of new rail, but that has to be tempered by the fact that the Amtrak right of way is seriously constrained because of urban development throughout the NEC and acquisition costs would be far higher in the US. Still, there are ways that Amtrak can and should bring the costs to upgrade the system down.

Still, $151 billion as spread over 30 years is something approaching $5 billion a year - a major infusion of money but not nearly as eye popping. This is investment in infrastructure and it would mean tens of thousands of construction jobs up and down the East Coast. It would mean steelmakers and fabricators would be supplying new rail and equipment. Technology companies would be providing equipment to make the system more reliable. Engineering firms would be generating jobs for those to design and build the network.

In other words, while Amtrak would be spending the money, it would be private enterprises that are generating the jobs and revenues that would have long term benefits to the local and national economy. It would also build a robust backup to the creaking air travel system.

It's also worth noting that California is about ready to delve into a high speed boondoggle of its own where it's proposing to build a high speed rail network not to connect San Francisco with San Diego via Los Angeles, but rather, inland where there's a fraction of the population to support such a network. It was a political decision so that the money could be obtained, not because it made economic sense.

The California HSR project route was decided not because of practicality or revenue, but by which parts of the state would be able to get it to run through their communities, even though it would mean tearing up farmland and requiring condemnation of land (eminent domain). Instead of using a routing that required fewer eminent domain proceedings and a more direct route, they chose the one that had the political backing. So, California will find itself with a HSR that few will end up using, cost more than it should, and everyone will point to it as a reason not to do HSR in the US.

The HSR setup in France and Japan is similar to an airport hub and spoke approach. You build the hubs in the major urban centers, and connect those with HSR. As the system grows, you can expand the HSR to secondary satellite communities and then with urban rail networks. This way, you maximize population density that would take advantage of the HSR, you can achieve travel times that can not only meet but beat air travel (especially considering the time to pass through security, to say nothing of having to travel to an airport that is frequently on the outskirts of the city, not the city center as most rail facilities are located).

Amtrak's Northeast corridor is the opposite approach - it's already a profitable route for Amtrak and if Amtrak could get the system up to speeds approaching HSR found in Europe or Asia, it could not only win commuters away from the airlines, but it would reduce congestion in the air- improving the travel for fliers too since commuter flights between Boston, DC, and New York are a significant cause for delays throughout the US airspace because of congestion at the New York area airports. It's all the more reason to throw support behind the Amtrak plan. It has a path to profitability and generating economic development to say nothing of jobs.

The Amtrak documentation can be found here. It's a manageable 42 page document, complete with charts, graphs, and how the new right of way would be organized. It would essentially create a 4-track express/local track configuration with the express track capable of handling the HSR.

Capital investment would be phased in - with the section around New York City being key to the overall strategy. That means getting the Gateway/Portal Bridge/Harold Interlocking done is critical to the overall strategy. It also means a significant chunk of the $151 billion is going to the New York metro area for design and construction. Considering that the Portal Bridge is estimated to run $1.3-1.8 billion, while the Gateway Tunnel is another $13-15 billion ($14.7 billion as per page 24). Page 31 addresses the segment costs. Interestingly, rolling stock is the lowest cost of the entire package - $5.2 billion, which makes sense since the infrastructure construction costs are the lion's share of the project.

It also addresses expanding existing capacity - including acquiring 40 additional Acela express passenger cars to lengthen train-sets by 2015 (expanding capacity by 40%). By 2020, Amtrak hopes to acquire new high-speed train sets (doubling service from NYC to DC) as well as complete the Portal Bridge and Harold Interlocking/Sunnyside Yards projects as well as upgrading the power systems through New Jersey.

By 2025, it hopes to get Gateway Tunnel done and to finally get more regularly scheduled Acela trips between NYC and DC and Boston. It's only by 2040 that the full HSR would be realized.

The document also provides new renderings for the Moynihan Station, which would expand Penn Station under the Farley Post Office. It wouldn't expand capacity, but rather rejigger space under the post office and MSG.

What's interesting is that the HSR plan for the NEC would include an entirely new alignment inland from New Rochelle, New York through Providence, Rhode Island. The alignment wouldn't change south of New York City. A newly configured Shoreline Express would cover those cities covered by the current NY to Boston alignment, with regional service supplementing service.

The Amtrak vision also indicates that there would be express and super express service - direct NYC to DC and NYC to DC routings - with no intermediate stops. Other trains would stop at designated city stops.

The Amtrak plans for rolling stock - the locomotives and train sets, would depend greatly on whether the FRA would allow an off-the-shelf solution or needing to build a system from the ground up. Frankly, it would be far cheaper to go with an off-the-shelf system, but that would mean likely buying from a foreign source (think France, Japan, or other European or Asian providers).

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