Monday, September 24, 2012

Amtrak's Testing of 165mph Train Wont Bring Immediate Changes

Amtrak needs to increase the speed of its trains on the Northeast Corridor. Doing so would make its Acela service even more preferable for those commuting between Washington DC, New York, and Boston.

Currently, the top speeds in most areas is no more than 125 mph in regular service.

Amtrak is testing a segment in New Jersey between New Brunswick and Trenton at 165 mph over the next several nights. Amtrak's using this as an opportunity to run tests on equipment.
Two test locations — from Perryville, Md., to Wilmington, Del., and from Trenton to New Brunswick, N.J. — currently have a speed limit of 135 mph. The two others — in Rhode Island from Westerly to Cranston and in Massachusetts from South Attleboro to Readville — have 150 mph limits.

The same areas, totaling just over 100 miles, were used for tests reaching 165 mph in the 1990s before the introduction of high-speed Acela service, Cole said. Federal regulations required another round of testing, he said, to further raise the top speed limit.

Cole said the tests, with cars equipped with instruments to collect a variety of data, will not affect normal rail operations because they are scheduled at a time of minimal rail service.

In New Jersey, track, electric power, signals and other systems are to be upgraded over the next several years to improve reliability and to permit regular train operations at faster speeds, as part of a $450 million project funded by the federal high-speed rail program.
There are several factors holding back true high speed rail and they are mostly related to an archaic infrastructure.

For starters, the electrical systems need to be upgraded to a constant tension system. That includes the catenary system through New Jersey and that's part of the $450 million in upgrades to come over the next few years. The other part is dealing with a string of bottlenecks that reduce the number of tracks, including at the Portal Bridge and Hudson River tunnels. Those two projects mean that speeds from Newark into Manhattan can be no more than 70 mph.

Constructing a new Portal Bridge has been in the works for years, but its fate has been tied to the Gateway/ARC plan. Even if Gateway is still years away from being funded, the Portal Bridge should move ahead and that would pay immediate dividends in increasing speeds from Secaucus through to Newark. It would provide a more reliable link and that's in everyone's best interests.

But the thing to remember is that these tests wont pay immediate dividends and trains wont begin running at these speeds in revenue service for another few years, which is a tremendous shame since even doing so for these short segments could cut 7 minutes off service between New York and Washington (30 mile segment increase to 165 mph. As the high speed expands to other sections, the speeds could likewise result in cutting significant time off the trip.

Moreover, 165 mph isn't where Amtrak needs to be setting its sights. Speeds over 200mph should be. Doing so would revolutionize travel along the NEC and provide highly competitive travel as compared with flying in all too crowded skies and overburdened airports that are struggling to maintain their current flight schedules.

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