High- and Low-Speed Rail Coordination

The debate about what kind intercity rail to build tends to be either/or. On one side, there’s HSR-only advocacy: this represents the attitude of SNCF, especially in the earlier years of the TGV, and such American HSR proponents as John Mica. In this view, legacy rail is inherently slow and money-losing and the best that can be done is to start fresh; generally, this view also looks down on integration with legacy regional rail. On the other side, there’s a legacy-only advocacy, which represents how Britain upgraded its intercity rail network in and after the 1970s and also the attitude of proponents of Amtrak-plus lines in the US.

The problem with this is that there are a lot of different markets out there, and the service levels they justify and the construction challenges they impose are different. Sometimes such markets are in the same general area, and this means some lines should be HSR and some should be upgraded low-speed rail.

Countries that tried to go to one extreme of this debate are now learning the hard way that they need to do both. Britain radically optimized its intercity main lines, which now have the highest average speed in the world except for HSR – but it needs more, and this requires it to build a new HSR line at immense cost. In the other direction, France’s TGV-only strategy is slowly changing. SNCF still doesn’t care about legacy intercity lines, but the regions are investing in regional rail, and one region even uses the high-speed line for local service. Japan gets away with neglecting most of the intercity lines because its physical and political geography is such that markets that can support HSR dominate, but other countries cannot.

This means that best network design is going to have to deal with both approaches’ political difficulties at the same time. Upgrading legacy rail means upgrading legacy rail operating practices, against opposition of workers and managers who are used to old and inefficient ways of doing things. And building HSR on the thickest markets means giving special treatment to some regions with infrastructure that other regions don’t justify; it’s economically solid, but the optics of this are poor.

But the advantage of doing it this way from the start is that it’s more future-proof, and allows integrated design in terms of schedules, which lines are upgraded, how cities are connected, and so on.

Doing it piecemeal may require redoing a connection along a different alignment. The issue is that HSR compresses travel times along the line only. It’s like urban rapid transit this way, or for that matter like the air network. A legacy rail system (or a national highway system, or urban buses) has fairly consistent average speed. This means that in a combined system, the optimal path between two cities may not be the shortest path, in case one is close to the HSR trunks.

For example, look at Upstate New York. None of its four major metro areas is large enough to justify a high-speed connection to New York by itself, but all four combined do. Although international service to Toronto is overrated, it could be justifiable in light of Buffalo’s relative economic integration with Ontario and also the mostly straight, partially grade-separated right-of-way available in Canada; this would further thicken the market.

If we draw a rudimentary map of other desired connections, none thick enough to warrant more than an upgraded low-speed train, the fastest connections are not always obvious. For example, with average HSR speed of 240 km/h and legacy rail speed of 100 km/h, it’s faster to get from New York to Ithaca via Syracuse than directly via Binghamton. This is why the connection to Ithaca is through a line that points toward Syracuse, even if it’s not the shortest route to Binghamton. It’s one of many small local optimization problems.

More interestingly, we get a mini-hub in Syracuse. Although it’s the smallest of the four main Upstate cities, it lies at the junction of the trunk line and lines to Binghamton and Watertown, and also has secondary cities at the right location for regional rail. (The largest comparable secondary city near Rochester is Geneva, which happens to be close to and have a good rail connection to I-90, a prime candidate for HSR corridor; thus it should get commuter service using the trunk line, which would be far faster than an all-legacy train.) This means that schedules should be set up to coordinate transfers in Syracuse.

This is a normal way to set things up in an all-legacy format, as is done in Switzerland, but it can equally apply to HSR. The construction challenges on the Empire Corridor are nowhere near as complex as those in California, Pennsylvania, and other truly mountainous states, but they’re still nontrivial. But now that we know that Syracuse should be a hub, one answer to the question “How many design compromises to make to reduce costs?” is “Build just enough to allow integrated transfers in both New York and Syracuse.”

(In practice this means HSR arriving in Syracuse on the hour and in New York whenever convenient. The main intercity line into New York is the Northeast Corridor, a very thick market that at HSR speed would have enough traffic to support show-up-and-go frequency. This is not true of lines serving Syracuse; Watertown is not Washington and Binghamton is not Boston.)

The main cost of doing things this way is political. It requires willingness to both prioritize markets and cut construction costs, as necessary to build HSR, and improve legacy rail operating practices and carefully integrate services, as necessary to build a working legacy rail network. The fiscal cost is not outrageous – those legacy lines are cheap relative to everything else (rebuilding the unelectrified New York-Scranton line is $550 million), and HSR on thicker markets will at least partially pay for itself.

Once we discard the notion that present-day Amtrak operating patterns are adequate, the question stops being about whether one trusts Amtrak or not, and purely about how to build a new transportation network. And then the correct answer to “High-speed or legacy?” is “Both, seamlessly integrated with each other.”


  1. Rational Plan

    Unfortunately there is no sign of anyone taking americas infrastructure issues seriously. Albany seems to spend all it’s time figuring out how to rob funds allocated for the MTA, never mind invest in anything statewide. In fact most state governments seem to be about preventing investment in their core cities infrastructure.

    Even in the most pro rail states it seems all talk no action.

    After all this brouhaha about high speed rail in the USA over the Obama administration (obviously with visceral opposition from the Republicans) all you are going to left with is some upgraded tracks between Chicago and Detroit and maybe St Lois and not much else. Maybe his second term will be different but I doubt he suddenly going to award California the $30 billion it needs to kick start it’s efforts.

    All you will see is some expansion of commuter rail, some new light rail systems. Everyone will agree that the North Eastern Corridor is a priority (even republicans agree on that) but no one will actually be willing to spend any money apart from some renewals of track and signalling. There might be a few studies launched but completion dates for a true high speed line will be safely set at 2040 with all the renewal stuff done first.

    • Nathanael

      Albany… gaaak. I don’t think anything will break loose in Albany until the State Senate is wrested from the clutches of the Republican cabal. (Then we have to deal with Sheldon Silver’s cabal in the Assembly, but I think that will be easier with the Bruno/Skelos gang out.)

      Alon, I’m going to comment lower down about your ‘fantasy map’ for NY, which is good.

  2. Rational Plan

    Also the difference between France and Britain can put be down to geography. France is much larger and the advantage of speed is much greater, Britain’s cities are much closer, it is only now that we are approaching the limits of capacity on all our lines are we considering a new high speed line.

  3. Gauephat

    Interesting thing about the geography of Canada is that outside of southwestern Ontario, there’s no place to build legacy intercity rail. Two proper high-speed rail corridors (Windsor-London-Toronto-Kingston-Ottawa-Montréal-Québec and Calgary-Red Deer-Edmonton) covers about 90% of the market for possible intercity rail. The only remaining possible areas for legacy rail are Toronto-Niagara Falls-Buffalo and London-Sarnia, and maybe Regina-Saskatoon. The big cities are either so spread out or so concentrated that if the country were to build high-speed rail where it should be built, there’s barely any markets remaining for slower intercity trains.

  4. Nathanael

    Regarding Ithaca service. I worked this out.

    The Ithaca-Cortland line is worth bringing back, but the legacy alignment bypasses the *only* intermediate population point, namely Dryden (with Tompkins Cortland Community College). A sane modern local service should divert to serve Dryden. There’s already an abandoned branch from the Ithaca end to Dryden, but one would have to cut a bit of greenfield on the Cortland-Dryden end.

    The Ithaca-Cortland line lands on East Hill near Cornell. There is an abandoned line from that area to Caroline, with about 4000 feet of new connection behind the horse barns and across Snyder Hill Road needed because of house construction over the original route. At Caroline, this line intersected with the abandoned Ithaca-Owego route, which runs pretty much directly to Owego and merges into the Elmira-Binghamton line heading towards Binghamton. (The problem with that route was its crazy slow access to Ithaca through switchbacks on South Hill, not the main portion of the route)

    So if I were really reconstructing the state’s passenger rail network, I’d rebuild that and run the trains *through* Ithaca from Syracuse to Binghamton, rather than on the existing Cortland-Binghamton route which has no intermediate population. I suspect Binghamton-Ithaca is more popular than Binghamton-Cortland, and if it isn’t it will be since Ithaca is growing and Cortland isn’t.

    This also follows the “be on the way” principle.

    More “wishlist map” comments coming.

    • Adirondacker12800

      A sane modern local service should divert to serve Dryden.

      A sane modern service is a bus that runs every other hour to Syracuse.

      • Alon Levy

        Don’t be so sure. There are Cornell shuttles from New York, plus a few more Greyhound buses. Add Syracuse service and it’s enough to fill a short train every hour. Could be more depending on the reliability and comfort gain (the speed gain is there but not a game changer – trip times of about 3 hours are realistic, vs. 4:30 now).

        • Adirondacker12800

          3 hours Ithaca to NYC via an HSR connection in Syracuse implies 1:30, 1:45 Syracuse to NYC. The tunnel under Schenectady is going to be expensive. The tunnel from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central or Penn Station is going to be very very expensive.

          • Alon Levy

            It’d be about 2:00 New York-Syracuse. Yes, it requires tunneling. No, not that much – only in the Hudson Highlands, and possibly a bit in Westchester while transitioning from the legacy ROW to a new one. (If the transition is made at Croton-Harmon, it requires a short tunnel under Peekskill.)

            Ithaca-Syracuse in an hour is on the aggressive side for legacy rail, but it’s not unprecedented. It’s about the same as the average speed of the faster legacy lines in Japan.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Or about as fast as a bus. 60 miles of Class 4 track so that a few hundred thousand people can get to Syracuse a few minutes faster than a bus, I don’t think so.

          • BruceMcF

            Isn’t it 20 miles of Class 4 track to give service to Itheca? The NYC / Scranton / Binghamton / Syracuse alignment is not contingent on the Itheca to Cortland branch line.

          • Adirondacker12800

            As if the mighty New York Susquehanna and Western has any class 4 track especially in the wilds of Upstate New York. The Utica Branch is so far gone that it’s out of service.

          • Nathanael

            If you rebuilt and upgraded the existing tracks to 60 mph standards, I believe you could do Ithaca-Syracuse in 1:30 with little difficulty, and you could probably do better. The route’s relatively straight, not a lot of tight curves, and you can drive the backroads (not the expressway) in roughly that time (and they’re full of 30 mph limitations).

            As for Syracuse – NYC, you then only need to do that in 3 hours in order to beat both driving and the fastest bus. This is certainly possible, though the current timing is 5:40 so some significant greenfield high speed rail tracks would definitely have to be built.

        • Nathanael

          You’ve left out Shortline, Alon.

          To NYC, we have 3 Cornell buses each way per weekday (32 passenger buses), plus cheaper Shortline buses — *8* each way per day, and they have more seats per bus; plus, at least next Monday, 3 Greyhound and 1 Trailways each way. (Most people take Shortline, probably due to the largest number of frequencies.)

          That adds up to a total of *15* buses each way per day. Both Shortline and Swarthout offer extra NYC trips at the beginning and end of each school break, because this isn’t enough buses for peak periods.

          The Cornell bus has the fastest timing at 4:30 nonstop, which is as good as you can do with a car. The Shortline bus is over 5:30.

          Regular Syracuse service is minimal, being provided only by Greyhound/Trailways. A student-run collective offers special additional trips to the Syracuse airport and train station at the beginning and end of each school break. There’s also an on-demand shared “Airport Limousine” service to the Syracuse airport and train station.

          …And the Ithaca-Dryden-Cortland highway is beginning to suffer from congestion.

          Uh, yeah, we can support rail service. It doesn’t even need to be that fast; if you can get it down to 5 hours it’ll probably be packed.

          • Harald

            Yeah, non-car travel from Ithaca to any place other than NYC and Binghamton was more or less impossible. When I still lived there (car-free) long distance travel always meant renting a car, with the exception of the occasional trip to Toronto (via Geneva-Rochester). My wife once took the bus from Montreal, which took like 13 hours. I wonder by how much Cornell subsidizes those NYC buses.

          • Nathanael

            Cornell subsidizes those buses by quite a lot.

            Recent Cornell administrations are notoriously incapable of looking to the future. It’s a change: in the “old days”, Ezra Cornell paid to have a railroad built into Ithaca; that’s the Ithaca & Owego. It’s since been ripped out.

  5. Nathanael

    So. If you run trains from Buffalo-Rochester-Syracuse-Albany-NYC, you’ll find that they’re half empty at the west end and start filling up as they go further east. (Obviously.) There are a few ways to address this: one is to extend west to another “anchor”, but the next “anchor” west of Buffalo is Chicago, which is a whole ‘nother problem. (The Lake Shore Limited’s most popular city pairs after NY-Chicago are Buffalo-Chicago, Syracuse-Chicago, Rochester-Chicago, Albany-Chicago… so there is a market here.)

    The other option is to run more trains on the eastern part of the route and fewer on the western. But this allows for the option of extending some of those trains west to *different* destinations. In particular, the tracks at Syracuse are set up so that trains running west from the station can turn south, go through downtown Syracuse and past the University there, and onwards to Cortland.

    Now, as you pointed out, the trip from Ithaca to NY would already be faster through Syracuse than through Binghamton. So it would make sense, assuming that you don’t have through-running through Ithaca, to run some of the high speed trains through onto the legacy tracks from NYC through Syracuse to Cortland and then Ithaca (and reverse). It makes somewhat less sense in terms of ridership to run from Ithaca to Watertown or Oswego or Seneca Falls, and of those three only Watertown is operationally sensible; the others involve backtracking.

    • Adirondacker12800

      The Lake Shore Limited’s most popular city pairs after NY-Chicago are Buffalo-Chicago, Syracuse-Chicago, Rochester-Chicago, Albany-Chicago… so there is a market here

      Um there’s Cleveland and Toledo, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis, St. Louis even. Few passengers because eastbound it arrives at a quarter past dead-of-the-night and westbound it arrives at quarter to dead-of-the-night.

      • BruceMcF

        And if that is an HSR corridor through to Erie PA, Cleveland would be about 90miles along an upgraded conventional rail corridor, so 1.5 hrs to the Erie at the assumed 63mph transit speed, and another 1.6 hrs Erie to Syracuse at 150mph, so it would pull a substantial share of the intercity transport market between NE Ohio and upstate NY such as it is.

        From an upstate perspective, its interesting that there’s an option to go to Rutland but none to go to Boston or Western or Central MA.

        • Adirondacker12800

          There’s an option to go to Boston, almost no one uses it because it’s slower than the bus. The Lake Shore Limited also serves Boston.

          • BruceMcF

            There are some people who would use it in preference to the bus, but not with the wee hours of the morning departure time of the Lake Shore. With a 150mph transit time from Erie through to Albany, it would be substantially faster than the bus or than driving from Detroit / Toledo / Cleveland even if the corridor between Eire and Detroit and between Albany and Boston was just Class 5 track conventional rail.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The people of Vermont spend the money to have the train leave Rutland in the morning and arrive in the evening making overnight trips to New York City possible. They aren’t using it to transfer to the Lake Shore Limited to get to Boston because the Lake Shore Limited is SLoooooOoOoW between Albany and Boston.

          • Nathanael

            The Albany-Boston route predates the use of eminent domain for railroads, as far as I can tell, and is about as slow and indirect as they get. In fact, it’s one of the corridors most in need of a “greenfield” route, but the demand doesn’t seem quite high enough to do it, and the Massachusetts State Government has been averse to new-build anything since the Big Dig.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Um there’s these things called the Berkshire Mountains between Albany and Boston, makes the civil engineers design all sorts of things in squiggly lines. Or the Green Mountains depending on which part of the route you are looking at and how you define your mountain ranges.

          • Nathanael

            Uh, Adirondacker, the route of the B&A is squiggly for far more reasons than the Berkshire “Mountains”. I-90 cuts off a lot of the worst “what the hell” diversions, and even the state roads are more direct. Hell, even the back roads are more direct.

            Looks like the railroad was trying to hit as much on-line traffic as possible, for one thing, and probably trying to reduce grades, too. But mostly, it was following rivers *very* closely.

            South to Chatham! North to the middle of nowhere! South again to just west of West Stockbridge! North again to Pittsfield (and Dalton!) South again to Springfield, being sure to follow the river around tight turns through a canyon, rather than running along the quite viable flatter upland routes! After Palmer, north to Warren; then south again at Spencer! Then north again to Rochdale! South again! North again to Worcester! South again!

            We have some similar riverbend-hugging horrors elsewhere, but there’s a reason few of them host passenger service.
            We have some

          • Alon Levy

            The interesting comparison is with other lines of similar vintage, which are predominantly straight. The Boston and Providence is straight; the New York, Providence, and Boston is straight in Rhode Island; the LIRR is dead straight west of Hicksville.

          • BruceMcF

            @Nathanial, one wonders whether the rail corridor was originally laid out to fetch milk and eggs for Boston from market towns originally established for a similar purpose but relying on the water to get the produce to the main regional market.

          • Adirondacker12800

            …open Google Maps and click on the terrain option, that should give you a clue why the lines west of Boston twist and turn

          • Nathanael

            I did. Adirondacker, the terrain is pretty flat for all intents and purposes — this ain’t the Rockies or even western Pennsylvania. Not only is the Philly-Pittsburgh line straighter, the *old* Philly-Pittsburgh line is straighter. The B&A is much, much curvier than it needs to be. Contrast, for instance, *any* of the railroad lines in my neck of the woods; they were *all* straighter, and our hills are worse. Even the horrible Southern Tier line which hugs the Susquehanna (at the foot of BIG hills) makes more effort to be straight than the B&A does.

            I suspect Bruce McF is correct, and the railroad was originally designed to take local traffic directly from the pre-existing waterways, which is probably why it hugs them so unreasonably closely.

          • Alon Levy

            It could just be a matter of construction standards. Most early railroads in the US (but not Britain) were built on the cheap, intended to be replaced later. Some were very high-quality from the beginning, like the Boston and Providence or the Boston and Lowell, but others weren’t. As soon as any difficult terrain was encountered, e.g. the Shore Line, they curved tightly. The ones in New England were not replaced. The ones elsewhere, e.g. the New Jersey Railroad, were.

          • BruceMcF

            In any event, if the Western alignment were to be used for an Express HSR corridor NYC/Boston, that would share some of the NYC/Albany infrastructure and shorten the stretch from Albany into MA on windy track until hitting the Express HSR track again.

      • Nathanael

        Well, sure, people go to Cleveland, but my point was that it’s not an *anchor* like Chicago, so it won’t balance demand. It’s another Rust Belt city like Buffalo.

        The ridership is not merely suppressed by the hours; people taking intercity rail from a midsize city are mostly trying to get to a megalopolis, not to another midsize Rust Belt city. Most of the ridership patterns are like that: given suitable hours, NYC-Cleveland will get a fair number of people and so will Chicago-Cleveland, but Cleveland-Buffalo will get far fewer, so your ridership isn’t balanced at both ends unless you go further.

        So if you want to balance ridership at both ends of your train run (wise economically), you have to continue all the way to Chicago (St. Louis or Minneapolis would do too, but they’re west of Chicago). Although, Detroit may be big enough to still act as an anchor, so New York to Detroit might also be balanced. Indianapolis probably can’t. I doubt that Columbus or Cincinatti can either.

        Anyway, I was saying that if the traffic is *not* balanced, then you want the trains to branch out in many directions at the “weak end” in order to keep them full end to end. Yes, branching them out to Cincinatti and Indianapolis would be one way to do that, and probably a perfectly good one.

        • BruceMcF

          Yes, and you have already multiple branch points along the way ~ frequency is better if, as Alon suggests, you use a mix of eight car and four car sets and run an exploder service, operational simplicity is better if the frequency drops off with the bit, and of course you could use a mix of both.

          So out of four trains running to Albany, you could run one to Troy and one to Rome and turn them back to fit into four trains running back to Albany. They may not be running back into Albany full, but then you need a lot of empty seats at Albany.

          There will be more traffic running to NYC than to Rochester and Buffalo out of the Syracuse connections, so either split the two trains at Syracuse or turn one at Syracuse and continue one on.

          And there is a split point at Buffalo between the northern branch and the southern branch. A challenge in Alon’s network sketch is balancing demand to Toronto and demand to Erie, PA.

          Running a separate train on that corridor, Cleveland / Erie / Buffalo / Niagara Falls / Rochester (the blue line), recruits at Buffalo to and from Buffalo / Rochester / Syracuse / Albany / NYC. Its scheduled with the train that turns at Buffalo rather than the train that continues to Toronto, so the transfer eastbound is cross platform to a standing train, settle into your seat and turn on your electronics.

          The 3C plan has always been to connect to the Empire Corridor at Buffalo, this leverages the faster transit speed to Albany and NYC to increase the ridership to Buffalo. By increasing ridership to and from Buffalo from NYC, Albany, and the Syracuse Hub, it levels out the percentage drop in occupancy westbound from Albany.

          • Adirondacker12800

            It’s not worth it to run a train to Troy or Rome, there aren’t enough people there and it’s too close to a station with frequent service.

          • Adirondacker12800

            No they wouldn’t.
            Check the bus schedules for the thriving megalopolis of Rome NY, both pages of it. Don’t worry your pretty little head about what the schedule is on Sunday because there’s aren’t enough bus riders on Sunday to make it worthwhile to run buses. Almost all of the bus routes in Troy run to Albany. There’s one route that wanders down to Rensselaer. The people who don’t want to go to Rensselaer from Troy by bus are the same ones who won’t want to go by train.

          • BruceMcF

            There’s 100,000 in Utica/Rome, 80-90 miles up the HSR corridor from Albany. Taking that train the extra 10 miles up to Rome instead of turning the train at Utica would avoid the controversy over losing most services at Rome Amtrak, but for those upset by the notion of a train station in a town of 30,000 to 50,000, feel free to imagine turning that train at Utica, and turning the Troy train at Albany Station rather than 4 and a half miles to its north.

    • Alon Levy

      So, I thought about it, and I think the problem with running trains through to Ithaca or Cortland is that the drop-off in demand is too big. The Empire Corridor can fill a few 200-meter high-speed trains per hour, perhaps even 400-meter ones. The other cities in Upstate New York can’t even fill one, but can fill reasonably frequent shorter trains. So one way to do this is Mini-Shinkansen-style, with short bits decoupling in Syracuse.

      Depending on how they do the transfers, it might be easier to just have trains run NY-Albany-(Vermont)-((Montreal)) or NY-Albany-Buffalo-(Chicago/Toronto), and time transfers at Syracuse toward both Watertown and Ithaca/Binghamton. This is the only reasonable way to serve Watertown anyway, and this also allows for decent service from Buffalo and Rochester to Binghamton. (New York-Binghamton is faster through Scranton and the Lackawanna Cut-Off.)

      • Nathanael

        I take it you’re assuming a true “passenger dedicated line” from Syracuse to Albany.

        Hmm. OK, I see your point: more frequency helps a lot.

      • BruceMcF

        If the Albion Branch allows a mix of flyer and local services, Itheca / Cortland / Syracuse / Rochester / Buffalo via Albion would increase Syracuse / Buffalo frequency without requiring the size of train that you would want Albany / NYC. Then you can balance demand to NYC across the corridor by turning trains at Albany, turning trains at Syracuse and turning trains at Buffalo or Toronto, and fill in frequency between Syracuse and Buffalo while recruiting additional patronage for the train turning at Syracuse via the Syracuse Hub.

  6. Nathanael

    Third “fantasy map” comment.

    What you do west of Buffalo is deeply dependent on how crazy the border patrol situation is. It’s pretty crazy right now.

    If it weren’t crazy, it would make sense to rebuild the Canada Southern as a high-speed railway and run fast from Detroit to Buffalo (with a new Niagara River bridge), as this provides the fastest route from Chicago to Upstate NY anyway. But the border patrol situation is crazy, and so we find ourselves looking at routes via Erie and Cleveland, such as are on your map.

    Oh: note that one advantage of running trains through NYC-Albany-Syracuse-Cortland is that they can stop at the downtown Syracuse and University district stations as well as at the station near the Carousel Mall. To access downtown Syracuse without using the route toward Cortland requires the demolition of I-690 and its replacement with the railroad viaduct which used to be there — and that seems unlikely, sad to say.

    Another route which could be rebuilt for Ithaca access is the Ithaca-Auburn Short Line, but Ithaca has closer connections to Cortland than to Auburn, so it would be less useful.

    On the question of Buffalo-Toronto, it is really unfortunate that most of the best routes between Buffalo and Niagara Falls have been torn up, leaving a permanently-slow route even by legacy rail standards. However, Buffalo still has a lot of vacant properties and it might be possible to assemble something better due to that.

    • dejv

      What you do west of Buffalo is deeply dependent on how crazy the border patrol

      If it weren’t crazy, it would make sense to rebuild the Canada Southern as a high-speed railway and run fast from Detroit to Buffalo (with a new Niagara River bridge), as this provides the fastest route from Chicago to Upstate NY anyway.

      Long before Shengen agreement came into practice, intra-Austrian train used to run sealed on 100 km stretch through Germany from Salzburg to Kufstein sealed so that apart from emergencies, nobody could get in or out. I believe that the same model could be used in North America, too.

      • Sascha Claus

        Long before Shengen agreement came into practice, intra-Austrian train used to run sealed on 100 km stretch through Germany from Salzburg to Kufstein sealed so that apart from emergencies, nobody could get in or out.

        ÖBB even built a curve at Rosenheim to avoid changing direction there (which included running around the engine at these times).

        I believe that the same model could be used in North America, too.

        Like between Vancouver BC and the US-Canadian border? Over there, one end isn’t even located inside the US!

  7. Andre Lot

    One shall be careful about making extrapolations of concepts and paradigms adopted elsewhere, especially when ignoring their shortcomings for only praising their benefits.

    Specifically, I question the smartness of adopting the Swiss “build to schedule” practice in America, a totally different environment with completely different land patterns and much more dynamic and changing settlement evolution. For those not familiar with it, I refer to the practice of only building infrastructure considering which precise synched timetable gains could be achieved.

    US is NOT Switzerland, it doesn’t have a fifth of the tolerance to socialism that the Swiss have for mammoth-sized central government meddling with things as mundane and minor as the exact minutes a train will pass in each station and whether new or improved infrastructure are justified planned on some 2021 future timetable…

    Because most legacy passenger rail infrastructure in US is crap or in heavy state of disrepair, and most cities have equally crap urban transit, it makes all sense to just think of HSR as a clean sheet offering plenty of opportunity for the rest of the transportation network to be build around it, and not the other way around.

    • Alon Levy

      Switzerland’s example is a lot more applicable to the US than the other great transit country, Japan. In Switzerland as in the US, there aren’t many huge thick markets, which can support multiple competing operators. This is what compels cooperation. In the US there’s practically no private passenger rail, and not much private transit bus service. The government already decides when each train is scheduled to pass each station – and how much staffing to put on board, and what amenities to provide, and how to structure the fares. It’s just that it’s a state government or a local agency. Integrating fares and building infrastructure based on clockface timetables is then just a matter of getting a horde of public agencies to cooperate; it’s a problem of government quality and turf battles, rather than one of acceptance of socialism.

      • BruceMcF

        Indeed, we used to do transfers, but the egregiously bad on-schedule running performance of trying to run passenger trains on a system designed to haul coal and granite and containerloads of cheap electronic crap from China means that no rational passenger looks at a scheduled transfer without asking what is the fallback.

        However, with sufficient frequency from Syracuse through to NYC, your fallback is the next service scheduled through. So direct services through the hub to major regional destinations and connections at the hub to frequent service to NYC seems a quite workable strategy, even in “American conditions”.

  8. modorney

    I look at the two primary markets – Albany to NYC and Buffalo to NYC and see them as the only good candidates for high speed (125mph) rail.

    Ithaca, Binghamton and Cortland would probably have sufficient ridership to warrant Intermediate Speed Rail (110 mph). And, the final piece – Ithaca to Rochester – might only warrant 80 mph or less?

    Intermediate speed rail is much cheaper to build than high speed rail. ISR allows grade crossings, if protected with four-way gates, and other safeguards. Possibly, Buffalo to Rochester might only warrant ISR.

    Albany to NYC currently has 1 million riders a year. With fast trains, that could possibly double. Buffalo to Albany has less than half this ridership. With ten trains a day, and only 120 passengers per train, it’s pretty hard to justify HSR for the little used parts of Albany-Buffalo. For one thing, there only needs to be one high speed line, and parallel intermediate speed lines can allow passing.

    Ithaca to NYC does not have huge traffic, but a two hour trip would encourage lots more riders, especially weekend student trips. Binghamton – NYC might warrant HSR, but maybe not west of Binghamton?

    It would be good to get some ridership forecasts, as well as infrastructure costs. Plus some of the benefits to the small towns that locals would serve.

    • Nathanael

      I absolutely agree with you on your general assessments.

      Albany-NYC is actually the hardest part to upgrade due to all the cliffs next to the Hudson; but it’s the most valuable. Albany-Syracuse is second-hardest, because the current route curves to follow the Mohawk River; but it’s the second most valuable. West of there the existing route is pretty straight and the main obstacle is intranisgent, obnoxious, abusive behavior by CSX.

      So we’re getting some upgrades from Schenectady to NYC.
      Perhaps NYS should go ahead and bite the bullet on a new passenger dedicated line from Schenectady to Utica to Syracuse. Ideally, they’d rip out I-690 and put the original Syracuse passenger line back in, but that’s probably not plausible. 😦

      • Alon Levy

        The hard and easy segments are interspersed finely, is the problem. From Albany to about I-84 is pretty easy, though connecting that to the Hudson Line is not. From I-84 across the Hudson Highlands requires tunneling, though it’s nothing that many other HSR lines in the world haven’t had to deal with. In the other direction, Albany-Schenectady is easy if you want every train to stop at Schenectady, onward to Utica is hard, Utica-Syracuse is easy either through Rome or I-90, Syracuse-Rochester is hard because the legacy line meanders through sharp hills, and Rochester-Buffalo is ungodly easy.

        Syracuse really needs to move its station somewhere more interesting than the current Amshack, especially if it ever wants regional rail connections to Auburn and other surrounding cities, but this means going elevated over Erie Boulevard (NIMBYs), replacing I-690 (yeah, right), or tunneling (money is non-arboreal). At least the current station connects to Oswego and Watertown better.

        • Nathanael

          Syracuse’s current station isn’t an Amshack; it’s perfectly nice. It’s surrounded by stadiums and it *would* be within waking distance of Carousel Mall if, you know, there were SIDEWALKS. The only “live” part of Syracuse, Salina St., *almost* reaches it.

          The Amshack at Dewitt was demolished in the mid-90s, I believe. The problem remains that the tracks detour way around the north side of Syracuse through the freight yards.

          A better station location in Syracuse requires new tracks, and honestly I-690 is the most plausible place to put them, mostly because that’s where they were before, and it makes for a nice straight route. There’s frankly no other way to get through downtown. Elevated over Erie Blvd. doesn’t really work, both because of the I-81 south / I-690 junction and because of Clinton Square.

          I suppose you could use the existing downtown Ontrack /NYS&W line and connect eastward from the University area, but you’re running through a great mass of hills with tall buildings on them.

          To go through downtown, you have to get through the snarl where I-690 and I-81 cross one way or another; you can’t easily go over it, you can’t easily go under it, you have to demolish it. Conveniently, it *just happens* to be falling down and in dire need of reconstruction. There is serious talk of demolishing the elevated section of I-81 south of I-690, which would help. And one of the sections west of there has a lovely “Exit Closed Because Of Collapse” sign.

          So actually, demolishing I-690, or at any rate part of it, seems like the most likely way to get trains back into downtown Syracuse.

          • Nathanael

            Let me expand on that sidewalk comment.

            Train station: lovely sidewalks!

            Walk down the street to where the sidewalk from the train station ends. You are about 20 feet from an intersection, which does not have crosswalks. Across the street to your left is a beautiful little “market” area with several shops and a nice sidewalk — *BEHIND A FENCE*. Across the street kitty-corner to you is a”sidewalk” which is about two feet wide; this does not reach the corner. It heads off to the left and connects to the city sidewalk system after a block It also heads ahead (towards Carousel Center) up a steep slope, but terminates before reaching the next sidewalk, at another road without a crosswalk. Across the street, straight ahead (towards Carousel Center) there is no sidewalk. To your right, Park Street passes under a railroad bridge, with no sidewalks on *either* side of the street.

            So the Syracuse train station is severed from its surroundings by what I can only call pedestrian-hostile infrastructure; and it doesn’t have to be that way.

        • Nathanael

          Of note, Syracuse-Rochester isn’t that bad; trains cruise consistently at 79 mph without slowing down through most of the turns, and remember that’s without tilting. The biggest set of twists and turns (through Clyde and Lyons) is going around very minor hills, and could be cut off by building some new bridges over the canal and running straight through.

          The main slowdown between Syracuse and Rochester at the moment is a single-track trestle through the Howland Island Wildlife Management Area, which badly needs to be dealt with.

          The second worst slowdown is through the railyards west of the Syracuse statoin, and dealing with that is actually funded, though God only knows whether CSX will manage to prevent it from getting done.

          Apart from that, you get much more bang for your buck with upgrades east of Syracuse (mostly east of Utica). Much more.

          • Alon Levy

            Even with tilting, you’re never going to get high speed out of that route. The speed rises only as the square root of curve radius times total equivalent cant. If you want 4-km curves, you’re going to need to go greenfield. Because those hills are oriented north-south, a straight route would have to do a lot of cut-and-fill (probably no tunnels or difficult viaducts, though). I-90 with a diagonal cut to the legacy route near Rochester would be easier, if longer. It would also bypass the Wildlife Management Area, and could go through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge alongside or even in the median of the Interstate.

          • Nathanael

            Any design which avoids the wildlife areas, which are also wetlands, makes things a lot simpler, so good idea.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t think it’s really just about those two markets. Rather, it’s a combination of five major markets (high-speed commuter service plus intercity service from New York to the four major metros) and some minor intra-Upstate markets; none of these justifies greenfield HSR by itself, not even New York-Albany, but when they are combined, they do.

      I’m trying to figure out comparable ridership numbers to New York-Albany on city pairs with real HSR, but they all look bigger than 2 million. Tokyo-Sendai has 8 million; Sendai is twice the size of Albany and Tokyo is half again the size of New York (but New York-Albany is a bit shorter than Tokyo-Sendai), so we’re talking about 3 million, plus a lot of high-speed commuting. It’s entirely possible I’m mistaking one-way for two-way ridership, in which case the number should be doubled; JR East’s infographic doesn’t make this very clear. In France and Spain, city pairs with larger second city than Albany and a first city much smaller than New York get higher ridership than this: Madrid-Seville, including intermediate points, is 10 million.

      Binghamton is probably too small and out of the way to justify the same. New York-Binghamton serves just that market, plus smaller cities like Elmira and Ithaca. It also goes through more difficult terrain.

      • BruceMcF

        none of these justifies greenfield HSR by itself, not even New York-Albany, but when they are combined, they do.

        Plus, with 150mph transit over these distances, your baseline is not current rail service demand, but current rail service demand, plus a fraction of current bus service which would be rail patronage if higher frequency service is available, plus a majority of current puddle jumper air service patronage, and on top of the baseline there will be substantial induced demand from a combination of frequency and transit time along the Syracuse / Rochester / Buffalo axis, and from all three to NYC.

      • Nathanael

        Not only is Binghamton too small, the area’s still shrinking in population. Susquehanna River flooding is exacerbating that.

    • dejv

      high speed (125mph) rail … Intermediate Speed Rail (110 mph)

      Intermediate speed rail is much cheaper to build than high speed rail.

      This is only true if you have ROW that already supports at least 80-90 mph and it does not run in too rugged terrain. In any other case, you’ve got to build greenfield alignment and there is negligible cost differential between 180 km/h and 200 km/h. Heck, there’s even negligible cost difference between general-purpose 180 km/h track and passenger-dedicated 250 km/h track.

      ISR allows grade crossings, if protected with four-way gates,

      Proposing greenfield grade crossings is insane from any point of view. The costs of single-track grade crossing electronics are quarter to half of overpass and it won’t prevent accidents anyway.

      • BruceMcF

        This is only true if you have ROW that already supports at least 80-90 mph and it does not run in too rugged terrain.

        “too rugged terrain” being a ROW with a ruling grade steeper than 1:40 (2.5%)? East of the Rockies, right of way that “supports at least 80-90mph” is plentiful. The problem with using the existing track is rather that the track is not class 4 or 5 (or 6), that the track is not superelevated through curves, and that there is plodding heavy freight in the way ~ all problems which go away together with new track in the existing ROW.

        Given the single track revolution, there is quite a lot of ROW with single track in a ROW acquired for four conventional tracks, so if it runs through an area where there was never a reason to claw any of that ROW back, in which case “have ROW that already supports at least 80-90 mph” is no substantial difficulty.

        Heavily used mainline double track is trickier, since one way that the ROW originally acquired for four track is used is to provide an access road directly on the side of each track to simplify maintenance, and in that case the corridor owner will want a substantially wider centerline separation.

        But in the Iowa Connections study of an alignment from Chicago to Omaha there were four complete and one partially abandoned ROW to pick from, and one combined alignment, with the alignment with the greatest intervening population catchment being a single track branch line, with the better centerline separations that implies for the 50% double track required for the system.

        • dejv

          Too rugged terrain to allow in-ROW upgrade from 60 to 100 mph looks like this. The replacement track costs around 25 million euro per km which is in line with cheaper HSR lines outside Spain.

          • BruceMcF

            That may be a too-narrow ROW to allow in-ROW upgrade Class 3 (40mph freight, 60mph passenger) track to Class 5 (80mph/90mph) or Class 6 (110mph), but the terrain is not too rugged.

          • dejv

            The original ROW is too narrow to accomodate 100mph curves because it skirts a hill. English isn’t my native language but IMO that fits “too rugged terrain” words pretty well. The original ROW was wide enough for two tracks south of the first station in the video BTW.

          • BruceMcF

            If you are talking about transit speeds, and if the time taken on skirting one hill makes it impractical to hit a transit speed of 100mph, then hit a transit speed of 80mph instead.

            Or do an express cut or curve easement: the cost of a project EIR for a project of making one or two express cuts for an existing rail ROW is much less than the cost of a program EIR for a greenfield alignment program, and project EIR for each construction segment along he alignment. If the existing ROW remains in use for heavy freight, the express cut can be superelevated for a higher minimum speed, and designed around a steeper ruling grade.

          • Alon Levy

            There is zero chance you’ll get high speeds (as opposed to just medium speeds) on the existing tracks. The existing ROW is fine in many places, and given enough pressure on CSX it would even be possible to build in the same four-track ROW, without widening it. But letting heavy freight on the tracks for more than very short segments is going to create too much of a speed mismatch. That’s why CSX disallows higher speeds than 90 mph on its freight-primary Upstate tracks and why BNSF limits the Cascades to 5″ cant deficiency. Presumably, any increase in timetabled speed coming from higher punctuality reducing schedule padding is also out, so even the average speed that’s possible on long-interstation, passenger-primary 90 mph track – about 75 mph on Tel Aviv-Haifa – is not possible. Long story short: the difference between the cost of getting New York-Buffalo down to 5:30 and the cost of getting New York-Buffalo down to 3:00 is not all that large.

          • BruceMcF

            Dejv’s claims are regarding “intermediate” speed track in a conventional ROW. Obviously the MRRS 110mph design stereotype of 10:50 in a lightly used branch line and a dedicated track through a heavily used corridor reflects in part the different operating constraints facing the corridor owner in the two cases.

          • dejv

            @Bruce – I claim that when track upgrades require alignment to go out of existing ROW, 180 km/h “ISR” track is as expensive as 200 km/h “HSR” track. I’d also claim that when the ROW could supports 180 km/h, it should be possible to squeeze 200 km/h out of it, the speed differrential is too low to make any significant geometry and cost difference.

          • BruceMcF

            175km/hr and 200km/hr are two different tiers of ISR corridor, the “emerging HSR” tier and the “HSR – regional” tier. Given the step up in costs, Express HSR track is more like 260km/hr (Interstate alignment), 300km/hr or higher.

            And, yes, an express cut for a 110mph or 125mph corridor is likely to cost as much per km as a 160mph Express HSR corridor … but it’ll only be 10% of the corridor, rather than all of it.

        • Nathanael

          In the Empire Corridor, we’re looking at a partially abandoned four-track right of way, and sometimes multiple abandoned two-track ROWs parallel to it. It’s possible to do a lot within that envelope; if you’re willing to make minor greenfield diversions, it’s possible to do a very large amount.

          Of course, CSX doesn’t want to cooperate, so the best ROW is the hardest to use.

          • BruceMcF

            Yes, odd that CSX doesn’t want to cooperate with increasing their insurance costs at no clear benefit to themselves. If a public authority promises sufficiently high ongoing lease payments with an inflation index to make it worth their while, there would be a public outcry over subsidizing CSX ~ engineered in part by interested that see HSR as a disruptive transport technology.

            The question of what benefit can be given to CSX to make it worth their while but which will withstand the propaganda blitz from opponents of HSR is a mix of the business of freight railroading and the politics of opinion making, which sketches out the space of possible upgrades and of hurdles that will be faced by the Express HSR corridor from Buffalo to NYC via Albany.

            Alon’s map is rather about what finished system to aim for. Given the map, one could zoom in and determine where the Express HSR corridor would most benefit from using the Empire Corridor, and so where to focus on upgrade projects that are compatible, both in technical terms and in terms of the interaction with the corridor owner, with eventual upgrade to 180mph corridor ~ and where the focus may be on reliability improvements rather than speed upgrades, as the Empire Corridor is not going to be the alignment for the Express HSR corridor.

            The map also highlights that the share of intra-regional patronage versus patronage to NYC will be greatest along the Buffalo/Syracuse axis, so it may make sense to split into parallel Empire Corridor West and Empire Corridor East projects at Syracuse.

          • Nathanael

            Obviously, what we should have done was to nationalize the railroads. Hell, Keynes said it was the right thing to do back in the 30s. Clement Atlee did it in the UK, and he was clearly right.

            We could still do it if our politics weren’t so insane. $400 billion would buy the lot of them and the government would have a nice revenue-raiser *other than taxes*.

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t think it’s such a great thing to have a revenue-raiser other than taxes. It shifts government policy in directions you don’t want it to – more managerial, and less democratic. It also leads to discriminatory industrial policy; the equitable income (and property, and sales) tax made tax collection a lot more efficient than it was in the 19th century, when governments funded themselves out of tariffs and ad hoc taxes.

            So let’s have a profitable USDOT, sure, to buffer against losses and to allow investment. But a USDOT that’s a significant federal revenue source is not going to be a good thing.

          • Nathanael

            I will say that in the short term I think a focus on a “greenfield” route from Utica to Schenectady might be the right thing to do. Speeding this up benefits everything west of Utica as well; it’s one of the slower sections currently; the topography and land prices aren’t nearly as difficult as they are along the Hudson Line; and it’s the easternmost section which is being hampered by CSX.

          • Alon Levy


            But to put a wrench in this: where does the greenfield route diverge at the eastern end? If you’re planning for it to be HSR, it should probably be between Albany and Schenectady, to avoid the curves in Schenectady. Otherwise, west of Schenectady is of course better.

            A second wrench is that the technical trip time between Albany and Syracuse, with 360 km/h top speeds, diverging east of Schenectady, cutting off Rome, and making a single intermediate stop at Utica, is 50 minutes. With pad, it’s 53. If you want timed connections at both Albany and Syracuse, this needs to be an even hour, and just padding the dwell times is about the least efficient way of doing this. (The technical times for New York-Albany nonstop diverging at Croton-Harmon and for Syracuse-Buffalo with a stop at Rochester are both 50 minutes, which is fine with turnaround time.) So it might be better to slow down trains by programming a Schenectady stop. Alternatively it might be better to still skip Schenectady but compromise standards east of Utica to have lower top speed, reducing the cost of viaducts and cuts.

          • Nathanael

            I tend to think it’s worth stopping at Schenectady. Assume you don’t build a downtown Albany station (building one is a possibility, certainly, but a tough one). Then it makes sense to have a station on the west side of the Capital District and a station on the east side, just so people from the suburbs and countryside don’t have to go across the whole Capital District to get to the train station. And the Rennselaer station is very much on the east side, being on the east side of the Hudson River, behind bridge bottlenecks from the west.

            If you built / rebuilt a central Albany station, you could skip both Schenectady and Rennselaer. But that would be one of those difficult urban rail projects, involving most likely a new tunnel under or viaduct over Albany; probably more expensive than a high speed greenfield track from Schenectady to Utica.

            I see that Schenectady has some pretty gnarly track curves east and west of the station; I don’t see how to avoid them unless you leave the current ROW between Colonie and Schenectady, or tunnel under residential areas. There are also some pretty nasty curves just north/west of Rennselaer station, crossing and near the Livingston Avenue Bridge; thouse could be ameliorated only by relocating the bridge or relocating the tracks through Albany.

  9. Pingback: The ABCs of High Speed Rail « Regional Planning Innovation

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