Northeast Corridor HSR, 90% Cheaper

Amtrak’s latest Next-Generation High-Speed Rail plan is now up to $151 billion, from a prior cost of $117 billion. This is partially a small cost escalation, but mostly including Master Plan upgrades to the legacy line. Per kilometer of route length, this means the project has now crossed the $200 million/km mark, a higher cost than 60%-underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev. The primary cause of the high cost of Amtrak’s project is the heavy amount of deep-cavern urban tunneling: nearly a tenth of the cost is the Gateway Tunnel, a rebranded bundling of ARC into the project, and a similar amount is a similar project in Philadelphia. At least this time they’re serving Rhode Island with a stop in or near Providence rather than Woonsocket.

In contrast with this extravaganza, it is possible to achieve comparable travel times for about one tenth the cost. The important thing is to build the projects with the most benefit measured in travel time reduced or reliability gained per unit of cost, and also share tracks heavily with commuter rail, using timed overtakes to reduce the required amount of multi-tracking.

I propose the following general principles, guiding any future development in the corridor:

1. Rolling stock is cheaper than infrastructure. This is not true everywhere, but the Northeastern US and Japan both have high infrastructure-to-equipment cost ratios. A Shinkansen train today costs about $4 million per car judging by how much Taiwan pays. A 16-car train every 15 minutes from Washington to Boston, with a one-way travel time including turnaround of about 3:30, would require 30 sets, or 480 cars, or $2 billion. Therefore, it makes financial sense to demand more of the rolling stock: some tilting as present on the Talgo, Pendolino, N700, or E5; high initial acceleration as present on the N700-I; and high power-to-weight ratio as on the Talgo and Shinkansen models, or even possibly an all-cars-powered Pendolino.

The difference between an average and a top-rate train could easily amount to 20 minutes between Washington and Boston. Making up those 20 minutes with infrastructure, once the easiest projects have been completed, would cost far more than $2 billion.

2. Speed up commuter trains instead of bypassing them. The place where this is most obvious and useful is the Boston-Providence segment. I have nothing to add that I didn’t already say in my pair of posts on the subject last year. Something similar is true between Baltimore and Washington. It is more difficult between New York and New Haven, but at least there are curves that have to be bypassed anyway, and so the track sharing can be reduced to a manageable degree given the line’s heavy commuter traffic.

This requires fixing agency turf battles, which costs a lot of political capital but is almost free to the taxpayer. In contrast, long multi-track segments, often with new viaducts, easily run into the billions. Amtrak’s single biggest question mark east of New York is the string of tunnels from Penn Station to New Rochelle to Danbury, all so that it doesn’t have to share tracks with Metro-North. It could buy the commuter operations and subsidize them forever and still come out ahead of all those tunnels.

3. The regulations should be based on service needs. As a corollary of #1 and 2 and the every minute counts philosophy they espouse, the regulations should allow trains that can operate safely. Here safety is determined by actual practice and track record, rather than what the FRA thinks safety is, which has an incidental relationship with reality. That Shinkansen trains do not meet UIC standards should not be even a minor issue; trains in Japan are safer than in the UIC’s prime-mover European countries.

4. On shared segments that aren’t bypassed, build infrastructure that allows higher speeds. This is a corollary of #2: if legacy routes are to be upgraded rather than bypassed, there’s no point in assuming present-day speed limits, such as Metro-North’s 75 mph/120 km/h limit in Connecticut, will remain in place, and therefore projects should be built with high radius of curvature. Assume that large portions of the New Haven Line will host trains going at 240 km/h.

5. Make sure station throats allow full speed. Every non-geometric restriction on speed – tunnel diameter, track condition, switches – should be eliminated. Higher-speed switches are cheaper than new concrete pouring; more precise track maintenance is cheaper than most people realize, standing at about $100,000 per double-track-km on average; Shinkansen trains’ noses are designed (and European trains’ noses can be modified) to allow full speed through narrow tunnels, as Shinkansen construction standards minimize tunnel diameter to reduce costs.

The time cost of even a short segment inhibiting full-throttle acceleration in station throats is higher than most people realize. A kilometer a train has to wend at 50 km/h when it could go 200, such as the Penn Station throat, is worth 54 seconds. At stations closer to full-speed zone, this speed-restricted kilometer slows the train’s acceleration to full speed further down the line, and thus it comes at the expense of a kilometer at 300-360 km/h, raising the time cost even further.

6. Fix curves in higher speed zones. This applies mainly to the S-curve flanking I-287 in Metuchen: its curvature is not terrible, but because to its south there are no geometric speed restrictions for tens of kilometers and to its north the curves are also reasonably gentle, its bang for the buck can be surprisingly high.

7. Worry about track capacity when all other capacity factors have been optimized. An intercity railroad that runs 8-car trains is definitionally not at capacity. Running 16-car trains requires lengthening a small number of platforms, most at easy locations. Doubling train capacity across the Hudson chokepoint requires building a new tunnel under the river. Amtrak currently runs 4 trains per hour into Penn Station at the peak; if after everything else has been built it has exhausted the capacity of 4 trains per hour each with 16 cars and a thousand seats, its operating profits will let it pay for any further expansion.

With the above seven principles, one could come up with a reasonable set of projects of immediate significance. With a total cost in the single-digit billions, they’d eliminate most of the barriers to full-speed travel between New York and Washington, and leave New York-Boston with just one major problem section between Stamford and Milford. Best-practice trains, even ones optimized for a straighter route – for example, Shinkansen or the Talgo, but not the Pendolino, which is both heavier and less powerful but has a much larger degree of tilting – could go from Boston to Washington in about 4 hours, or not much more.

Getting this further down to 3 hours would require further investment according to the same principles, but even 4 hours, by virtue of the markets to and from New York, would generate the profits required to pay for them. Moreover, the contrast between fast travel on bypass segments in eastern Connecticut or straight legacy segments in Rhode Island and New Jersey and the remaining slower problem segments would create political will to complete the system. The areas with the most NIMBY resistance should be left for last, because today’s train riders as well as Amtrak itself are not nearly as powerful as they will be if the mostly NIMBY-free projects cut train travel time from 7 hours to 4.


    • Ryan

      As I understand it – and I’m not exactly a font of insider knowledge – this proposal is essentially a $151 billion ‘Go Screw’ directed at SEPTA and MetroNorth.

      • Tom West

        That implies SEPTA and MetroNorth loose out… as far as I can see, this would have no real negative impact on them. Sure, they don’t get the upgrades the big plan offers, but those are (1) unlikely and (2) not precluded by this plan.

      • Beta Magellan

        It’s not so much a $151 billion “go screw” but a $151 billion “we don’t want to screw with you” (the commuter rail agencies, I assume, feel the same).

  1. Ryan

    We have a lot of words in the English language for how I feel about the latest proposal, but I’m pretty sure that Alon would not appreciate me using any of them here.

    So I’m going to take this opportunity to pose a question instead. What’s the ultimate fate of the current Acela trainsets if we finally upgrade to something like Talgos? Are we just going to scrap them, demote them to Regional service, or something?

    Come to think of it, is there any plan to phase out the Amfleet tin cans?

    • anonymouse

      Yes, there’s a plan to phase out the Amfleets, it’s all in Amtrak’s fleet renewal program where they’re basically planning to replace everything they have with shiny new stuff, in order of its age. The first to go are going to be the electric locomotives, which really are getting old, and the baggage cars, which seem like a strange choice until you realize that they’re constraining the speed of long distance trains on the NEC. The NEC Amfleets are next in line after that, but at the current rate things are going, it may be another few years before they sign the contract for the new cars.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Another few years might be a good thing. They along with the commuter railroads can go to the FRA, point out that all of the track is covered by PTC and spec out lighter equipment.

      • Nathanael

        The schedule is actually:
        (1) replace long-distance dining cars, which are minimum 48 years old and they can’t keep enough in service to cover all the trains they currently run;
        (2) replace baggage cars, which are also minimum 48 years old, and are limiting the speed of long-distance trains on the NEC;
        These are the last of the cars inherited from pre-Amtrak railroads and are also expensive to maintain due to the numerous obsolete parts.
        (3) add long-distance sleepers, which Amtrak can immediately fill up and actually make money on;
        (4) electric locomotives, which are newer than 48 years but locomotives don’t last as long;
        These are actually contracted for.

        After that Amtrak really plans to replace everything — it’s all getting too old — but the order is unclear, as Amtrak vacillates between replacing the oldest cars, and replacing the ones with the most mileage. In the current plan the next on the list is to replace the long-distance Amfleets (Amfleet IIs) because they have a lot more mileage than the Amfleet Is and there aren’t enough of them to meet demand.

        • Jonathan English

          Interesting info, though don’t tell the French about electric locomotives not lasting as long. They have plenty operating in regular service that were built in the 60s and even the 50s. In fact, electric locomotives normally can last quite a long time given that they are relatively simple. Even in the US, the GG1s endured forever. I’m wondering if there’s a maintenance or build quality issue with these Amtrak locomotives that is forcing their constant replacement.

    • Alon Levy

      The plan is to add more Acela cars to buy more cars and lengthen the trains from 8 to 10 cars (which is more useful than it seems – they use power cars and have cafes, so it’s really a lengthening from 5 occupied cars to 7), but then start getting the next-generation trains in ’20.

      I’m not sure what next-generation rolling stock they’ll use. If they have 8 years to decide, the correct thing to do is spec it out now so that more vendors know that there’s going to be a large order for very high-speed trains with some tilt capability. If you have to use trains that exist or are in production today, your choices are Talgo AVRIL, E5/6, and N700-I, and the latter two will not compete with each other. The other vendors generally have a tilting train in the 200-250 km/h range and a non-tilting 350 km/h train. Tilting 350 km/h trains are feasible and an experimental tilting TGV was developed – there’s just no need for them in Europe because the 300+ km/h lines are recent greenfield lines with gentle curves, and so the only vendors that have bothered developing them are Japanese (which do need them) and Talgo (which loses nothing from fitting its tilt mechanism into all of its axles).

      • Adirondacker12800

        The trains that are in production today won’t be in production in 6 years when the contracts are signed

      • Andre Lot

        The Swiss recently tried to put an order for tilting high-speed trains (up to 280km/h) but couldn’t find any takers within a reasonable price range…

        • Alon Levy

          That’s always the risk, but at least the Northeast has the advantage that it can go crazy with superelevation, and only have moderate cant deficiency, making Talgo and E5/6 reasonable propositions.

          On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that JR East and Central will collude and then charge $90 million for a 16-car train, as Amtrak predicts it’ll have to pay, in other words capturing the savings from a rolling stock-before-concrete strategy for themselves. Talgo’s competition would not be enough – you need more than 2 bidders to make sure prices drop to cost.

          • Andre Lot

            You haven’t considered features that are almost certain in a project like this, like Build America clauses, for instance – although a large order could offset some of the additional costs tied to it.

    • Alon Levy

      Some, but not a lot. The only segment I know anything definitive about is around Providence, where the P&W runs some freight; it’s 8 trains per day per direction, which they want to expand to 16, most of which only share a small minority of the passenger track.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The usual number that is bandied about is 50 out of the 1,000 or so trains that use the NEC on weekdays. Mostly locals serving customers that are actually on the NEC.

        • Nathanael

          There’s a fair number of minor branch lines which can only be reached from the NEC; the Delmarva peninsula lines (unless you count the rail float) and the entire Southern New Jersey network. While these don’t have that much traffic, they cover a fairly large area and they are “landlocked” without the NEC.

      • al

        That is the present. Part of the upgrade for Hunts Point Market has been authorized. That will make RailEx and TOFC freight rail service to the area more feasible. Down the line, NEC will see more freight rail from either a Cross Harbor tunnel or a train ferry.

        • Adirondacker12800

          The freight headed for the Cross Harbor tunnel won’t be using the NEC. Former Lehigh Valley line mostly with some coming in on other lines.

  2. Pingback: Bullet Trains, By Hook Or By Crook « Straßgefühl
  3. Richard Mlynarik


    A huge and even lower-cost (mostly) way to save immense amounts of trip time is the decrease station access time.

    The difference between a German-style station, with free public access at every quadrant directly to the platforms, with exceedingly clear signage and up-to-date information, with disciplined and predictable train to platform scheduling and positioning, with anything in the US (existing, or, worse, proposed) is immense. More than ten minutes of saved time on both ends of the train part of the journey. No stalinist filing through kettling points. No circuitous detours to a central departure lounge. No forced idling in holding pens.

    Sometimes (NY Penn) the big improvements to accessibility won’t be trivially cheap. But most often they’re not even in the single digits percentages of the costs of saving that much time by any other on-track means.

    • Adirondacker12800

      How do you do that without taking Penn Station out of service for a few years while they tear down Madison Square Garden and rearrange the platforms and tracks?

      There was a plan to increase access to the station and scatter departure boards at the new entrances but His Girthness canceled them.

      • Alon Levy

        For a start, they could announce the train at every access point leading to the platform, from either concourse, rather than try to get everyone to funnel through one of the two access points of the Amtrak concourse.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Most of the time there’s nothing stopping you from using the stairs on the LIRR level to get to your Amtrak train. There’s a big wide staircase under the main arrival and departure board for a reason…

          • Alon Levy

            Nothing stops me (in fact I do it more often than not), but it’s treated as weird and unusual, and at the staircases to the platform they don’t even say that there’s a train there.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Announcing “track 14 upper and lower level” would confuse the yokels so they don’t.

          • Jonathan English

            That’s a rather classic New York excuse, especially given that many of the “yokels” (i.e. tourists) come from places with much better passenger rail systems than NYC. It’s pretty simple: just announce “Track 14” and have signage from wherever you are in the station to the nearest access point for that track.

        • Nathanael

          Wouldn’t that require that all of Penn Station have a single PA system and a single person in control of it?

          Yes, yes, of course it SHOULD, but you’re dealing with the goddamned LIRR here, who won’t play nice with anyone, not even Metro-North which is under the same agency!

          • Adirondacker12800

            Finding the speed talkers that would be able to announce all the stations during rush hour would be difficult. Passengers would then complain that they aren’t speed listeners.

    • Andre Lot

      You are exaggerating. Many stations do not have access from all quadrants. Moreover, I think that for a variety of reasons if stations in US were with more fluidity of foot traffic in mind that would have undesirable effects like congregation of homeless people, drug dealers or just plain rowdy teenagers without travel tickets that are best kept out these stations so not to turn them into undesirable ones.

      Using fixed scheduled platforms might, or might not, be a sensible operation strategy. However, with modern and cheap passenger information systems on LCD monitors, apps etc., that should be a non-issue: just put enough of them at each entrance.

      Finally, if you are to have very high-speed trains passing through some station without stopping, you need to either have separated tracks or isolate platforms.

    • Nathanael

      “No stalinist filing through kettling points. No circuitous detours to a central departure lounge. No forced idling in holding pens.”

      The fact is that the majority of US train stations — including Boston South — have none of these bad things. I have no idea why a small number of stations are operated in a different manner, but there has been agitation among Amtrak riders to stop the bizarre methods of operation at some of the major stations. In the case of Penn they’re worried about platform crowding, but I can’t see what the excuse is at Chicago Union.

      For the record, VIA Rail’s operations procedures at Toronto and Montreal are even worse than Amtrak’s.

      • Alon Levy

        At Boston South they make people queue single-file for security (or at least did the one time I took Amtrak from there), and do a ticket-check as people get onto the platform just like at Penn.

        The issue with Boston South is a bit more complex than with Penn, though, because there’s legitimately only one access point. The main thing Amtrak can and should do is switch the reservation system from Southwest-style seating to assigned seats, which would allow people to get on the train anytime during the few minutes of boarding, rather than scramble to get on first to get a good seat. At South Station specifically it would help to add platform access from the overpasses over the southern parts of the platforms, or even build new overpasses (it would be much easier if the MBTA electrified and stopped idling diesels at the station, but that’s another matter).

        • Ryan

          Isn’t the idea of assigned seating mutually exclusive to the idea that Amtrak’s insistence on everyone reserving seats is wrong?

          Come to think of that, what would such an arrangement do to monthly passes?

          • Alon Levy

            Good question. The only answers I know are partial and depend on individual country practices.

            Shinkansen practice is to have a mixture of reserved and unreserved seating. Some cars are reserved, some aren’t. On the express trains all cars might be reserved; on local trains all cars might be unreserved.

            In Germany the practice is cleverer, but opens the possibility of standees. You can reserve a seat, in which case it’s assigned. You can instead buy a cheaper unreserved ticket; above each seat there will be an indication about on which segments of the trip it’s reserved and on which it’s empty, so that you know where you can sit. But you run the risk of not having a seat.

            On the TGV, I’m not sure – all seats are assigned and all passengers must have a seat, but there are also monthly tickets. I think they just assign the seat on the specific trains you intend to travel on, by agreement between your employer (who is paying for the ticket) and SNCF.

            The other option is to treat the monthly pass not as a ticket, but as a right to get a free ticket on a train with empty seats, and this ticket will have assigned seating like all others. Under this option, when you buy your ticket, you enter your monthly pass ID number (if it’s an e-ticket), insert the pass (if it’s at a ticket machine), or show the pass to the ticket seller (if it’s at a booth), and this entitles you to a free ticket. The system will record whose monthly passes were used on a train, so that you can’t book tickets for multiple people on the same pass; swipe-selling as on the subway in New York is still possible if you use physical tickets, but is subject to the same enforcement and risks of being caught. Alternatively, the system could require that you present both the pass and the ticket upon inspection, which is no harder than requiring just the ticket if the platforms are not faregated, which they shouldn’t be. It’s possible it’s already done in some countries and I don’t know it.

          • ant6n

            In Germany the Bahncard 100, which gives you access for all trains and all public transit for a year, costs more than 5K$ per year. Part of the reason business people whoe travel a lot buy into this is that you don’t have to deal with buying tickets, or -usually- getting reservations.

          • Miles Bader

            Note that on the Shinkansen, standees are pretty common at mega-peak periods (even though they greatly increase the number of trains run), sometimes to the extent that you could call it crush-loading.

            I’ve ridden on the Shinkansen standing packed into the vestibule with so little room that I couldn’t even sit on my suitcase (I had to keep it between my legs) or move around … for 3 hours… this was …. not fun …:( 😦 😦

            Still, given that they do actually put a lot of resources into handling peak periods, I think it’s better to offer travelers the option of trading off a period of discomfort against the ability to quickly get to their destination during such such times. When I do it, I know the risks, and explicitly choose to accept them. Sometimes I decide not to travel during those periods if I didn’t reserve a seat in time because it’s too annoying. I like having the choice, and I think the system of offering both reserved and unreserved seating is good.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Alon, in much of Europe and for many (not all, sadly) trains, there’s a distinction between a ticket (gets you from A to B) and a seat reservation (guarantees you a spot on a particular train.)

        • Richard Mlynarik

          The issue with Boston South is a bit more complex than with Penn, though, because there’s legitimately only one access point.

          No, that’s an explicit choice. Funnelling all passengers along the length of a platform and through a single end access point (complete with Amtrak conductors and ad-hoc barriers further constructing the way) is a choice made by retarded US transportation “planners”, not something forced on them by “complexity” or “legitimacy”.

          Note that Boston built an entire intercity bus station over all of the South Station platforms with no connection to them. Death really is too kind a fate. There is a full-floor transit police (American Heroes!) station inside it, though, so that makes up for it, right?

          Here’s the obligatory contrast with Zürich HB terminal station. Mid-platform passageway hugely widened and extended with new wider stairs and elevators a few years ago. Some <a href="nice pics here..

          Single access points simply don’t work and can’t work.

          Of course America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals not only completely fail to understand passenger circulation and the time value of passenger flow, they completely fail to understand there is even a problem. It’s that bad. (And you’ve seen nothing, nothing, as bad as the Transbay Terminal rail disaster. Single banked, single flow escalators! Morons. Morons. Morons.)

        • Nathanael

          I wonder when Amtrak introduced this bizarre behavior at Boston South. I’ve seen Regionals loading the “normal way” (walk up to the platform, get on)

  4. Andre Lot

    I have serious reservations about the use of “factual safety” data to draw conclusions about what is acceptable or not in terms of rail engineering safety in designing a system.

    For a starter, there aren’t so many high-speed operations to allow extensive comparisons. Like modern (post-1970) airplanes, the number of fatalities is so small relatively to total miles-km traveled that individual incidents can skew averages for years or decades. The Eschede ICE derailment, whose causes are well known, will taint any record of German high-speed safety for a century, whereas nothing really serious was done to redesign all overpasses over high-speed rail – meaning if some high-speed train derails near an overpass, chances are it will still replicate the effects that made Eschede so deadly.

    I still don’t see a culture similar to that of airplane manufacturing among rail manufactures – of proactively and expensively looking for potential, even if remote, catastrophic failure possibilities and discussing whether to address them. Actually, it seems the rail industry behave more in a “our-vehicles-are-too-good-to-crash” mood. It is actually scary in the sense it resembles, with all reservations and particularities, the spirit of early large steel ship manufacturers of the 1880s up to the Titanic era.

    So I’d not take the idea that Shinkasen trains are absolutely safe because of their current safety record (one derailment a decade ago hit a house, had it happened in more unfavorable conditions, it could have easily killed 200+ passengers and then Japanese trains would be less safe than German ones by those statistics) like I’d not give some new Chinese airplane manufacturer a carte blanche just because none of their planes crashed yet.

    Proven safety is more adequate for modes of transportation where the discrete frequency of incidents is high like cycling, driving, mixed-traffic trams etc.

    When you have systems whose rate of failures are exceedingly low but whose failures can be catastrophic like nuclear energy, large hydroelectric dams, airplanes, super-tall skyscrapers, high-speed trains, you need to analyze safety by design as much as consider actual safety record.

    This is not to say FRA approach is right. Actually, it is wrong in the sense of trying to cope with derailments and crashes as incidents a train should survive instead of focusing more on preventing accidents first place. However, I shun at this suggestion that the richest country in the World should just dismantle its own agency for transportation safety and rely entirely on an actual safety record of foreign manufacturers, take it blindly and put their trains running without any in-house assessment, without even demanding some kind of collaboration with their European counterparts like the ones existing in other areas like maritime vessel safety or nuclear safety.

    • orulz

      To what Shinkansen derailment that hit a house are you referring? Browsing online indicates that the train that derailed during the 2004 Chuetsu earthquake was on a viaduct when it derailed, and stayed on said viaduct with no impact to adjacent property.

      You are also looking at saftey through the narrow lens of vehicle design (which is what FRA does) rather than operational practices (as is common in the rest of the world, including Japan, with far lower fatality rates than the US.)

      • Andre Lot

        I am not looking only through vehicle design, but also infrastructure design. 100% grade-separated tracks, CBTC or similar systems, automated operations that rely the as few as possible on the train engineer and as much as possible (even platform aligned parking) in computers, embedded safety design features are all part of safety-by-design.

        The problem of FRA is to consider only vehicle safety as in an open and uncontrollable system. That is the case of road, but not rail traffic (except for lower forms of rail like trams/streetcars, of course).

        • Adirondacker12800

          All of the remaining grade crossings on the NEC are in southeastern Connecticut.

    • Alon Levy

      The issue is that US mainline rail is sufficiently unsafe that there do occur small, frequent accidents. They’re bigger and less frequent than car crashes, but there are enough of them to point to a trend. Out of the 150 or so deaths in the last 20 years, only 25 occurred in the largest accident, Chatsworth. It’s different from the case of Japan and Germany, in which a majority of accident deaths came from one catastrophe (Amagasaki and Eschede respectively).

      The safety by design that’s been analyzed has been analyzed only on the FRA’s own terms of accident survivability – and even then, FRA trains did worse than UIC trains. There are other important bits that the FRA doesn’t care about: stopping distance, train control, derailment prevention, track maintenance, crew training. It’s the last one that Japanese railroaders claim is the source of the country’s rail safety, to the point that they refuse to call the system used in Taiwan Shinkansen, saying instead that it “uses Shinkansen technology.” Meanwhile, the FRA’s track inspection teams tend to concentrate on trivial things that are easy to spot, such as vegetation, and ignore harder but more important issues about the quality of the rails and ballast; the railroads then have to follow the FRA’s injunctions, and spend track maintenance budget on those trivial matters, leading to derailments.

      Not sure about nuclear or maritime safety, but airline safety comes, partially, from an effectively global set of regulations, without different national standards. The correct thing to do in China, Brazil, and other countries with secondary manufacturers is to build planes compatible with what the US and EU want; I don’t know to what extent Chinese builders do that, but Embraer does and its planes have comparable safety record to Airbus and Boeing. With rail safety it’s harder because the two centers of modern passenger rail, Europe and Japan, have incompatible rules and separate markets, but the best that can be done is to come up with rules that reconcile the two regimes, sort of like what China is doing only without the part about shutting down the signal system and running trains on manual control.

      • anonymouse

        And in terms of actual operations, it seems like the FRA cares about two things: proper use of the horn at grade crossings (it has to be four sounds, long-long-short-long, with the last one continued until the train is through the crossing), and the “efficiency test”, which consists of shunting a track circuit so that the signal goes to red, having the train pass the signal at restricted speed, and then having it stop before a red flag on the track (next to which is standing the FRA inspector). They do these tests in revenue service, by the way, delaying paying customers for no especially good reason.

      • Nathanael

        Nuclear safety regulations are different in each country; horribly, most of them seem to be equally awful. As far as I can tell the attitude is, if you notice a dangerous problem which might cause the irradiation of large amounts of farmland, or mass death, you write it down and it gets stuck in a file, and the operator gets told to improve. The operator then does not improve, but you renew the operator’s license and repeat, indefinitely. Until the reactor melts down or blows up and irradiates farmland and kills people. Then they *might* remove its operating license.

        This is how the US and Japan do it, and not far off how Russia does it.

        France does it entirely differently, where any minor problem is treated as potentially catastrophic, with people fired, publicly apologizing, entire departments replaced…. this is probably why France does as well as it does.

    • Alex - (@Alex_AniPac)

      I’d also like to say that I’m sure you are wrong about a Shinkansen derailment. I lived in Japan from 2000 to 2007, and the only incident I heard about was the one orulz mentioned during the earthquake.

      Perhaps you are thinking of the commuter train that crashed into an apartment building in 2005 in Amagasaki?

    • Miles Bader


      I still don’t see a culture similar to that of airplane manufacturing among rail manufactures – of proactively and expensively looking for potential, even if remote, catastrophic failure possibilities and discussing whether to address them. Actually, it seems the rail industry behave more in a “our-vehicles-are-too-good-to-crash” mood.

      I think that’s wrong in the case of the shinkansen, anyway: they do actually spend a lot of time and money trying to mitigate future accidents, even unlikely ones. Indeed I’d go so far as to say they’re almost sort of paranoid about safety; they’re quite aware of how important a factor their safety record is in their popularity, and know that keeping a good safety record is an important part of their business success. [Because of the shinkansen’s “perfect record,” the pressure to keep that record is always increasing…]

  5. Nathanael

    “This requires fixing agency turf battles, which costs a lot of political capital but is almost free to the taxpayer.”

    Costs a lot of political capital? That’s an understatement. I’m not even sure it’s POSSIBLE. Walder’s attempt to eliminate the turf battles between *Metro-North* and *LIRR*, which are both subagencies of the NY MTA, failed! And Walder’s life was made unpleasant enough that he then left!

    You might have to start an entire political party and run an entire campaign with the core issue of the campaign being the elimination of the agency turf battles. But you can’t do that, because people care about other things (food, clothing, shelter, or in the case of right-wingers, hurting and punishing people who are in the “wrong church”) more than they care about transporation.

    • Ryan

      I disagree. You could absolutely run a campaign based around the core tenancy of clearing up agency turf battles – the trick is to frame it differently, to frame it more completely.

      “We’re the Regulatory Reform Party,” you might say, “and our mission is simple: we’re going to cut through the over-legislated wordy legalese nightmare that is your sprawling big government with no reduction in services.”

      Set your party’s goals to be simple: where two agencies serve the same or similar goals, combine them; where fixed job positions have an unacceptable level of overlapping authority, eliminate them; where an agency has too much red tape burdening down its services, reform them; and where redundant services exist, terminate them.

      That would bring your goals more in line with both ends of the political spectrum – the bad government / less government crowd appreciates the idea of deleting entire agencies in one penstroke and the pro-services crowd enjoys a more streamlined government that can more easily serve its citizens.

      • Chris

        And then anyone you ran against would have nothing to say but “look how this evil man/woman is going to kill jobs!”

        Really, the trouble with politics is that it’s not about reasonable-sounding ideas, it’s about how much you can bury the opponent in threats of doom. There is no regard for reality and the intelligent debate is gone — at least to the extent that it determines election outcomes, thanks to campaign advertising and media portrayal.

        • Anderson

          In a sense, I think the requirement would be for a party to co-opt such a stance while not having a substantial voter base in the region in question. The issue of an incentive for doing so aside, the main thing you need is a group that is based “elsewhere” such that even if those they’re battling throw a royal fit, they can’t do anything to those pushing to clean things up.

          Thus, in the case of MNRR/LIRR, you’d probably need the push to come from upstate (say, Republicans on a reform rampage of some sort, given the Democratic base in and around NYC). In the case of SEPTA…again, start looking to central/western PA. Particularly if those other regions see inefficiencies that they can attack as low-hanging fruit, there’s some room for an impetus here.

          The big problem, of course, is that those groups tend to prefer a “kill the whole thing” approach rather than seriously pursuing efficiencies. Still…that’s where you’d need to get such an attack to start from, simply because even if the unions and authorities hit the roof, they can’t vote against those folks.

      • Stephen Smith

        Single-issue parties, Duverger’s law, blah blah blah. Also, why would associating reform with laissez-faire policies, anti-Big Government policies be helpful? Tea Party folks don’t give a damn about transit, and urbanites with access to transit aren’t swayed by libertarian arguments (and in fact are probably turned off by them…”reform” I’m sure polls a lot better than “deregulation” to these people).

        • Nathanael

          I have said for a while that one of the main reasons that we have such dysfunction in this country is that we don’t have proportional representation, so Duverger’s Law applies. Hard to figure out how to fix the problem though, short of revolution.

          Sadly even countries with proportional represenation are capable of screwing up massively (Ireland comes to mind); there are other systemic dysfunctions going on. At the moment I think it’s best to get as many permanent improvements as possible done despite the dysfunction; the concrete doesn’t usually vanish come the revolution, though the organization frequently does….

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  8. Greg

    because amtrak realizes how ridiculous and unfeasable these ideas are to implement. simplistic arguments with nothing specific or technical to back them up. my best way to rebut this nonsense is to compare it to a traffic jam, a lot of cars means you go a lot slower. the intrinsic design limits of and the traffic on the new york to new haven line means you have to redesign the entire segment through a densely populated corridor, eliminate the curves, replace the lift bridges, lower the track, add three more tracks, blah blah. the list goes on. if levy or anyone else had imagination, he would consider using part of the wilbur cross and merritt right of way, together with a new line hartford to worcester. any way you slice it, it is a very messy and expensive fix.

    • Alon Levy

      So, I’ve actually thought about the Hartford-Worcester option before. It doesn’t work too well – the terrain’s less than perfect for it, the way it would enter Boston (through the Worcester Line) involves a potentially more constrained corridor, and really the problem segment is not New Haven-Boston, which has multiple decent routes, including Hartford-Worcester but also I-95-Providence Line.

      But even on the big problem segments, it’s nothing like a traffic jam. Newark-Philadelphia has four tracks, with six tracks in some of the busier parts. Its commuter traffic is 13 tph peak, but that only exists north of Rahway, when there are six-track passing segments. Farther south it’s 9 tph, and then it’s very easy to have local commuter trains on the local tracks, intercity trains on the express tracks, and express commuter trains on the local tracks with some express-track overtakes. When the railroad in charge adheres to a schedule, it’s not hard to schedule around this at those traffic levels. It all depends on what intercity traffic you expect, but overtakes like this are good up to about 6 tph intercity, and if that’s not enough, your ridership is so high you don’t need to care about funding sources anymore. Likewise, the Providence Line is two-tracked, but overtakes are possible: see here and here for an explanation for how this can be done.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Those 13 trains an hour are standing room only. Even the 12 car multilevels. If there was capacity into Manhattan NJTransit would be running more. It’s not going to be 13 trains forever.

        • Alon Levy

          Yep. But the problem is between Newark and New York; it is not between Rahway and Newark, and certainly not between Frankford Junction and Rahway.

  9. Chris

    There’s lots of fantastic-sounding ideas and analysis being thrown around here, but what I don’t fundamentally understand is how any of this hopes to change the problem of cost and monopoly. A little casual research reveals that taking the Acela Express from Boston to DC costs $320 or so round trip, for the pleasure of spending over 13 hours on a train. In contrast, for about $175 all-inclusive, you can take a flight for less than 3 hours total round trip.

    Why does a train have to be so expensive, and why would a faster, more expensive train be any more reasonable?

    • Alon Levy

      The reason the Acela specifically is so expensive is that it’s branded as a premium product. Amtrak uses the Acela as the more upscale brand in the corridor, and shifts more cost-conscious people who nonetheless don’t want to deal with Megabus pain to Regional trains.

      On top of that, Amtrak is also inefficient – the trains are high-maintenance, especially the Acelas; there is more crew than there needs to be; turnaround times, during which the train costs money but doesn’t earn revenue, are very long; seating capacity on the Acela, though not on the Regional, is low, leading to high seat occupancy even at current low levels of usage.

      The fare per passenger-kilometer on the cheaper HSR lines out there – the TGV and especially the KTX – is about 15 cents. (The ICE may also be as cheap if you apply discounts; Richard Mlynarik, ant6n, and Max Wyss here both know vastly more about this than I do.) This means Boston-Washington is $108 each way, in principle; in practice fares per passenger-km decline as distance increases, so if New York-Boston and New York-Washington are $54, then Boston-Washington will probably be less. Essentially, this is somewhere between the cheap advance Regional fare and the cheap regular Regional fare. Operating costs look about ¢10/pkm at high seat occupancy, and I suspect that a system built on low costs from the ground up could do even better, just as the partially-cheap iDTGV system (less staffing, leading to predictable union outcries, but same rolling stock and such) is partially doing.

      • Chris

        Is there anything to suggest that Amtrak would actually run new HSR any differently? HSR would be downright exotic, never mind premium, and for it not to be treated as different for marketing purposes would mean eliminating all non-HSR rail in the corridor. That doesn’t seem a likely outcome.

        Also, if the Acela is a premium product, it’s one that still manages to be vastly inferior to the best available method: air travel. It’s only “premium” in comparison to existing US rail. Viewed in the proper context (all available transit) it’s almost twice as expensive for a trip that will take 4x as long.

        With the exception of a cost-insensitive traveler who has a fear of air travel, wants to make a statement about energy-consciousness, or just can’t bear the TSA circus, I can’t find a single rational reason for anyone to choose the Acela. That, to me, seems a very niche market, and that model would have to go away to make HSR anything other than a novelty for the rich.

        Lots of public services are cheaper in other countries, but for whatever reason that philosophy appears to be antithetical to our national character.

        • Alon Levy

          The Acela is faster than air, and not more expensive, on the main markets of NY-DC and NY-Boston; on those city pairs, rail (both Acela and Regional) gets 65 and 40 percent of the air/rail market, respectively, if I remember correctly. The average trip length on the Acela is a little shorter than those two markets – about 170 miles if I’m not mistaken. Amtrak knows very well that practically nobody rides the NEC end to end; the 10-to-20-minute dwell of Regional and Acela trains in New York is just a symptom of giving up on end-to-end traffic. Boston-DC is indeed more of an air market, but that’s not unique to Amtrak. When trains take 6:30, practically everyone flies. To get the rail share of the air/rail market down to 50% you need trip times to be about 3:30-4:00; that’s where it currently is between New York and Boston when you count both Regional and Acela.

          The best analogy is the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen. Hardly anyone rides end-to-end, from Tokyo to Fukuoka; trains take nearly 5 hours, are expensive, and Japan’s domestic air travel is convenient and competitive. But passengers on various intermediate markets fill the train and make it reasonable to run trains through instead of make everything terminate and turn at Shin-Osaka the way all Shinkansen trains terminate at Tokyo.

          • Beta Magellan

            Air travel may be miserable, but Reagan/National is particularly convenient—it’s close to the city and Metro provides a very quick connection to the major sights.

          • Adirondacker12800

            And the airlines know that and charge high fares to fly into DCA.

        • Nathanael

          “Lots of public services are cheaper in other countries, but for whatever reason that philosophy appears to be antithetical to our national character.”

          There is a political party in the US which is opposed to the very *concept* of public services. It’s called the “Republican Party”.

          This strain of thought has jumped from party to party over the years, but it’s been around a long time; in the pre-Civil-War period, the people opposed to public services were the slaveowners. This is not a coincidence.

          In general, an abusive elite will oppose the very concept of public services — because they prefer that the proles are dependent on the whims of the elite. So much of our 0.1% spends money agitating against public services. As to why we have such an abusive, short-termist elite, that’s a good question: Veblen explains how they arise and propagate themselves, but why it happens *more* in the US than elsewhere is a question I haven’t seen answered. Bad educational standards in the US are certainly part of it.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Bad educational standards are a part of it. The middle class and upper middle class can afford to send their kids to private school.

    • anonymouse

      There’s a couple of things going on here, but basically, Amtrak is trying to optimize their price for what the market will bear, given a lot of constraints. The first constraint is capacity, since there are only a limited number of Acela trains, and each one only has 5 passenger-carrying cars, with one of those being First Class. That’s not actually all that much capacity, and during the peak periods, those trains do in fact sell out, so the peak price is reasonable given the demand. But there’s another constraint: Amtrak isn’t allowed to have “discounts” of more than 50% on their fares, because some micromanaging Congressperson thought that they were losing money on the discounts. What this means is that there can’t be a difference of more than 2x between the lowest off-peak fare and the highest peak fare for a given service in a given corridor. So Amtrak has the choice of lowering their off-peak fare to fill up the off-peak trains and give people like you a reasonably-priced Acela option, but they’d have to do it at the expense of losing revenue from peak trains.
      Also, just out of curiosity, is the airfare you cite to Dulles or National? Because if it’s Dulles, you have to add another 45 minutes or so of travel time to actually get to DC. And of course, with planes, it’s not gate to gate time that actually matters for short flights, because there’s all the overhead of airports. It’s still faster than the train mind you, but can end up being only 2x faster, instead of 4x, and you can bring nail clippers and liquids.

      • Chris

        I have seen as cheap as $152 to DCA, though admittedly flights to IAD and BWI are most often the cheap flights. I have no business in DC, it was just for the sake of argument. I agree that BOS -> NYC is a silly use for air travel.

        My original reason for responding is that I had to travel to Philadelphia recently and after looking at all the train options: typically $126 for a one-way 6 hr trip on the Northeast Regional, and $150-175 for 5hrs on the Acela. I just couldn’t imagine why a train could cost that much. Literally anything else I considered was cheaper — driving, flying, or taking a bus. The bus is a perfect head-to-head comparison because the start and end points identical. It takes 1hr more than the Northeast Regional, but only costs $30-40. I don’t see how rail transit is justified at these prices; it doesn’t seem to compete with any of the available options very effectively.

        Flying, btw, was the same or cheaper than the Acela round trip ($300 vs $300-350), but the flight is 1h15m instead of 6h. There’s a little extra time involved at the airport, but in terms of getting to the airport/station, travel time to each is about the same for me. Maybe you want to arrive 30min early for a train and 1h early for a flight, but the time savings is still enormous.

        I’m equally offended about the (totally unnecessary) “security” precautions, but that’s another subject entirely.

        • Adirondacker12800

          I just couldn’t imagine why a train could cost that much.

          Because they can sell the seat twice and make more money. Boston-New Haven and New Haven-Philadelphia though most of what gets sold twice is Boston-NY and NY-DC.

          • Chris

            As far as I’m concerned, they are still overcharging for those legs of the trip. A bus from Boston to New Haven is $20.

          • Alon Levy

            They’re overcharging relative to the competition, but not relative to their own immediate capacity. The Acela is on average 60% full. SNCF recently announced 83% occupancy, but this is new (traditionally it used to cite 70% as its figure); the KTX and the Tokaido Shinkansen, which are the most similar to the NEC in that the trains make intermediate stops and have strong outer-end anchors, are both about 70%.

            Of course, being able to fill very expensive trains is a sign of pent-up demand, and so Amtrak is ordering more cars so that it can lengthen the Acelas, which should allow it to reduce ticket prices somewhat without sacrificing revenues.

          • Adirondacker12800

            That’s the free market for you. If they can fill them at 100 bucks a leg the people who don’t want to pay 100 bucks get on a bus.

        • Matthew

          BOS -> PHL Regional is showing up as $59 if you buy in advance.

          Buses are cheap because they do not have to pay for maintenance of way, it is subsidized. But the train is so much nicer that they still get filled up. It seems almost every time I go BOS -> NYP or back, they announce that it is fully booked and they need every seat.

          • Chris

            I was looking well in advance. Look at the time on that $59 ticket — it’s a redeye.

          • Matthew

            Lowest Price: $59 — Morning, Afternoon, Evening.

            6:10am, 11:05am, 3:20pm, 5:35pm, 9:30pm — $59

            What date are you looking at? I picked a random Wednesday in August.

          • Chris

            Ah — I picked a random Friday in August. There was exactly one $59 fare, and it was a redeye. As far as I can tell, there are occasional $88 late-night trains and the redeyes. Everything else seems to start at $126, which often isn’t even the Acela.

            Midweek is (logically) cheaper for everything, flights included. I am seeing a bunch of $59 trains now, but when I was originally looking midweek wasn’t a possibility for me.

          • Zmapper

            Between DC and NYC, buses do pay their way. Most of the route has a toll on it that covers operation of the specific highway. Don’t forget that the bus companies also have to pay corporate taxes, while Amtrak is exempt from almost all taxation.

            Sure, the local streets and a few freeways aren’t tolled, but even if they were, the result would be that your $20 fare would become say $30. It is an increase, but is still a great bargain compared to (Sc)Amtrak.

          • Matthew

            Amtrak Regionals follows a pricing scheme, which seems to be this: fares start at $49 (BOS-NYP), $59 (BOS-PHL), and $70 (BOS-WAS). They step up to $69, $88 and $96 within 2 weeks of departure, or given sufficient demand for tickets. If there is even further demand, then they go up another notch, about $98, $126, and $165 it seems.

            I wish they were cheaper, but with limited capacity on the line, this is what they have to do. And people still buy them up.

          • Matthew

            Zmapper, a bus pays about twice as much in tolls as a car pays to drive end to end on the NJ turnpike. However, the damage a bus does to the road is several orders of magnitude greater than a car. That difference is a subsidy. Arguably, it’s a reasonable one, but in terms of paying for maintenance of way, it is pretty clear that buses and trucks get to “free” ride, even on tollways.

          • Ryan

            As I understand it, it’s not actually a strictly notch-based pricing scheme.

            Amtrak charges you based on
            1) Distance traveled
            2) Number of seats already occupied

            The price doesn’t actually go up two weeks in advance – there’s an advance booking discount, which does NOT stack with any other discounts. After the two week marker, that discount disappears. (That discount is also not available to the Acela trains.)

            As more seats fill past a certain point, Amtrak hikes the price accordingly. Amtrak also applies a pretty hefty surcharge an hour before the train is scheduled to depart.

            Naturally, those with Military ID, AAA membership, Student Advantage or any other discount scheme are exempt from demand-based price hikes if they book 3 days in advance, and monthly pass holders are exempt from Amtrak’s pricing scheme entirely and free to jump on and off of the train wherever and whenever they care to within the ‘zone’ to which their monthly pass applies. (In my case, KIN-BOS – I can freely board or detrain at PVD or RTE, not that I ever need to go to RTE but the PVD option can be amazingly useful.)

  10. mulp

    So, the way to improve the speed and total capacity for all commuters for the next one to two centuries is to simply restrict the amount of local commuting so long distance commuting is favored because the traffic density along the corridor should not be increased by more than a factor of 3-5?

    Remove Amtrak from the tracks used for freight in some places and commuters in many others and those services can be improved after Amtrak’s requirements are no longer a consideration.

    The plan is a 30 year plan because it is an incremental build which provides orders of magnitude improvements in critical sectors. Get the NYC to DC and Boston to NYC and to DC times down to air schedules and the air commute traffic will fall as it has in China with the past year’s HSR segments coming on line. The prices of the China HSR was half the existing air and almost as fast, which has driven down air fares, even as air traffic has fallen, but over all, traffic is up.

    Rail planning should be looking at century time frames. The rail built in the post Civil war era as part of the Lincoln post war economic stimulus – the concern was what was the opportunity for all the demobilized soldiers, and the answer was growth into the West with easy access by rail to increase trade between the coasts. Those rail lines built between 1850 and 1900 form the backbone of US rail for freight and the track right of ways have not been significantly upgraded.

    The Interstate highway system was laid out half a century ago, with no major revisions since. The US highways were laid out over the preceding 50 years, but the Interstate was built parallel to the existing US highways with new routes added to fill in the gaps and promote growth and settlements. Not every decision was ideal as we look back half a century in hindsight. Even while building the Interstate, the role it had is hollowing out the cities was seen with alarm as an unintended consequence, but seriously, the Interstates proved to be wise investments 20 years after built, and in places on the Northeast corridor, the piker make due attitude of this author created the messes that had Hartford and Boston tied up in two decades of redoing the Interstates through the cities. The Big Dig is still being finished but it is a huge improvements, but now revealing the problems just outside the limits of the Big Dig project – some argue the congestion at the edge of the Big Dig proves the Big Dig was a bad idea and Boston should have remained in perpetual gridlock.

    Look to the next century – the 22nd century when planning any infrastructure in the next decade because it will all define the communities in the year 2212. The Empire State Building was a turning point, but eight decades later, it is being upgraded again to be much greener to make it a modern office building for the next three decades.

    My god, Americans have forgotten how to think about the future since Reagan who convinced people that looking back was looking forward, and that the big idea is to try to be small.

    • Alon Levy

      First, the Big Dig’s a success if you define success as “costing so much that they have to violate a judicial order to build mitigations for the air pollution, and force the MBTA to take on the debt for mitigations they did build.”

      More generally, nothing about what I’m proposing restricts commuter traffic meaningfully. The only segment on the NEC where there’s a genuine capacity problem is between the Kearny Connection and Penn Station, and I have no problem with a project that would four-track the North River Tunnels, just with the extravagant way it’s been done with ARC and Gateway.

  11. John

    There are a lot of merits to your proposal. But one factor that you may want to add to your calculation is predicted sea-level rise over the next 50 to 100 years. As you know, significant portions of the New York to Boston route are very close to the shoreline. Sea-level rise of even a few feet will make those sections vulnerable to service interruptions during severe storms. Rather than investing in the existing route, knowing that more frequent service disruptions are highly likely, it may make more sense to move the route inland. The initial cost will be greater, both financially and politically. But a new inland route will be shorter and ultimately more reliable.

    • Nathanael

      Agreed. If worse comes to worst, they can bring back the Harlem Line.

      I’m even more worried about the much more crucial NY-Philadelphia route. Most of it is fairly well inland and at fairly decent heights but some key sections are NOT; remember, Trenton flooded not long ago.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Barrier at the Verrazano Narrows and from Whitestone to Throggs Neck solves most of the problems in New York. Lots of them in New Jersey too. Or more radical, Atlantic Highlands to someplace in Brooklyn, Queens or even Nassau. And the eastern end of Long Island to Rhode Island. Turns the harbor and Long Island Sound into freshwater but thems the breaks.

  12. Michael

    A couple of thoughts:
    1. You didn’t mention freight trains. My information is a few years old, but sharing tracks with freight traffic was a major cause of delays for commuter trains; I specifically recall one study suggesting that Acela could achieve the same speeds as some of the older Japanese bullet trains if it didn’t have to share rails. Is this still the case? If so, how does one mitigate the situation without either hooking passenger cars to the freight trains or building new tracks?
    2. I had access to that study because I worked at TTCI, a railroad test track in Pueblo, CO. I bring that up because of comments on here about the culture of safety in the FRA. I don’t know what’s transpired since I left or what the commentators have seen, but I do know what I saw. Crash testing of new car designs. Training of firefighters to deal with train wrecks, including hazardous chemical spills. Plans for anti-terrorist training. A network of trackside sensors to detect dangerous railcar behavior and aging components that could cause derailments. Again, I don’t know how much of this reflected wider safety culture within the FRA and the railroads, but the money to pay for all that didn’t necessarily come just from the government.

    • Adirondacker12800

      The numbers for the NEC that are usually bandied about is 1,000 trains a day and 50 of them are freights. Freight traffic on the NEC isn’t much of a problem. But there’s lots of commuter traffic that isn’t on the NEC.

      • Beta Magellan

        Even if we accept the FRA’s ideas about weight and safety (which I don’t, for the record), commuter trains are much lighter than freight. The FRA is fine with FRA-compliant commuter trains running alongside non-FRA compliant trains in the cases of Caltrain and Denton County’s A-train, though they still required the agencies to go through an onerous waiver application.

      • jim

        I don’t know about the North End, but on the South End, the bulk of the freight traffic is NS to the Port of Wilmington and the DelMarVa Secondary. Since this traffic has to cross four tracks, so is wrong way on two of them, it’s all scheduled at night. There’d be no problem with temporal separation.

        There’s a small amount of CSX traffic between Benning Yard and the Pope’s Head Branch. Since both are on the same side of the NEC tracks and the NEC is triple tracked between them, that traffic can be scheduled for off-peak daytime on the easternmost track. The passenger traffic off-peak is two Amtrak and one MARC tph, which uses the other two tracks. Whether the FRA would regard that as adequate separation, I don’t know.

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  15. Peter Brassard

    Side topic – Assuming that Amtrak were to construct some version of its revised plan, it may be somewhat easier to construct a new alignment in rural areas, but what options would there be within urban areas, some of which are either high-density urban or affluent suburban districts?

    Would a new line running from New Rochelle to the north follow I-684 to I-84? Would the Danbury to Hartford stretch use existing rail right-of-ways or I-84 and then follow I-384 towards Rhode Island? In eastern Connecticut and crossing into Rhode Island would the corridor run parallel to US-6? East of the I-295 loop the US-6 freeway would probably be the only way to penetrate Providence’s inner metro core. They would probably have to tunnel under the Olneyville/Mount Pleasant hill to under the exiting tracks located parallel to the 6/10 Connector, then under the Woonasquatucket River, and Providence Place Mall to just north of Providence Station probably under the State House grounds. That would be a 3 to 4 km long tunnel. Perhaps it could be another alignment with less tunneling.

    I’m not familiar enough with the stretch between Philadelphia to BWI to speculate what the lay out might be for a new alignment in that region.

    • Alon Levy

      My guess is that the Amtrak alignment through Connecticut would be roughly 84-6, with substantial greenfield components to straighten curves. That far inland, land prices are low enough that the benefits of following an established ROW are diminished.

      I thought that the route to Providence followed 6 and then tunneled to get to roughly where your shuttle proposal’s Federal Hill stop is, cutting off a sharp curve. But Amtrak’s route plan in which some trains skip Providence makes it unlikely that the existing station with the existing approaches would get service; the curve immediately north of the station is so sharp that trains lose almost no time beyond dwell if they stop, while Route 128, a lesser-used station in a higher speed zone is designated an all-trains-stop station. I’m not sure what the plan is. Reviving the East Side Tunnel, maybe? But that still would impose a speed limit on express trains, albeit a less stringent one.

      • Ryan

        Route 128 is designated an all-trains-stop station because (and this is second-hand or third-hand knowledge) Route 128 was built specifically for the Acela to cater to the suburban crowd on the 128 beltway who would ride the Acela and are unwilling to drive into Boston to do so.

        Take that with a generous grain of salt because the argument there is disingenuous at best – but that’s what I’ve been told.

        • Alon Levy

          More Amtrak riders use Providence than Route 128.

          I’m not sure about the recent history of Route 128 or the original history of Green Lodge, but the middle history, from the 1960s, is probably the same as that of New Carrolton and Metropark: a park-and-ride commuter/intercity station built by the private railroads hoping that being more auto-friendly would save them from extinction.

          • Ryan

            Oh, no, I completely agree with you – Route 128 is a pox on the system and one that should be demoted to Regional service only, or at worst, limited Acela service.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          That’s right. 128 (“America’s Technology Highway”) was going to do gangbuster business, drawing park-and-riders from the entire eastern half of the state, a whole new and massive shiny suburban market from that old stodgy downtown with its century old subway. Drive all the way to Westwood — further than Logan, for most — and take a train that is much slower and more expensive than the shuttle flights! (And the Big Dig was going to end congestion and pollution.) They really believed it.

          • Ryan

            The most ridiculous part of that pie-in-the-sky mentality, to me, is the idea that these park and riders would ONLY be willing to take the train from Westwood. As you’ve noted, there’s only a relatively limited geographical region where people who even meet the requirement of wanting to park-and-ride and not having an easier time of getting into BOS than RTE can possibly exist. That ‘century old subway’ has grown quite a lot, after all.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There was much less road congestion in the 60s. Everyone was going to be driving everywhere except for long trips.

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  19. mulad

    So if I take your “90% cheaper” headline at face value, that would mean $15 billion or so. Doesn’t that put this project within the realm of being feasibly paid for through conventional loans? Particularly if the upgrades are staged in such a way where the most cost-effective (and revenue-inducing) happen first?

    I guess I wouldn’t go up to a bank and say, “give me $15 billion, please”, but if it can be broken down into individual projects ranging from $100 million up to $2 billion or something, fairly simple benefit-cost calculations should show that each project could get paid back over a period of 10, 20, or 30 years. I suppose many of the upgrades would only be able to pay back part of the cost — but it’d still be a lot better to go to Congress or the state legislatures in the Northeast and say, “We can cover 85% of this through revenue, but we need an extra 15%” or whatever the ratio might be, at least compared to the craziness that’s going on now…

    • jim

      Certainly on the South End, the potential increase in revenue would comfortably amortize RRIF loans to do the work necessary for the South End. I don’t know if that’s true for the North End. Boston-NYC is more expensive than NYC-Washington even on a “90% off” plan and Boston-NYC potential revenue is lower than NYC-Washington.

      But the real problem is that Amtrak is not profitable overall. Congress expects the surplus from the NEC to cover part of the losses from the LD trains, so it doesn’t have to. It’s not clear that Amtrak would be allowed to pledge increased profits from the NEC to amortizing loans.

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    • jim

      Yes. The comment period on the scoping package ends 14 September. It is in order, I believe, to comment on the phase structure as part of the scope. Near-term service improvements (those possible without, say, Gateway) can be suggested as an early phase.

      I intend to submit a comment at the Washington scoping meeting on the 21st more or less along the lines of comments I’ve made here (along with Alon’s Market East on the Cheap from his “Trolling …” post). Others here should do the same. Comments can be submitted via the website.

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  26. Sam K

    Forget the bailouts, $150 billion plus costs: The US needs a new way to run rail systems, and it’s not Amtrak or any other government entity.
    The only fair answer is higher fares in a pay as you go system. Some estimates double fares and fees, which is likely to make this self sustaining.

    • Adirondacker12800

      The US needs a new way to run road systems, and it’s not state DOTs or any other government entity.
      The only fair answer is higher gasoline prices in a pay as you go system. Some estimates double taxes and fees, which is likely to make this self sustaining.

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