The Value of New York-Boston

This post mainly responds to an argument made by Jim in comments that the core portion of the Northeast Corridor is New York-Washington, and New York-Boston is more expensive and less useful.

The Northeast Corridor has two halves: New York-Philadelphia-Washington and New York-Boston. The southern half is the more important one: according to PDF-page 41 of the Master Plan it carries 70% of the traffic, and the top city pairs are New York-Washington and New York-Philadelphia, both substantially larger than New York-Boston. Although the corridor is always treated as a single line, it is worth checking the value of upgrades separately, especially because the southern half is straighter and would take less investment to bring up to full high-speed rail standards.

However, even with such a disaggregation, New York-Boston is a valuable route, with more potential benefits than any other in the US except New York-Washington. For a first filter, we can look at city populations. New York’s size is such that even much smaller cities can be fruitfully connected to it by greenfield HSR. Seoul, of comparable size to New York, is connected to Busan, which is slightly smaller than Boston and slightly farther apart from Seoul than Boston is from New York; the intermediate cities, Daejeon and Daegu, are somewhat larger than New Haven and Providence. Total ridership on the Seoul-Busan segment of the KTX is about 30 million per year, and Korail appears to be making profits on the line, despite very high construction costs coming from heavy tunneling (about 40% of the route).

The first filter alone warrants further investigation of the route, even independently of New York-Washington. The costs of New York-Boston, while higher than those of New York-Washington, are not very high. We can put much of the New Haven Line in the “too hard” basket initially, but instead focus on high speeds between New York and Stamford and between New Haven and Boston and somewhat higher speeds between Stamford and New Haven than today. The average speed that can be squeezed with such investment is comparable to that of the KTX today, before the high-speed segments through two intermediate cities have been completed; those segments can then be compared to tackling Stamford-New Haven.

Of course, while adequate, is still nowhere nearly as good as what can be done on New York-Washington. It’s not just that this segment connects New York to two different cities the size of Greater Boston. Although today New York-Philadelphia has higher ridership than New York-Boston, this may well be reversed in the presence of full-fat HSR, since cutting a 1:05 trip to 0:38 does not provide the same competitive boost as cutting a 3:30 trip to 2:00, and Amtrak’s primary competition is highways rather than planes.

Rather, the benefits of New York-Washington are more in the distribution of the secondary centers. The biggest satellite metro area of Washington is Baltimore, on the line. Of Boston’s satellite metro areas – Providence, Worcester, and Nashua-Manchester – at most one can be served by any semi-reasonable HSR alignment. Philadelphia-Washington provides an additional market to be served. Washington’s population growth is much faster than that of the rest of the Northeast, and is comparable to that of the Sunbelt.

At the same time, there are benefits to building both lines; since under a phased program that built one first and then the other New York-Washington would be first, those benefits should be counted as benefits of New York-Boston. The biggest one is service through New York. Boston-Washington is a major air market: the O&D passenger volume between the Boston and Washington areas is 3.1 million a year; this is more than Boston-New York and New York-Washington combined, and Boston-Washington is both Boston and Washington’s busiest air city pair. In general, Boston-Washington and Boston-Philadelphia are located at more favorable ranges for HSR’s competitiveness than New York-Boston and New York-Washington, on which the trip time advantage versus cars and buses is smaller.

If we take Boston-Philadelphia and Boston-Washington and slightly more than double the size of today’s air market – the same ratio of present-day HSR traffic to pre-HSR air traffic between London and Paris – we get an additional 9 million passengers a year, small compared to the possibilities of the other city pairs but non-negligible.

The other issue is rolling stock and operating plan. Because the Northeast Corridor runs as one route, and there is no point in separating its two halves operationally, the same rolling stock that runs south of New York also has to run north of New York. In particular, we obtain the following situation:

– Traffic purely south of New York justifies rolling stock that could in principle achieve much higher speeds north of New York.

– Because of certain capacity problems, both real and imagined, a few strategic bypasses and (near Boston) commuter rail modernization can have outsized intercity trip time benefit relative to the cost. A high-speed train that gets stuck behind commuter trains pulled by diesel locomotives does Boston-Providence in about 35 minutes. One that shares tracks with punctual modern EMUs can do the same in 20.

– At low levels of infrastructure investment, the cost of new rolling stock can be sizable compared to the cost of infrastructure. Half-hourly service with 16-car trains, one possible initial service plan, costs $250 million times the one-way Boston-Washington trip time in hours including turnaround time, plus spare ratio. 15-minute service requires double that cost, naturally. None of the New York-Boston projects, not even “buy the MBTA better trains,” flips to negative cost this way, but some have lower cost as a result.

– Shared-track HSR requires very good punctuality. Coming south from Boston, trains have no reason to be off-schedule in New York – Metro-North is reasonably punctual (though not enough for HSR) and both between the Rhode Island/Massachusetts state line and New Haven and between New Rochelle and New York Amtrak owns the tracks and runs the most trains – but the bypass and junction separation will help further. Coming north from Virginia there are much bigger problems, but trains can dwell arbitrarily long in Washington for schedule buffer, which they can’t in New York.

What this means is that it’s best to phase Northeast HSR investment throughout the entire corridor. New York-Washington should have the priority because it’s cheaper and has more traffic potential, but unless for some reason there is no money (not even about $4 billion for immediate improvements plus a little more for a bypass), parts of New York-Boston should be in the first phase.

Arguably, even true branches, such as to the Keystone Corridor and Springfield, can get through-service early. Those do not have the ridership potential of the core route, but electrifying New Haven-Springfield to run trains through, and programming extra trains for Keystone, can be done within a few years. The limit perhaps is only rolling stock, or more precisely what to do with the electric locomotives that would become obsolete (they already are, but are a sunk cost, and buying new HSR trainsets now becomes an additional one-time cost).


  1. jim

    I don’t think we disagree on the fundamentals, just on the stress we place on them.

    There is nothing like New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington anywhere else in the Americas or Europe (I don’t know enough about Asia). Three very large markets and a fourth appreciable one within an easy two-hour run — possibly an hour and a half. The existing RoW is straight enough that 300 km/h speeds are possible along substantial portions of the RoW with only minor straightening and with upgrades to track, possibly subgrade, signaling, catenary, power supply and (if we want HSR trains to serve Trenton) turnouts. This is, in the context of US HSR, absurdly cheap. Even more important, it’s bureaucratically simple. Once the Tier 1 EA is complete, the individual projects will require nothing worse than Tier 2 EAs and many of them either FONSIs or will qualify for a CE. Separation of HSR rolling stock from FRA-compliant equipment, except for station approaches (and the northern Maryland bridges) is trivial. Already passenger traffic and freight traffic are almost fully temporally separated: making that separation complete is easy.

    As you’ve pointed out, even without a new trans-Hudson tunnel, there’s capacity enough to run 4 HSR trains per hour on the South End (if Amtrak gets sufficiently tough-minded about deprioritizing conventional service). So it’s perfectly possible that New York-Washington could see 300 km/h trains every 15 minutes by 2020.

    By the way, don’t minimize the impact of reducing the Philadelphia-New York time to under 40 minutes. There are very nice townhouses off Rittenhouse Square, there are really luxurious apartments in Center City, at prices a fraction of Manhattan’s. Get the Philadelphia-New York commute time below the Hicksville-New York commute time and things will get interesting. The same sort of effect already occurs with Baltimore-Washington; HSR between the cities will magnify it. There’s no reason, for that matter, why Philadelphia-New York and Baltimore-Washington HSR service need be a monopoly of Amtrak. The commuter railroads can buy HSR rolling stock and use the HSR tracks, too.

    So I look at these possibilities and think the South End ought to be a priority.

    I don’t mean that Boston-New York is chopped liver. But it’s harder and there simply isn’t the same potential. Boston-New York, Boston-Washington and Boston-Philadelphia are strong city-pairs. They’re just not New York-Philadelphia, New York-Washington, Washington-Philadelphia, New York-Baltimore, Baltimore-Washington …. Once HSR is up and running on the South End, then New York-Boston is the obvious extension. But it’s an extension.

    The North End isn’t as simple to upgrade. Bypassing the Shore Line between Old Saybrook and Westerly is necessary not only to cut out the curves, but to get any sort of frequency. The Coast Guard requires the existing bridges be kept open most of the time. The closings the CG will allow will only permit at best hourly service. So greenfield bypasses are absolutely necessary. But greenfield bypasses will take much longer and will require much more bureaucracy than the South End upgrades. Bureaucracy bedevils the North End. The NEPA process alone for an HSR line along the I-95 corridor will take years. Nor are the separation issues simple. Waivers which can be easily justified for rolling stock on the South End will be much harder to get through for the North End. There’s much more forced sharing, both on the Metro-North controlled segment and the MBTA owned segment. Amtrak can give assurances to the FRA on what will happen on track it owns and controls. It can’t on track it doesn’t own or control.

    So the costs of New York-Boston are higher than the costs of New York-Washington and the benefits less.

    There is a great deal of value in narrowly focusing a project. The fewer the objectives, the more project management can concentrate on them. Minor upgrades to the North End don’t do much, so will simply distract. Major upgrades will require major management attention. They aren’t worth the risk they’ll create to bringing HSR to New York-Washington.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with the waiver issue is that the waivers will be required on the North End anyway. You can’t just buy new trainsets that aren’t compliant with any FRA regulation for the South End and still run Acelas on the North End. (Well, you can, but it’s not terribly efficient and you lose all the through-New York ridership.)

      Of the two territories owned by railroads other than Amtrak, Metro-North is fairly easy – Amtrak can’t make promises there, but Metro-North’s record is impeccable and the MTA has a strong interest in getting the FRA to stop breathing down its neck. The MBTA, which is far less modern, is a bigger problem, but it’s also smaller and perennially cash-strapped and thus buying it off is cheaper.

      You’re right about the Philly-New York commuter potential. I was trying to compare it to New Haven-New York, and the difference is big: it’s easier to access 30th Street Station than New Haven Union Station, there’s way more intact density in Philadelphia than in New Haven, eyeballing Craigslist the rents seem comparable, and Philadelphia offers much more than New Haven does. For a taste of what ridership this can give you, New York-New Haven today is 4,000 a day, both weekdays and weekend days. Now triple that speed and replace New Haven with Philadelphia.

      That said, I’m not at all convinced the high commuter traffic is going to make up for reduced intercity mode shares. For what it’s worth, there are 19 daily NY-DC departures on Megabus versus 16 NY-Philly. (But on Bolt, it’s reversed: 20 vs. 23.) So the common carrier market size appears about the same excluding commuter traffic, which is currently about zero. But HSR does better at NY-DC range than at NY-Philly range. NY-DC and NY-Boston are comparable to Seoul-Busan, NY-Philly to Seoul-Daejeon. Here are the mode shares.

      • jim

        You can’t just buy new trainsets that aren’t compliant with any FRA regulation for the South End and still run Acelas on the North End.

        As an interim measure, you could. Legacy Acelas would run hourly Boston-New York and selected services would continue to Washington. As long as the legacy Acelas that ran through did so during New York off-peak hours, there’d be no interference with the new shiny (actual) HSR trainsets operating between Washington and New York.

        It’s likely that there’d be on the order of a ten year gap between making the South End fit for real HSR and doing the same for the North End. Once the North End can run the new shiny trainsets, the legacy Acelas would be scrapped: they’d be at end of life anyway.

        One shouldn’t want to hold up running real high speed if non-compliant trainsets on the South End until they can also run on the North End. That’s making the tail wag the dog.

        • Peter Brassard

          There is precedence for this idea (initially new trainsets for the south route and use existing Acela trainsets on the north route). It would be similar to the 1970s/80s NEC when Metroliners only ran between New York-DC and New York-Boston ran regional trains. Eventually (I believe it was the late 80s) some of the northbound Metroliners originating from Washington ran through from New York to Boston and visa versa.

    • Nathanael

      I know a few people who already commute between Philadelphia and NYC.

      It’s a huge market. I think Philadelphia-NYC actually exceeds any other segment; forget Philadelphia-Washington until you’ve dealt with Philadelphia-NYC.

      • egk

        According to an Amtrak study (that I probably found out about here) NYC-Philadelphia is about twice as many annual trips (35 million) as either of the next most popular city pairs (Bos-NYC and DC-NYC both at about 18 million). Rail only has about 3.7% of the market, as opposed to 5% and almost 10% for the other two. Rail only has a speed advantage of about 30 minutes. As there is a nearly linear relationship between speed advantage over car and rail/car market share (every 20 minutes in speed advantage yields about a 2% jump in market share), improving travel times between NYC and Philadelphia by 30 minutes is likely to result in a jump to somewhere near 7% market share for rail, or over 2.2 million annual riders, nearly doubling ridership. Even getting NYC-Boston down to 2:30 (travel time advantage over driving: 90 minutes) would yield a 9% market share for NYC-Boston also doubles ridership, but still gives only 1.6 million. If ridership is the goal, then focus on Philly (for revenue, go for the long trips).

        • Alon Levy

          I don’t remember the study – sorry.

          If you look at Korean mode shares, we get about 40% for Seoul-Daejeon and 65% for Seoul-Daegu and Seoul-Busan, all as of 2008. So we have a difference of 25% between Daejeon and Daegu (at the time Daegu-Busan was on legacy track) and 130 km. Obviously, the difference in speed advantage is not 250 minutes; the KTX takes an extra 55 minutes or so, and the speed limit on the parallel expressway is 100 km/h, so figure 80 or 90 minutes of extra driving time, depending on traffic, for about half an hour of speed advantage difference.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          Just looking at a timetable (that’s all I’m doing), the problem seems to be that the trains between NY and Philadelphia are infrequent and super expensive as well as slow.

          The thing that would be done, assuming there is a huge market (I have no opinion, but that seems plausible) is to run ~4tph peak, with 12 to 16 car double decker trains, and run them NY-Phil, not NY-Washington, if that’s where there’s a concentrated real market with real demand. That’s how some people who seem to know what they’re doing do it, at least.

          As far as I can see from just looking at what I take to be the Amtrak timetable, there are only 4tph at peak, and two of those are Acela Express which is so expensive and has so few seats that it might as well be fictional.

          Anyway, I’d hazard frequency and cost first, 89 minute scheduled run time second.

          • Adirondacker12800

            is to run ~4tph peak, with 12 to 16 car double decker trains

            Like the PRR did, nah wouldn’t do that…

    • Malcom, who loves your weblog

      Taking the train to Philly from DC is crazy expensive.
      Prohibitively so. I find myself driving, no matter how unpleasant.
      And, no, I don’t trust the cheapo bus lines.

  2. Beta Magellan

    Nitpick to an excellent post: It’s entirely possible to serve both southern Nashua-Manchester and either Providence or Worcester if North and South stations are connected—just electrify up to Nashua.

      • jim

        I realize that a dual mode locomotive is cheaper than two single mode locomotives (and weighs less, too). But, as Alon points out in the OP, once Amtrak commits to frequent HSR service on (at least the South End of) the NEC, it will have a whole bunch of City Sprinters it won’t know what to do with. It already has some number of P40s in storage. Is it possible to run with both a diesel and an electric locomotive, operating one remotely from the other, powering down the diesel when running under catenary, powering it up again when the catenary runs out? Using stuff you already have beats buying new stuff.

        There is a weekend Lynchburg train which runs from Lynchburg to Washington under diesel power, changes locomotives in Washington, runs to New Haven under electric power, changes locomotives in New Haven and runs to Springfield under diesel. It may well be that eliminating the two long dwells would be worth dragging along the dead weight of an extra locomotive.

        • Adirondacker12800

          The diesels aren’t rated for 125. The ALP45s can do 125 when using electricity.

          • dejv

            @jim – not necessarily. If you have fully automatic couplers (and good regulations regarding brake tests) and driving cars on both ends of wagon set, you can leave “old” loco and couple “new” locomotive in 2 minutes…

        • anonymouse

          The ACES service to Atlantic did exactly what you mentioned, with an electric on one end and a diesel on the other, with one being remotely controlled from the other when appropriate.
          As far as engine changes go, those actually don’t take very long. Back in the olden days of engine changes at New Haven, I talked to one of the Amtrak workers, and he said that it only took 8 minutes, so any extra dwell over that is schedule padding. I’m willing to believe that, given that the current shortest dwell time for an engine change at New Haven is 11 minutes (though 16 minutes is more typical). There’s also a number of Empire Service trains that have engine changes at Albany, and a 15 minute dwell is typical there. The 40-minute long wait in Washington is, as Alon mentioned in the post, in order to reduce the chance of late-running trains from the south delaying things on the NEC.

          • Matthew

            Most recent regional I rode left Boston with a diesel and had to change in New Haven. Took just shy of 15 minutes. We pulled into NYP about 30 minutes late, presumably because the diesel locomotive could not keep the schedule on the earlier stretch.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, that’s true. But Nashua-Manchester isn’t on the way and that means that intercity service there needs to be justified on the strength of the travel market to Nashua and Manchester; it can’t piggyback as much the way Providence and New Haven (or Hartford, etc.) can piggyback on New York-Boston.

      On the other hand, the possibility of running proper intercity service through the tunnel stopping at Lowell, Nashua, and Manchester means that it’s possible to run two classes of trains on the Lowell Line, providing both local and intercity service.

      • Ryan

        Nashua-Manchester is on the way, though. It just happens to be on the way for Boston-Montreal instead of Boston-New York.

        I would think you would need a timed transfer at North Station in that case, but Manchester or Concord can be justified on the strength of the Boston-Montreal market, which is not insignificant.

          • Ryan

            Ugly? Perhaps, but there is no better option. Boston-Montreal via Springfield denies you the opportunity to work the NH Capital Corridor into the project (and oh god is Springfield-Worcester ever a nightmarish mess), New York-Montreal is a separate issue enitrely and I’m not seeing any other routings possible.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Sure there is, use the high speed corridor from Boston to Albany to get to Albany and use the high speed corridor from Albany to Montreal to get to Montreal. The high speed corridor from Boston to Albany makes it very cheap to get to Hartford on a high speed alignment. And makes it possible to do New Haven to Albany. And Boston to Buffalo. Make it fast enough and Boston to Toronto gets thrown in. Going to Manchester gets you Manchester.

          • Ryan

            I don’t think anyone wants to do New Haven to Albany, and I also think that Boston – Toronto is an entirely different issue from Boston – Montreal, where bundling them together does a disservice to both.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Yeah those wacky Connecticuters building I-91 along the corridor from New Haven to Springfield. Why would anyone want to go from New Haven to Springfield or points beyond, And lets not talk about the 7 or 8 trains a day along the corridor either.

          • Beta Magellan

            Ryan, are you taling about HSR or Amtrak+? The only people thinking about true HSR between Boston and Montréal via NH & VT are people who like to make outlandish fantasy maps.

            The only people thinking about true HSR Boston to Montréal via Albany are somewhat better informed people making slightly-less outlandish fantasy maps—Albany’s a bigger draw than anything in NH or VT.

          • Ryan

            “Yeah those wacky Connecticuters building I-91 along the corridor from New Haven to Springfield.”

            And how many of those people then go from Springfield to Albany? Not many, I imagine.

          • Adirondacker12800

            More than go from Montpelier to White River Junction.

    • Liam

      Now that Southwest pulled out of Philly-to-Manchester, air fares have doubled or tripled. Wouldn’t it be nice if Boston had that tunnel?

  3. Malcom, who loves your weblog

    It’s a CRIME that Amtrak got rid of the “Night Owl” train between Washington and Boston.
    Bring it back!!!!!!!

    • Peter Brassard

      The 66 and 67 regional trains are scheduled at the same times as the old Night Owl without name.

    • Andre Lot

      This comments sounds like those from the Bus Riders Unions in LA, which can’t look beyond single schedules and re-routing without whining and calling Obama to “interfere”.

  4. Change Trains

    “You can’t just buy new trainsets that aren’t compliant with any FRA regulation for the South End and still run Acelas on the North End. (Well, you can, but it’s not terribly efficient and you lose all the through-New York ridership.)”

    Timed transfers on parallel platforms might be an option. Admittedly, Penn Station is not a location where you want to increase the number of people still further, but to assume that you would lose all the through ridership would be obviously wrong; many would still transfer. The question is, how much of a loss of ridership would occur based on a timed transfer? Amtrak would probably need to study that.

    “Arguably, even true branches, such as to the Keystone Corridor and Springfield, can get through-service early.”

    A simpler system, where every train along an alignment goes to the same place, is likely to function more smoothly than having one-seat rides that try to go from everywhere to everywhere. It is no accident that Swiss embraced the model of nationwide timed transfers with stunning success.

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