In lieu of a real post, I want to discuss a few possible rail projects that are not completely thought-out. By this I mean rail projects that probably have critical constructibility and cost problems, but not obvious ones. They lie somewhere between true trolling – say, transcontinental HSR from New York to Los Angeles – and projects that are difficult and not yet proposed but need to be seriously considered, such as new train tunnels to Lower Manhattan or a Geary subway.
The projects are roughly ordered from most serious to most frivolous. The projects for the Northeast may well be feasible and should be at least considered, and the first was probably originally not done due to agency turf issues. The rolling stock projects are the most speculative – they suggest things to be done by competent rolling stock manufacturers that probably would’ve done them already if they could. The non-Northeastern infrastructure projects are somewhere in between. Make of this what you will. Just, please, do not use any of this as the basis for any alternative proposal, and do not link with a description like “Why have transit agencies not thought of this?” unless you know what you’re doing.
ARC-North: the proposals for cross-Hudson tunnels that connect to Penn Station, including ARC Alt G and now Amtrak’s Gateway, would have the new tunnels connecting to the south of the main intercity through-tracks: ARC goes to the southern tracks, currently used by New Jersey, and Amtrak eventually wants to add tracks to the south. I propose that when they eventually build such a project, they build the new tunnels to the north, connecting to the existing northern pair of East River Tunnels; a connection to Grand Central could then be built from one of the two East River tunnel pairs, the one not used by intercity trains.
Right now, the northernmost tracks have the most access points and the southernmost tracks the fewest. The system would take advantage of the reduction in demand to Penn Station after East Side Access opens. In case the present-day North River Tunnel diameter is too narrow to allow for higher speeds, the new tunnel could then be used (also) by intercity trains at 200 km/h while letting commuter trains go to Grand Central without reducing capacity there.
Northeast Corridor to Market East, on the cheap: a short connection between North Philadelphia and North Broad, similar to that proposed for the Chestnut Hill West Line but used for the Northeast Corridor instead, would let intercity trains serve Market East or Suburban Station, in addition to 30th Street Station. Trains continuing down to Washington would probably not want to use such a connection, as it would slow them down because of the sharp turn in the SEPTA tunnel, but trains continuing on the Keystone Corridor would emerge from 30th Street oriented the right way. Right now trains to the Keystone Corridor have to either reverse direction (as they do today) or use a connection that skips 30th Street Station (as the fastest New York-Chicago trains did in the Broadway Limited era). It could be useful for local HSR trains if there ever were HSR from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
Philadelphia Bypass: also on the subject of HSR from New York to the Keystone Corridor, if express trains skip Philadelphia, it would be useful to build a bypass roughly along existing freight routes and I-276, starting at Trenton and ending somewhere between King of Prussia and Exton. The cost may not justify this in terms of cost per minute saved on New York-Pittsburgh (and New York-Cleveland, and New York-Chicago).
Providence Downcity Station: using the East Side Rail Tunnel, trains could continue west to Downcity, and then connect to the legacy tracks by hopping over I-95 in Federal Hill. For commuter trains, an underground station at Thayer Street is necessary. This is a pick-your-poison project in terms of takings: there are tradeoffs between curve radius, i.e. noise, and takings, and also between both and centrality. One option would be a curved station over City Hall Park, which would become the new Kennedy Plaza, and then what is now Kennedy Plaza would be landscaped and turned into the new City Hall Park. Another would go straight west, cutting through Citizens Plaza, and have a station elevated over Memorial Boulevard.
To troll even further, trains could use abandoned trackage starting from East Providence and then go to Fall River (reconstructing more abandoned trackage) and Newport (building new tracks through Bristol and over the Mount Hope Bridge).
Old Erie Line Revival: New Jersey Transit’s Main Line trains do not use the Erie Main Line south of Paterson, which is abandoned, but instead go along the Lackawanna’s old Boonton Branch. The right-of-way for the original Erie line is still intact, and serves the center of Passaic better. It might be useful to rebuild the tracks, which would require viaducts, and realign the Main Line. Service on all lines would probably require too many outlets – not even a dedicated tunnel to Lower Manhattan, combined, could be used for all lines serving that part of North Jersey, so some would have to be severed and turned over to light rail (maybe the Northern Branch) or the subway. The old Erie line is actually the best candidate for being part of a subway extension, since it serves dense communities and has a natural terminus at Paterson, where it would probably have to go underground.
Steinway Tunnel Widening: the Steinway Tunnel was widened from trolley loading gauge to IRT loading gauge when what is now the 7 was built. Since the rest of the 7 is built to the wider BMT/IND loading gauge, widening the tunnel is a useful capacity reliever to spend money on. It’s probably supremely expensive – I’m sure the MTA has studied it in the past; it’s also far from the most crowded Queens-Manhattan crossing point. But the cost may compare favorably with other means of providing extra capacity, and it may also be beneficial to let some Flushing Line trains serve Broadway and some Astoria Line trains serve 42nd Street.
Subway to Burbank: Los Angeles’s Red Line does not go straight north along Vermont to Burbank, but swerves west to swerve more of Hollywood and serves Universal City and North Hollywood on the Valley side of the mountains. Since Downtown Burbank is a major secondary employment center, soon to be served by HSR, why not extend the city’s transit system in that direction? The Orange Line there should be a no-brainer, but more speculatively, the MTA could find money (another ballot measure, maybe?) and program another a subway branch off the Red Line that serves Burbank, with excessive splitting prevented by a new Vermont subway, or even (to troll further) an entirely new line that follows Western south of the mountains.
San Jose – Almaden Street Station: San Jose has a medium-sized CBD, roughly comparable to Providence or Burbank, but Diridon Station is separated from it by a freeway. Since there’s already a plan to spend large amounts of money of turning it into a multi-level train station, which the local technical activists have dubbed Diridon Intergalactic (or Pangalactic), why not also move the station? Trains could go on an alignment like this, elevated over Almaden, on a viaduct dedicated to Caltrain and HSR so that only four tracks would be needed. It would also bypass the current reverse curve between Tamien and Diridon, obviating the need for an iconic bridge. In a realistic, cost-conscious blended plan this is too expensive, but they should at least compare the cost with both a blended plan and the proposed full-fat business plan before rejecting it.
San Francisco – Embarcadero Station: with Transbay Terminal facing every planning and constructibility problem known to humanity, and the current terminal at 4th and King too far from the CBD, why not extend the trains under King Street and then the Embarcadero and build a station near the Ferry Building? Building this close to water is a nightmare, and the curve from King to the Embarcadero may be too sharp, but at least this connects to BART directly and has no station length constraints. On the third hand, the Embarcadero is wide but possibly not wide enough for three platforms and six tracks.
Tilting HSR: tilting HSR trains are either relatively low-speed (the Pendolino is limited to 250 km/h, with a few derivatives capable of a bit more) or relatively low-tilt (Talgos are capable of 180 mm of cant deficiency, and the latest Shinkansen trains have active suspension allowing up to about the same for the E5 Series. However, trains capable of 250 mm cant deficiency and 360 km/h are feasible; this is the main subject of Martin Lindahl’s thesis, which I (and others) have been quoting as a ready source of HSR track standards around the world. That said, probably the only place in the world that needs such trains is the Northeast Corridor, due to its unique combination of long straight stretches, on which very high speeds are possible or could be with minor infrastructure upgrades, and long curvy stretches, on which even major upgrades could not bring up to full HSR standards.
Catenary-free HSR: there’s new technology for catenary-free light rail, which is intended for use in historic city centers with aesthetic opposition to trolleywire. The contactless power supply is buried under the tracks, with each segment activated only when a train is completely above it. Although the technology is still low-speed, it could be useful for HSR. Pantographs generate disproportionate noise at high speeds, and Japan specifically has been squeezing every possible decibel out of low-noise pantographs. Being able to eliminate the pantograph would carry this to its logical conclusion. On the margins, it would also permit narrower rights-of-way, since no space for catenary poles would be needed.