The Magic Triangle: Infrastructure-Timetable-Rolling Stock

In the last month, Amtrak decided not to purchase additional Acela cars, but instead replace the Acela fleet ahead of time, and try to buy trains that aren’t compliant with FRA regulations. More recently, Amtrak and the California HSR Authority decided to bundle their orders together. The latter decision drew plenty of criticism from some good transit advocates, such as Clem Tillier, and even the former decision did. Clem explained,

The whole notion of buying quicker trains for the NEC is ridiculous– the existing Acela Express trains have plenty of oomph (16 kW/tonne) to do anything they need to do. “Lighter” and “faster” isn’t the key to anything on the NEC, and dropping in a higher-performance train will not lead to material trip time improvements. They need to speed up the slow bits first, which isn’t something you do by blowing money on trains.

Clem’s criticism got a fair amount of flak in comments, from me and others, for underestimating how important getting around FRA regulations is. What nobody said in comments, and I only realized after the discussion died out, is how the choice of rolling stock depends heavily on what Amtrak plans to do with infrastructure and service planning in the Northeast. It doesn’t make sense in any case to tether Amtrak’s plans for a corridor that’s in many ways globally unique to the California HSR Authority’s for a fairly standard HSR implementation. But what rolling stock is required, and thus how bad the tethering is, depends on a concrete plan for infrastructure and schedule.

At the highest level, the unique issue with the Northeast Corridor is that significant parts can’t be feasibly upgraded to more than 200-250 km/h or easily bypassed, while others can. This means that there’s a tradeoff between top speed and cant deficiency, and the optimal choice depends on how much investment there is into speeding up segments. In any case it’s critical to improve station throats, interlockings, and railroad junctions, but after the 50 and 100 km/h zones are dealt with, the remaining questions are still nontrivial.

The more money is invested, the less it makes sense to run a 270 mm-cant deficiency, 250 km/h Pendolino, and the more it makes sense to run a Talgo AVRIL or E5/E6, both of which are capable of 350 km/h but only about 180 mm of cant deficiency (or N700-I, which is on paper capable of 330 km/h and about 135 mm and in practice could probably be run at 360 km/h and 175 mm). If there’s one segment that tilts the decision, it’s New Haven-Providence: using the legacy Shore Line, even with heavy upgrades, limits speeds and favors high cant deficiency, while bypassing it on I-95 favors high top speeds. But even the New York-Washington segment of today has a few curves strategically located at the worst locations, which make higher tilt degree a benefit.

In medium-speed territory, the Pendolino versus E5/AVRIL/N700-I decision is the muddiest. I ran rough simulations on an upgraded New Haven Line, with bypasses including those I advocated as a first step but also additional ones in the more difficult Stamford-New Haven segment. A train with E5 cant deficiency and N700-I acceleration did New York-New Haven in 32 minutes, and a Pendolino with all cars powered did it in 30. Neither is a standard trainset, though the former is very close to standard (and the Talgo AVRIL is also quite close). The Pendolino as it is, with about half the cars powered, has low power by HSR standards, and this is a problem for accelerating back from a slow zone at medium speed. With all cars powered (which is feasible, at higher acquisition cost) it’s still far from turbocharged, but can change speed more easily. An off-the-shelf Pendolino would not beat an E5 or AVRIL or N700-I on such a corridor, and of course would not beat it south of New York or north of New Haven.

Since nonstandard trains cost more, it’s important to also decide whether they’re worth the cost. Bearing in mind that Amtrak said a new noncompliant trainset costs $35-55 million, which is above the range for 8-car trains (China pays about $4 million per 350+ km/h car), so it may already be factoring in a premium, paying more for trains is worth it whenever the benefits to passengers are noticeable enough. This, like choosing very high-speed rolling stock rather than a Pendolino, is the most effective at high levels of infrastructure investment. An off-the-shelf Pendolino is good enough for most applications. So is an off-the-shelf N700-I without tilt. It’s okay to be 15 minutes slower than the cutting edge if the cutting edge is too expensive. But the effect of 15 minutes on ridership is more pronounced if it’s the difference between 1:35 and 1:50 than if it’s the difference between 3:00 and 3:15. In addition, the faster the service is, the more revenue each train earns, and this allows spreading the extra acquisition cost among more passengers.

Another factor that’s neglected, at least in public statements, is the service plan. Amtrak service is heavily padded: the fastest northbound Acela is scheduled to do Providence-Boston in 47 minutes, but in the opposite direction it’s 34. Remove the Route 128 stop and this can get close to 30 or even below it. About the fastest trains can go with no schedule padding is 19.25 minutes, and reasonable but not onerous padding raises it to about 20.5. Clearly, more of the difference comes from operating efficiencies than from any speed raising; the Acela already goes 240 km/h between Providence and Boston and already has about 180 mm (7″) cant deficiency.

The limiting factor here is more MBTA ownership and operating culture. A good service plan would make it clear how trains can share the corridor (and the same is true on the New Haven Line, another unduly slowed commuter-owned segment), and because MBTA trains are so slow, any cooperation would involve public statements regarding upgrades to the MBTA. The Acela has level boarding at every stop except New London, which is the easiest to cut out and should be bypassed together with the rest of Shore Line East. It’s the MBTA that has non-level boarding, which remains one of the biggest schedule risks, requiring plenty of recovery time to deal with possible long dwell times coming from above-average crowds.

The problem is that Amtrak has made no statements regarding how to integrate the three legs of the magic triangle. It proposed the Vision plan, which even political transit bloggers like Ben Kabak note the extreme cost of; there’s no funding, and the first segment for which it’s trying to obtain funding, the Gateway Tunnel, is very far from the top priority for speed or even for intercity rail capacity. It now proposes new rolling stock, but is unclear about what the trains are supposed to do except be very fast. (Bundling with a new-build line like California makes sense only if all curves are straightened to a radius of 4+ kilometers, even extremely expensive ones.)

Perhaps it’s a feature of opaque government, that Amtrak refuses to say how much money it needs to meet each timetable and capacity goal. For example, it could say that if Congress gives it $10 billion it could reduce travel time from Washington to Boston from the present 6:45 to 5:45 while also running a peak of 4 long trains per hour at that speed. (I think for $10 billion it’s possible to get down to 3:30 or at worst 4:00, but this is a matter of cost control and not just transparency, though transparency can indirectly lead to better cost control.) This would involve heavy cooperation with the commuter railroads that share its tracks and joint plans, as well as detailed public plans for how much to spend on each segment and for what purpose. This is routine in Swiss rail infrastructure planning, since all major projects have to be approved by referendum, but does not happen in the US. It could be that Amtrak knows what it’s doing but acts like it doesn’t because the structure of government in the US is such that these decisions are made behind closed doors.

But more likely, Amtrak doesn’t know what it’s doing, and is just proposing new initiatives that make it seem forward-looking. Changing FRA rules is an unmixed blessing. Bundling an order with California HSR is not. The fact that Amtrak is doing so, while keeping mum about even what kind of rolling stock it thinks it needs, suggests that it reverses the usual way reform should be: instead of a need for reform producing good results and thence good headlines, a need to get good headlines about reform produces reform ideas that sound good. Some of those good-sounding ideas really are good, but not all are. It’s important for good transit advocates to distinguish the two both privately and publicly.

I feel like in the last two years, we’ve seen important American transit and railroad managers say correct things. Shortly after I started making noise in comments about New York’s outsized subway construction costs, Jay Walder said as much in a report entitled Making Every Dollar Count. Joe Lhota proposed through-running on commuter rail as a solution to improve efficiency. Scott Stringer, too, talked publicly about comparative construction costs, and for all of my criticisms of transit managers who say that, I thought it was enough for him to say that as a political candidate for a medium-term office to deserve my endorsement for the mayoral election, which he unfortunately bowed out of. The FRA proposed to start working on new rules for rolling stock last year. At Amtrak, we’ve just now seen Joseph Boardman propose noncompliant rolling stock. Perhaps I’d be more optimistic if Walder and Lhota had stayed at the MTA for longer to implement their positive reform ideas, instead of using it as a springboard to secure a higher-paying job or run for mayor, but increasingly it looks like the good reform talk is not generally accompanied by good actions.

This is, again, where good transit advocates can have the most influence. We more or less know which reforms are required and which are not. There are disagreements at times (Clem, for one, has much better credentials as a good transit activist than I do), but on most of the agenda items there’s agreement. We already know what details we might want to see from a good plan of action, and the advantage of this is that we can check proposed plans against them. That Amtrak’s gotten so many details wrong suggests that it still doesn’t know what the best practices for rail construction are, even if the basic idea of getting around FRA rules is sound. I wish I didn’t have to say it, but I’ll believe Amtrak’s improved when I see it.


  1. Aaron M. Renn (@urbanophile)

    If the MBTA simply bought decent rolling stock – such as the off the shelf SEPTA Silverliner V which has a top speed of 100 MPH – and built high platform at all their stops, the Providence Line could be greatly improved, which should help Amtrak as well. I’m told Massachusetts isn’t interested in high platform loading and the MBTA doesn’t want separate rolling stock on the Providence Line so that they can preserve flexibility and reduce maintenance costs (which I agree are worthy goals, but shouldn’t be over riding in a situation where you’ve already got a fully electrified, high speed line). There’s no reason the MBTA shouldn’t be running at say 40-45 minutes on their Providence-Boston segment, with so few intermittent stops.

    • Nathanael

      For some inexplicable reason, the MBTA has not been interested in electrification, even though I’m pretty sure it would save them money in the medium run, given the volume of trains they run, and the relatively short distances between stations, and the relatively short routes, and the relatively high frequencies, and the rising cost of diesel, and the stable cost of electricity….

      There’s definitely an MBTA cultural problem. Of course, there are deeper cultural problesm in MassDOT, including the ones which cause them to keep trying to skip out on the Big Dig commitments (Green Line to Somerville and Medford anyone? Arborway Restoration? Red-Blue Connector?), and the ones which caused them to artificially load the MBTA with state government debt….

      • Beta Magellan

        I think it’s fairly simple—there’s little political interest in Massachusetts in transit. Key figures either aren’t interested in transit anymore (as opposed to the late sixties through late eighties period of renovation and rebuilding), are outright hostile to it (Mumbles), or come from swing (well, more like swing-ish) districts where you run on bad transport infrastructure (highways or infrequent exurban commuter rail). Although there might be a lot of interest in the inner core of Boston and Metro Boston, that doesn’t necessarily translate into broad-based legislative support.

        • Nathanael

          Why doesn’t it?

          Look at the population map of Massachusetts and you’d think it would translate into substantial legislative support. This isn’t Wyoming.

          So what is it? Gerrymandering?

          • Nathanael

            Or just coincidence, in that “key figures” happen to be from the “don’t care about transit” areas, even though there is broad-based support?

            Or holdovers from the 1950s road warrior period representing districts where the population cares about transit but the politicos don’t?

            I’d like to believe your claim that there’s little political interest in MA in transit, but it doesn’t make any *sense*, demographically.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s not really gerrymandering. Metro Boston is more than just the inner core. The inner core is walkable and transit-friendly; it also has less than a million people and that’s if you charitably count Hyde Park and Brookline. If you aren’t so charitable and don’t count neighborhoods that have the same demographics and politics as Eastern Queens and Staten Island, then you’re down to half a million or a bit more. Of those half a million, most live in either Greater Cambridge (weird geeks) or the poor, nonwhite parts of Boston. There’s Back Bay, but it’s not big enough to matter. It’s not like New York, where there’s a vast body of middle- and upper-class people living in the urban core taking transit. Calgary, which here in Vancouver people popularly regard as a cow town with a light rail system that is completely unusable, has a bigger percentage of its metro population getting to work on transit than Boston does.

          • Nathanael

            But I’d expect most of those people to be going to work in Boston, and therefore using the commuter rail network or at least the urban rail to get from one part of town to another. Is the employment spread out in rural “office parks” too?

            I mean, think about it: electrification is a proposal which improves the *commuter rail*. Even the seemingly anti-transit folks on Long Island keep asking for electrified LIRR.

          • Alon Levy

            Pretty much nobody in the urban core and the outer-urban neighborhoods uses the commuter rail. People drive or take a bus.

          • Nathanael

            Driving in Boston is hell, and it won’t get better.

            But of course nobody likes buses. Is the solution to the political problem to bring back the streetcars?

          • Matthew

            Nothing wrong with counting Brookline as walking and transit friendly. It’s closer to the core than many city neighborhoods and all four branches of the Green Line either pass through it or barely skirt it.

            Folks in Roslindale, West Roxbury and Hyde Park do use the commuter rail to some extent but the buses come more frequently. There’s a good amount of transit users from that area even if it is a very car-oriented part of town.

            You should also look north to Chelsea and Somerville which have well-used frequent bus routes into the core.

            Bringing back streetcars comes up often but isn’t going anywhere in today’s current construction cost environment. The T is trying to get rid of the last vestige of street-running as it is. There’s nothing wrong with buses that bus lanes couldn’t solve.

          • Beta Magellan

            @Matthew Except capacity, which is a legitimate concern on a handful of bus lines and one of the reasons why E-branch bustitution south of Heath Street was only supposed to be temporary and one of the reasons why A-branch restoration was considered in the eighties.

          • Beta Magellan

            (And, of course, said capacity issues are only within the within Alon’s ungenerous definition of Metro Boston—if you’re talking regional rationalization of schedules and electrification is really the only way to go.)

          • Matthew

            The 39 and the Silver Line-Washington Street are probably the only bus routes with ridership and plausibility to become streetcars.

            The 66 is a wacky route that never was a streetcar.

            The 57/”A”-branch could become a streetcar again but even when it was, it was relatively low-ridership, and nothing a bus couldn’t handle.

            That leaves the 1, I suppose.

          • Henry

            @Nathanael: there’s also the cost of Big Dig mitigation, which is wholly MBTA funded.

            I imagine that it’s like in New York, where no one wants to talk about solving the MTA’s giant debt problem, except that in New York there are at least a handful of politicians who talk about the MTA in a non-punching bag context.

          • Matthew

            The 1 and the 66 have some similarities. They’re both cross-town routes with the same termini and they cross the same rapid transit routes, just at different points. They’re both horribly overcrowded and slow. The ridership of the 1 and the 66 is almost the same, but if you add the CT1 ridership then the combined 1+CT1 ridership is slightly above SL5.

            The 1 is a bustitution of an old trolley line, the 66 is a patchwork route that AFAIK never existed as a single trolley route though many of the streets it uses did once (or still do) host trolleys. Harvard Ave/Street is one such street. But I doubt it will ever host trolleys again, as much of it is about the same size as Centre Street in JP, and they blocked the much more plausible Arborway restoration there. I doubt the T is eager to introduce streetcar crossings/junctions at Commonwealth Ave, Beacon Street, and Huntington Ave either. The 1 does not cross any rail line at-grade. And Mass Ave is quite a bit wider.

            Honestly I don’t see it happening for either of them. The big argument for the Washington Street streetcar is the existence of the Tremont Street tunnel and flying junction at Boylston, which is a tremendous resource currently sitting untapped below the streets. There’s nothing like that for the 1 or 66. The streetcar gives you higher capacity, but neither the 1 nor 66 currently even uses 60 foot buses. That plus bus lanes probably does well enough until the Urban Ring actually gets built in the second half of the century or something like that.

          • Sascha Claus

            The streetcar gives you higher capacity, but neither the 1 nor 66 currently even uses 60 foot buses. That plus bus lanes probably does well […]

            Unless the reliability and speed brought by the bus lanes draw enough customers to support railstitution. But testing this only requires a few cans of paint.

          • Nathanael

            “Henry says:
            @Nathanael: there’s also the cost of Big Dig mitigation, which is wholly MBTA funded.

            I imagine that it’s like in New York, where no one wants to talk about solving the MTA’s giant debt problem, except that in New York there are at least a handful of politicians who talk about the MTA in a non-punching bag context.”

            Henry: you’re probably right. I just don’t understand how the politics get so screwed up that the politicos can bash public transportation and dump debt on the MBTA and get away with it with no consequences. I mean, this makes sense when it happens in Oklahoma, but how does it happen in Massachusetts?

          • Nathanael

            I’m basically asking a _vox populi_ question. I brought up streetcars because I was wondering whether — despite substantively similar performance to buses — they would *attract more voters*. There is a lot of evidence from the past that they would.

            What else is creating the voting lineup which causes people to ignore public transportation improvements? It’s not simply urban/suburban/rural population demographics; that explains why Iowa has trouble getting public transportation funding, it doesn’t explain Massachusetts.

          • Matthew

            People have been trying to bring back the Watertown and Arborway lines for decades without any success at all, much less a more extensive streetcar network. I don’t see how it’s a political winner. It may be different now. According to a long time resident, there were winning city politicians back in the 80s who focused on getting the remaining street tracks ripped up, and they were popular for it. That probably wouldn’t work so well nowadays, but the tracks are mostly gone anyway.

            This is not quite the same but, the Chestnut Hill Ave tracks — that predate the “B” line but have not been in revenue service for many decades — probably attract some ire from the local community. I know Cleveland Circle groups are always bickering with the T about the traffic tie-ups caused by trolleys passing through. But they seem content to work with the T to get it sorted out better. I don’t know whether that’s because they are okay with the tracks, or whether because they know they have no chance of getting the T to remove the direct link from the Reservoir car-house to the Boston College line.

          • Beta Magellan

            (This is mostly word-of-mouth, so take it with a grain of salt.) Although I’ve heard that opposition to E-branch restoration has increased with gentrification in Jamaica Plain, in general I’ve heard more about local communities trying to get the MBTA to do something to improve the Green Line or retain service and having them drag their feet.

            My sole interaction with someone in the MBTA hierarchy didn’t give me confidence—he either didn’t understand how through-running works, for instance; he also framed the agency’s mission in terms of managed decline to the point of being annoyed when someone brought up recent ridership increases.

          • T0

            Omnibus response:

            Re: the 66. Given the fact that much of the route is only one travel lane each way, rampant double-parking, the difficulty of providing ADA compliance (the real reason you will never see Arborway service come back), the existing total unreliability of the route, and the high capital cost, any capital funds would be better spent on improving bus stops and transit priority. Then again, we are talking about the MBTA, which turned down the Town of Brookline’s offer to provide transit priority on the C Line.

            Big Dig debt: bingo. Combined with a huge maintenance backlog. In fact, when they reorganized the state transpo agencies a few years ago, they deliberately did not fold the MBTA debt into the generic MassDOT/state debt because it would have tanked the state’s credit rating.

            Lack of constituency: I think there’s a combination of things going on…
            (a) no one believes the MBTA. And given the history of asset mismanagement, corruption, sweetheart benefit deals, etc, it’s hard to blame them.
            (b) the suburbs have a surprising libertarian streak. In the core, the Republican Party is so irrelevant that the Democrats have become completely Balkanized, and often work at cross purposes even when they support the same project. For example, consider all the costly changes Somerville and Medford have asked for on the GLX… a project they ostensibly want built 15 years ago.
            (c) the system actually went under considerable expansion/reconstruction in the 70s-90s, but NIMBYism stops any development that might actually capitalize on those improvements.
            (d) political boundaries and systems from the 1700s. As I understand it, state law prohibits anyone from passing a self-help measure like, say, Measure R in Los Angeles. The Legislature only recently allowed some cities to opt into a supplemental meal tax. Even if the ability to it existed, there’s no coherent political unit to undertake it – no equivalent of Los Angeles County. Everything has to go through the Legislature, which gives the rural western part of the state too much power (not unlike how rural states have too much power in the US Senate). Hence, the MBTA gets piled up with Big Dig debt while everyone west of Springfield gets to ride the Mass Pike for free.

          • Nathanael

            OK, so let’s look at this again.

            Massachusetts is a mostly-urban state, in terms of population. The political oddities described by T0 — “libertarian” suburbs and a squabbling core — are very informative, but they can’t be insurmountable. Would providing better public transportation to the western part of the state change the political balance? Well, that’s kind of starting to happen.

            Perhaps the bad attitude among the ‘old guard’ at the MBTA and the rest of the state government, described by Beta Magellan, is the biggest issue — people in power who simply can’t believe that mass transit is increasing in popularity. Do we simply have to wait until the state is run by people who grew up after the oil crisis? Because *that shouldn’t take very long now*.

          • T0

            Western MA, especially beyond the Connecticut River, is very rural, and there is not much market for transit. But, practically no one lives there anyway. You can also take Cape Cod and the Islands out of consideration. That leaves basically everything from Worcester east, and we can break that down into three groups fairly easily:
            – inside the 128 freeway, there is wide support for improving transit
            – between the 128 and the 495, support is limited basically to commuter rail, the only mode most people here interact with
            – outside the 495, there is vanishingly little support
            Honestly, if there was a political entity inside the 128 and state law allowed it, you would probably be able to pass a self-help measure.

            I think you may be onto something in terms of just waiting for the old guard to leave. Political and institutional problems are technically easy to solve, but often prove intractable anyway. There is no logical reason to have three commuter rail operators in New York that all turn back rather than through route, and the barriers allegedly went away in 1969 when Penn Central was formed, yet here we are.

          • Alon Levy

            Springfield might support something very scaled-down, say regional rail up the river to Northampton and a Northampton-Amherst tram-train connecting the Amherst universities with Smith. Western Mass is also a very liberal region. But that’s impossible under any operating practice people in the US are familiar with, so there’s not a constituency for it the way there is in Boston and Cambridge.

          • T0

            As a final note, I think the best way to build constituency for transit in MA would be to actually let people live near the transit that already exists. The Red Line and Orange Line extensions of the 70s/80s were not complimented by much new development (upgrades to existing structures, yes, but new structures, no), and the prospects for the GLX don’t look great. Many of the commuter rail stations are surrounded by comically low density development. The Patrick Administration’s proposal to encourage new development at 4/acre for SFRs and 8/acre for multifamily near transit stations is a step in the right direction, but note that even in the sprawliest sprawl in Los Angeles, in places like Lancaster, the generic residential zone allows 6.5/acre.

          • T0

            Alon – agree regarding Springfield-Northampton-Amherst (if FRA wasn’t in the way). Of course they turned the obvious first piece, the Northampton-Amherst ROW, into a bike trail. Not that it makes it impossible, but it would drive the cost up.

          • Matthew

            The lack of development on the bulldozed parcels around the Orange Line is an ongoing shame. Might finally be happening though, we’ll see.

            As for the Governor’s proposal, I was heartened at first to see an emphasis on building housing. But 8 units/acre? That’s ridiculously low for a transit-friendly urban area. That’s low for an autocentric suburb! By contrast the density along, for example, Comm Ave and the “B” line is around 100 units/acre.

        • Brandon

          I really think it’s too harsh to say there’s little political interest in transit in Mass. Having lived there and several other places, Greater Boston has OK transit, and there’s more being done.

          The Green LIne is being extended to Somerville. The Fairmont commuter rail line is getting infill stations. And the MBTA is looking at extending commuter rail to Fall River and New Bedford while Gov. Patrick wants to bring commuter rail to Springfield and South Station is being studied for expansion.

          The problem is there’s not a lot of money to go around, and the existing commuter rail system has lots of service issues. Suburbanites with rail do not want to see their trains continue to break down while the state is looking at rail expansions.

          • Nathanael

            “Suburbanites with rail do not want to see their trains continue to break down while the state is looking at rail expansions.”

            The original question asked why the MBTA wouldn’t consider upgrades to the suburban rail, such as electrification.

            The “not a lot of money” is clearly an excuse; Massachusetts has not reached the limits of either taxing or borrowing power, but continues to pursue questionable road projects. Is it just that the people running the state are still people who grew up prior to the oil crisis of the ’70s? Maybe it’s just that simple.

          • betamagellan

            As a former resident of one of the Boston MSA, I the idea that “[s]uburbanites with rail do not want to see their trains continue to break down while the state is looking at rail expansions” is pretty off. Most suburbanites are barely aware of commuter rail’s existence, and the MBTA’s scheduling practices are designed to ensure that it’s nothing more than a niche market.

            I’m pretty sure that almost no one here (here being the frequent commenters at Ped. Obvs.) supports stuff like Falls River-New Bedford extensions, but they do bring up a point with respect to “no money available”—federal funds are most readily available for transit extensions, not upgrades to legacy systems. This, combined with the fact that the operations people are often in a completely separate box than the people planning extensions, means that there’s a preference in agencies for extension even as they pursue an overall program of managed decline.

          • Nathanael

            The managers have got to be replaced with younger people. “Managed decline” is great for Youngstown, Ohio, but makes no sense for a rail system whose ridership is growing at a fast rate.

          • Beta Magellan

            @nathanael—Agreed in theory about younger people, though in practice the managed decline mindset seemed, though there’s the issue that urban transit ridership upturned only fairly recently (don’t know about Massachusetts, but it was late nineties, or mid nineties at the earliest, that CTA ridership started to bounce back). There’s also the fact that managed decline is still taught and operating costs do increase more quickly than revenues at many agencies; I’d argue operating cost control and better operations funding are just as important as new blood.

          • Nathanael

            Beta Magellan: late 90s is *roughly 15 years ago*. I simply can’t call that “recent”, not in human time scales — and not in public transport timescales either. Entire bus fleets are replaced over the course of 15 years.

          • Nathanael

            One reminder: this entire discussion of institutional culture started with the question of why the MBTA won’t even think about electrification of any of the commuter lines.

            You mentioned controlling operational costs…. Well, one way to do that is to be insulated from diesel prices, and another is to be on the road less time by having higher acceleration — both benefits of electrification.

            It seems to me that there’s a mindset of managed decline. This has to be broken, the people teaching it thrown out, and replaced with people with a mindset of managed *demand growth*.

          • Beta Magellan

            @Nathanael—In transit, controlling operating costs is much, much more about keeping wages from outpacing growth in revenue than anything else.

    • Alon Levy

      Shit. There were paragraph breaks when I wrote the post; I have no idea where they disappeared. Thanks for pointing this out. And thanks to Aaron for slogging through the broken version of the post.

  2. Adirondacker12800

    More recently, Amtrak and the California HSR Authority decided to bundle their orders together…..
    Bundling with a new-build line like California makes sense only ….

    It’s a Request for Information. Not a Request for Proposals or even close to a bid. The Request for Information could come back “The systems are too dissimilar. We have this product, which when you get around to Requesting a Proposal, will be obsolete, that would do well on the NY-DC portion of the NEC. Another one which might be a bit better for Boston-NY and moderately good for through traffic to Philadelphia and DC. We have a third product which is designed for greenfield HSR, which would also be hopelessly obsolete by the time you issue a Request for Proposals, which is more suited to California.”

    Combining them lets the vendors do things like ask “What are the regulations for each line going to be?” “What platform height is California going to use?” “How cold does it get in Rochester and Toronto and what is lake effect snow? and while we are on the subject of weather how hot does it get in Mojave?”

    It also means that when people whine why we all can’t just have one train, one can point at the RFI and say “The systems are too dissimilar to have joint procurement. Here are the 27 major reasons why and 142 minor reasons why”

    Perhaps it’s a feature of opaque government, that Amtrak refuses to say how much money it needs to meet each timetable and capacity goal.

    Up until recently Amtrak’s goal has been to use enough baling wire and bubble gum to keep the trains running. Portal Bridge?
    Baltimore Tunnels? The preliminary study that was done to get the money for the preliminary studies came up with the Great Circle tunnel as the option that balances all the parameters best… that there is some charm to building a deep cavern station under downtown Baltimore but the cost isn’t worth the 90 seconds it would save. ( Or whatever the time savings would be )

    They, along with NJTransit and the LIRR have been saying they need more capacity in Midtown Manhattan since the late 70s. See where that’s got them.

    The fact that Amtrak is doing so, while keeping mum about even what kind of rolling stock it thinks it needs

    Defining what it thinks it needs, you get Acela. Defining what kind of railroad needs to be under the off-the-shelf-ish trains is a process that starts with a Request for Information…..
    I’m not going to go hunt down authoritative references, everything that runs on the NEC has ACSES. It’s interoperable with ITCS – which has been demostrated. In the voluminous information they give to the vendors they can say something like “we don’t need million pound buff strength anymore since we have an effective signal system implemented. The platforms are 48 inches high and serve trains that are nominally 10’6″ wide. Here’s our detailed track charts with the property boundaries of the ROW. What do you suggest?” A vendor can then say “Model X can go through the Metuchen curves at 216 KPH, 237.6 KPH if you do this to the track or 293.5 if you move them that way 17 meters”

    At the highest level, the unique issue with the Northeast Corridor is that significant parts can’t be feasibly upgraded to more than 200-250 km/h or easily bypassed,

    Wilmington. Probably one of the cheapest. Let the regionals serve Wilmington and the NY-Philadelphia-DC express blow past out on the freight alignment east of the curves in downtown Wilmington. Longer range let the regionals serve New London or Hartford and the Boston-NY-Philadelphia-DC express blow past the curves on either out along the Conn. Turnpike. Much much farther in the future the NY-DC express can bypass Philadelphia out along the… NJ Turnpike…. No need to be digging tunnels under Market East. And by that time people will be wondering why it was even suggested since “downtown” has moved farther west towards 30th Street.

    Kodama on the current regional alignment. Hikari to get to Philadelphia and also stopping at Newark, Providence or Hartford for the Boston or DC market. Nozomi doing Boston-NY-DC. Or hybrids. Boston, New Haven, NY, Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore. BWI, New Carrollton. Or DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Metropark, Newark, NY. lots of other options. My favorite “hidden” one is NY-Newark-Cranford-Bound Brook-West Trenton-Fern Rock-Philadelphia and some combination to Boston or DC. Change at Philadelphia or New York for the Nozomi or stay on the train since it becomes the Hikari to Harford or BWI.

    • Alon Levy

      I wish it were just the RFI. But, from the link,

      “If everyone’s out issuing their own orders, everyone’s subject to what the industry can provide,” said Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “We can drive the market in a way we can’t if we purchase separately.”

      As for the shoestring budget, it’s not as if SBB is getting $100 billion for anything. It makes plans based on different funding levels, explaining what each level of funding gets it. They don’t do it here (interpreted broadly as North America, or even the entire Anglosphere); they say “we need more capacity in Midtown,” rather than “we need $5 billion to spend on XYZW.” That particular problem exists even in places that otherwise do transit investment right, like Vancouver: Translink gives various options for transit alignments and technologies, but the decisions are made by the respective Sir Humphreys of the cities involved.

      It’s entirely possible Amtrak is just used to zero consistent funding to the point that it’s never thought out what to do in case it got more money, and now that it has the potential to get more money it’s caught with its pants down. But either way, it needs to pull its pants up.

      What Amtrak needs at zero money for concrete, or close to zero money for concrete, is high tilt. The Acela doesn’t do it. At higher levels of investment it needs higher speed, enough acceleration to get to it, and low noise, which again the Acela is not great at.

      • Adirondacker12800

        There isn’t a whole lot of demand for travel between Trenton and New Carollton. If they don’t get more capacity into Manhattan the rest of the fixes just induces demand that they can’t satisfy.
        The 137 or 136 if you don’t consider “no build” as an option, they examined for ARC, wasn’t through enough? Would have given them the time and capacity to rip out tracks 5, 6, 7 and 8 and convert them to tracks 5 and 6. Or the six or eight options they explored for Baltimore? Even though the Baltimore study was a study to justify requesting money for more studies?

        As for driving the market Amtrak is going to be a bit faster by the time the trains are delivered. California on the other hand will still be deciding what color to tint the concrete. By the time California decides on Sierra Nevada Beige instead of San Joaquin Tan Amtrak is going to be exercising it’s option for the third round of Acela IIs. They are going to downgrade the Acela Is to the Regionals inducing demand which will mean they need more capacity whether it’s cars or tunnels under the Hudson or under Baltimore or a second Portal Bridge. In 2020 we are going to deeply regret that ARC
        wasn’t completed in 2018… As for driving the market Shikansen use 48 inch platforms just like the NEC and are nominally 11 feet wide while the NEC uses trains that are nominally 10’6″. I’m sure the Japanese will have something to say. Probably send someone from far off exotic Yonkers to the presentations. Or Lincoln.

  3. Henry

    Hopefully Amtrak won’t be putting the cart before the horse then, like the MTA did with its R44s and R46s.

    Amtrak may be a bit ambitious with the speed on its CAHSR trainsets, but at least it’s not the MTA putting ATO on its trains before they had an ATO system.

  4. Nathanael

    For what it’s worth, any sensible analysis of Amtrak ridership potential will focus on getting maximum speed and capacity out of New York-Philadelphia, which if I’m reading your analysis correctly, seems to call for higher top speed rather than higher tilt.

    For better or worse, Boston is a tail, and NYC-Philly is a trunk line; regardless of speed the part south of NY will continue to be more important. From what you’re saying, that’s the part which doesn’t need the tilting so much, but would benefit from fast trains.

    Of course the second (technically, fourth) pair of Hudson Tunnels are essential.

    • Peter Brassard

      Regarding the Hudson tunnels in the near term, if funding is an issue, constructing a first phase single new tube would have an enormous immediate impact—rush hour two inbound and one outbound and visa versa.

      • Jim

        The problem with two peak and one counterpeak is there’s no good place to put all the NJT trains that would come into New York in the morning and not leave until the evening.

        A third tube would allow another half-dozen trains per hour in each direction across the Hudson, which is probably all that the existing platforms in Penn Station can handle given existing operational practices anyway, so it would be a good thing. But not as good a thing as suggested.

        • Nathanael

          “here’s no good place to put all the NJT trains that would come into New York in the morning and not leave until the evening.”

          Long Island. They should be running as contra-peak LIRR trains. Through-running is not happening mainly because of institutional inertia and bunker mentality.

  5. Jim

    The FRA is running something called NECFuture. The aim is to produce an SDP and a Tier 1 EIS for upgrading passenger rail on the NEC. They’ve had one round of public comment on the scope. If I’ve understood the process and schedule correctly, they’ll be producing draft documents — SDP and EIS — in either late summer or fall 2014, which ties in nicely with the projected contract date for these trainsets. That would seem to answer your concern: the SDP defines the timetable; the EIS defines the infrastructure; the contract defines the rolling stock.

    That FRA is running the exercise, rather than Amtrak, suggests that FRA is on board with non-compliant trainsets, too.

    Dan Baer, the PB guy who is the team lead (the team is PB and what used to be called Systra), said in the December webinar that after the public comment period they had 98 initial alternatives to sort through. Presumably a bunch of combinations of short term and long term possibilities for various segments. It’s likely that they will have been whittled down and there have been another round of public comment by the time the RFP is released.

  6. anonymouse

    I think this, along with the Vision Plan, is a political move. They see a good bandwagon, and they’re trying thei best to jump on it, because clearly CA HSR has whatever it takes to get piles of money thrown at it, while passing Amtrak’s annual funding is like pulling teeth. They figure that if they promise to make something bright and shiny, the politicians might like it and give them money for it too, and in the worst case, it’s nor going to make things any worse. The attempt of a joint rolling stock order seems like an excuse for getting around the FRA regulations.

    And as far as everything else goes, I think there are problems with the way infrastructure funding and politics is organized in the US. Everything is centered around discrete individual projects, which are big and complicated and involve huge piles of money and bureaucracy all at once. But what’s needed is more of a program of gradual improvements working toward some target. This is most obvious with Caltrain: if they’d been slowly and steadily building their electrification infrastructure, maybe by now they would have had some wires and retired ALP-44s from NJT, and started some semblance of electric service. Instead, they’re still waiting for the money to replace everything all at once, and while they were waiting for the money, their approvals expired, so they need to do another environmental impact report, and then HSR comes and throws a bunch of NIMBys at the project and on and on and on, without anything actually being built.

    • Beta Magellan

      From what I understand, the main point in electrifying is geared more towards getting modern EMU-type acceleration than anything else. Although I definitely agree that Caltrain has some bad phasing, I can see why they aren’t bothering with ALPs—it would probably make more sense for them to install the wires and just wait until they can get rolling stock.

    • Nathanael

      It’s hard to do electrification gradually. The benefits are much greater when you have a whole lot of line electrified, and very small when you have only a little bit of electrified line. The UK analyzed this, and found that the benefit/cost ratio of electrifying a WHOLE LOT of lines was a lot better than the benefit/cost ratio of electrifying any one line. So they’re going to electrify a whole lot of lines at once…

      There’s only one sensible way to do “incremental” electrification: specifiy that all bridges/tunnels/ROW, when rebuilt or relocated, will have sufficient clearances for electrification. Much of the cost of electrification is in bridge raising, etc.

      • Nathanael

        (To understand the issue, realize that a single non-electrified gap, unless it’s short enough to coast across, means that all trains running across that gap will be diesel or expensive dual-mode, with the corresponding performance characteristics, slowing down all the other trains, etc. etc.)

      • T0

        Agreed, and if you do it bit by bit you’ll end up paying more because you’ll be buying things in small orders, paying for multiple mobilizations, disrupting service for longer periods of time, etc. Pretty much any transit system (electrification, signals, etc) makes the most sense if you do it in one shot. Consider the fact that no one wanted to pay to upgrade MNR and MBTA on-board equipment, so 15 years after it was installed, no one is using the 60 mph cab code on the NEC.

        Or consider the MBTA Green Line Extension, which was cut back from Mystic Valley Parkway to College Ave because of cost (partly due to the fact that the bogus enviro process made it more palatable to propose demolishing a bunch of productive businesses instead of demolishing a dilapidated 100-year old “historic” bridge). Then further delays caused politicians to advocate for further “phased openings”. If it ever reaches Mystic Valley Parkway, it will have cost more than doing it all at once.

          • T0

            Ha, don’t even get me started on the GLX NIMBYs 🙂

            I thought the W Medford NIMBYs wanted it to go to Mystic Valley Pkwy, so that people wouldn’t park in their hood. The extra cost of going to Mystic would have hurt FTA cost effectiveness…

  7. T0

    Random technical question… did you do a spreadsheet level analysis for travel time? Or something more detailed?

    • Alon Levy

      I used integration to find the time cost of a slow zone for an example train and the acceleration time penalty in the transitions between different speed zones, and added everything up. I also did a sanity check by looking at different performance profiles in just the New Haven-New York segment. In principle, it should be possible to code everything so that you can get travel time per segment for each train with inputs including maximum cant deficiency, initial acceleration/maximum deceleration, power-to-weight ratio, and track resistance. In practice, my programming skills atrophied at age 12, so train performance profile is hardcoded.

  8. Adirondacker12800

    Cap’n Transit’s virtuous circle isn’t it?

    But the effect of 15 minutes on ridership is more pronounced if it’s the difference between 1:35 and 1:50 than if it’s the difference between 3:00 and 3:15.

    Meh. Changing the running time from 1:35 to 1:50 isn’t going to change many minds if you are taking about NY-Boston or NY-DC or some other city pair like New Haven-Philadephia. 1:50 is the fastest way to get there until someone figures out Star Trek transporters. If you are cutting 15 minutes to make NY-DC or NY-Boston 1:35 and it’s gonna cost 100 billion it’s probably not worth it. If you are going to need to do it to cut it to 1:35 does it matter when you do it?

    If you have to do the work anyway it’s a bonus. The traditional time between Newark and NY was 15 minutes. It’s now 20. Some of that comes from adding Secaucus and some of that comes from the reduction in speed over Portal Bridge and more than a little of it comes from Midtown Direct service. Ever wonder why it takes 20 minutes between Penn Station Newark and Penn Station New York but 30 minutes between Broad Street Newark and Penn Station New York? ARC was projected to bring Penn Station Newark-NY back down to 15 minutes and cut Broad Street Newark-NY to 15 minutes. The 5 minutes Amtrak will be saving is “free” since the second tunnel pair has to be built anyway.

    In nice round numbers the 160,170 MPH testing Amtrak did with Acela in the fall of 2012 only covered 60 miles of track in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. ( around 20 miles in each state ) Increasing the speed on 60 miles of track from 135 to 165 doesn’t save a whole lot of time. But they have to do the work anyway. The extra five minutes that cuts out of the schedule is “free”. Bump up the speed to 185 and it saves 8 minutes. They have to buy new trains anyway so the 185 MPH capable trains are “free” too. The places they tested for 160 are dead straight and could support 220. Bump 60 miles from 135MPH to 215MPH and you save 10 minutes. For “free”.

    So ARC or Gateway along with Portal Bridge and 60 miles of catenary upgrades, work that has to be done anyway, saves 12 or 13 or maybe 14 minutes. There are probably a few more places where 135 MPH running could be 140 or 150 with new catenary.. An Acela II then has the trip down to 2:20, all with work that had to be done anyway. A billion per minute saved? But it’s all work that needs to be done for other reasons.

    Baltimore tunnels, a very good example of “make the slow spots fast first”, are supposed to save 5 minutes. 2:15 with work that has to be done anyway. Getting from 2:15 to 1:50 is a lot easier than getting from 2:40 to 1:50. Down to 2:15 at a billion per minute saved but it’s all work that needs to be done anyway.

    You want to cut 15 minutes between Boston and Providence – to make Boston-Providence more attractive for local travel. You need to do the work to cut it from 1:50 to 1:35. So it makes sense to do it cut the time from 3:15 to 3:00… since you have to do it anyway… and it’s cheap.

    Bearing in mind that Amtrak said a new noncompliant trainset costs $35-55 million, which is above the range for 8-car trains (China pays about $4 million per 350+ km/h car)

    If I did the currency conversions etc correctly Taiwan is paying around 5 million per car for their recent order from the Japanese consortium. For an 8 car set that is 40 million. Within the range Amtrak is projecting. Taiwan’s is UIC compliant and only ever so slightly different than an Amtrak/NEC loading gauge train…. A consortium that has a track record and existing plants in the US. No pesky intellectual property rights questions either. The cost difference between 186MPH/300KPH trains and 220MPH/350KPH trains is probably worth saving two or three minutes at the start and 5 minutes sometime in the future.

  9. Pingback: California HSR, Amtrak, and the Importance of Selecting the Proper Equipment. « transportationmatters
  10. Peter Brassard

    Governor Patrick’s proposal to expand commuter rail service to Fall River/New Bedford and Springfield to the Berkshires might help to rekindle or create new interest in mass transit in the commonwealth, but most residents would be unaffected by those improvements. MBTA commuter rail as it is configured is primarily for connecting Boston to its suburbs.

    There’s a wide spectrum of the Massachusetts population that doesn’t utilize mass transit and probably a few million that live in the Boston suburbs. If the suburban population that doesn’t commute to Boston were to have stake in system, it would more likely be possible to muster the political will to find adequate funding to improve and sustain the system.

    Even though recently there’s been less interest in the Route 128 commercial corridor for office space than Boston/Cambridge, a significant number of people who live in the suburbs also work in this region drive. If the Governor had proposed a new electric commuter rail line along the Route 128 corridor with high platforms and transfer stations to all current commuter rail lines, it would have gone a long way toward building a large new constituency for mass transit, where the bulk of the Massachusetts population lives.

    Besides the convenience for Boston’s suburbanites and all others that use commuter rail, developing an electrified Route 128 commuter rail line within the MBTA’s system could be the first step to electrifying the entire system. Because of Amtrak, the Providence line should be electrified concurrently or immediately following the construction of an electrified Route 128 line, if it were built.

    Amtrak, as well as the NEC Future study has indicated interest in converting the NEC rail segment from Providence to Westwood from 2- or 3-tracks to 4-tracks. If this were to happen, simultaneous MBTA improvements on the Providence line could be a cost effective way to upgrade that portion of NEC and converting all tracks to electric service.

    • Matthew

      The Route 128 corridor is hopelessly suburban and it is not possible to build an efficient ring line to serve office parks. There’s millions of people in Metro West and beyond but for most of them there’s no effective transit geometry that can serve them. At some point you need to step back and look at cost per potential rider, instead of pursuing a coverage-at-all-costs goal. The benefit of strong public transportation for those who choose to live outside of its direct reach is still real: they benefit from the strong economic engine of the city which depends on mass transit in order to function at all.

      • Henry

        As an addendum to this comment: Given the political will and the money, nothing is “hopelessly suburban.” As far as I know, there are two transit-oriented (if you can call them that) suburbs that are/were primarily auto-centric. Tysons Corner outside DC is currently grafting in a street grid and building the Silver Line, and Silicon Valley, which isn’t transit-oriented in the traditional sense – the employers run shuttles between their offices and various points in the Bay Area, with combined frequencies topping 5 minutes in some cases.

        That being said, there are probably lower-hanging fruit with MBTA, like electrification of existing lines, better rolling stock, better frequencies, etc. @Peter: What you are proposing is essentially a Hail Mary – I’m not too familiar with Boston’s specifics, but to put in a greenfield rail line where no heavily successful transit exists is an extremely risky proposition, unless there is extreme congestion on the corridor (cars are unable to move for at least 8 hours a day) or there is a concerted political effort towards a Tysons-style retrofit. Federal funding is scarce these days – every penny must count, especially when transit funding is perennially in the crosshairs of Congressmen. There’s no money for a all-or-nothing project like this, especially not at MBTA.

        • Peter Brassard

          The Route 128 corridor is a traffic nightmare. It’s not uncommon to be delayed in crawling traffic for more than an hour just to go a few exits several times a week. The entire loop is often like this during the three-hour+ rush hour(s). It’s easier to drive into Manhattan from Long Island and New Jersey than it is to commute along the 128 corridor.

          I’m by no means an advocate for the suburbs. It’s just that there are a lot of people that live and work in this region, plus what’s already built there. With the addition of mass-transit there could be incentive to increase density and improve the suburban built environment along the corridor. Many people from the inner core around and including Boston and Cambridge work in this area often have no other alternative except to drive to jobs along 128.

          My proposal may be a radical and risky idea. At almost 60-years on it’s a bit of a stretch to classify areas like the 128 corridor as a greenfield, especially given its population. There’s no doubt that federal funding is unlikely to appear anytime soon. However, money spent on mass-transit for a region of two or three million that’s less than 10-miles from Boston would perhaps have a greater impact than serving 100,000 people 60-miles away in New Bedford.

          • Matthew

            Sorry, but a route which runs inside a freeway and mostly exists to try and take cars off that freeway is a waste of money. For one thing, it doesn’t work. For another, it’s a ring of park-n-rides. And each station near offices would need a horde of shuttle buses* to take people back and forth. This is just the sort of terrible American-style commuter rail transit that we’re supposed to be getting away from in favor of serving more people in reasonable transit corridors. South Coast Rail (in its current form) is also another giant mistake in the style of Greenbush.

            Companies fled to the Route 128 corridor in search of cheap land and to get away from the city in an era when it was fashionable to trash cities, when personal cars were assumed to be the universal transportation solution. That turned out to be incorrect: now they’re moving back. There’s no point to blowing billions on a hopeless transit corridor when we have a good urban core already. The real answer is to attract development to the places where transportation is already and can be effectively provided. Some companies will always want to stick to cheap land in the periphery, and that’s fine, but we’ll look back at the over-development of Route 128 as an aberration. It’s not the future.

            *I think the number of bikes on Caltrain speaks to just how ineffective those kind of shuttle buses are. From the time I spent in Silicon Valley, I don’t recall ever seeing a station shuttle with more than a few folks riding it. (This is not the same as the long-distance routes serving SF).

          • Henry

            Whoops – when I said “greenfied”, I meant to say “new construction.”

            In any case, if you want to do something like this, light rail or BRT (real BRT, not that Silver Line or SBS nonsense) is more appropriate, due to what I’m assuming is a relatively wide highway corridor. Even that might not work – at least the Purple Line in DC connects walkable town centers, none of which exist on Route 128.

          • Ryan

            @Henry: Considering the current status, and probable ultimate fate of, CTFastrak (the billion-dollar busway!), proposing even more “real” BRT strikes me as an even worse idea than trying to swing on a Route 128 Line “Hail Mary.” The absolute last thing we need is more money being pissed away on a transportation mode that doesn’t work and always ends up costing more than the “too expensive” rail options.

            To the question of a 128 Line itself – I think it’s a bad idea only because it manages to just barely miss all of its potential ridership. A line that connected Peabody, Reading, Woburn, Burlington, Lexington, Waltham, Newton, Needham, Dedham and Braintree would be incredibly beneficial, serving to move people between several suburbs that have or could have extremely good local bus service in addition to providing for fast one-transfer rides into Boston at the various transfer points along the line.

            Unfortunately, the 128 corridor doesn’t do that, there’s no clear-cut alternate/deviating route that can do that, and the stations that are hit by the 128 Corridor are, for the most part, the stations we hold up as exceptionally awful and in need of bypass or outright closure today – Mishawum, Auburndale, the eponymous Route 128 Station itself.

            If we’re going to talk about radical and risky propositions that could actually pay off huge dividends, I would submit to you the North-South Rail Link as Exhibits A, B, C, D, and E. If we have to go “all-in” on anything, we should go on that and that alone.

          • Henry

            I meant “Real BRT” as in Bogota-style BRT – steal a lane from Rt 128 in both directions and slap stations in the median.

            For some reason people in the US believe that you always have to pour concrete to get good transit.

          • Beta Magellan

            @Ryan: Even setting aside the political difficulty of replacing a lane of traffic with a bus lane (it’s near impossible to convert one to something like HOV4) or the fact that even convert a lane involves concrete with ramps and such (which can get very complicated, i. e. expensive), when Route 128 doesn’t have Bogotá-level population and employment density, nor does it have any pedestrian infrastructure. While one could try to get around this by having an open busway circling-in-and-out of residential quarters and office parks, it would still be hard to gather the volumes of commuters necessary to fill buses.

  11. Ryan

    If there’s one segment that tilts the decision, it’s New Haven-Providence: using the legacy Shore Line, even with heavy upgrades, limits speeds and favors high cant deficiency, while bypassing it on I-95 favors high top speeds. But even the New York-Washington segment of today has a few curves strategically located at the worst locations, which make higher tilt degree a benefit.

    If I may, the Shore Line shouldn’t even be considered as a factor in the decision of high speeds versus high tilt degree – using the legacy Shore Line simply is not an option due to a number of unfortunate factors, including the three grade crossings at New London Union Station (which are impossible to eliminate due to maritime interests), the movable bridges over the Connecticut, Niantic, and Thames Rivers (which are impossible to replace with fixed-span crossings due to maritime interests), and a much heavier regional/local traffic interest between Westerly and New London as well as between New London and New Haven (which can never be met at the same time as the intercity traffic interest due to a hard limit of 39 trains a day imposed by, you guessed it, maritime interests.)

    In my opinion, once you take the Shore Line out of the discussion, most of the arguments in favor of a lower-speed, higher-tilt train evaporate as well. The 6.5 hour travel time from Boston to Washington shouldn’t and doesn’t matter – the important figures are New York to Boston (3.5 hours) and New York to Washington (3 hours even.) And in the long run, I think it’s far more important that we get the NY-DC half of this operation down to 2 hours or less – even if that means the Acela II trains are still horrifically speed-restricted up and down the Shore Line and we can’t manage to shave any time off of the BOS-NYP half of the trip.

    We’re going to have to bypass the Shore Line eventually. Buying trains that would be optimized for the one and only stretch of the NEC that we must bypass at the expense of the rest of the Corridor is not only a bad idea on its face, but will make it that much harder for us to walk away from it in the future.

    • Nathanael

      Good point.

      At the moment, I’d say that Massachusetts, if it is thinking in intercity / HSR terms, should target Springfield-Worcester for new-build rail. CSX obviously wants to hang onto the existing B&A route, which is kind of awful anyway. This is now the only “freight-owned” gap in what could be frequent Inland Route service.

      • Adirondacker12800

        …yes I’d hazard a guess that Massachusetts legislators are much more interested getting higher speeds to New York for Springfield and Worcester than they are in getting higher speeds for Providence and New London….

        • Ryan

          When did Massachusetts even enter the conversation? Serious question. The Inland Route is an entirely separate conversation from mainline HSR to New York.

          Unless you’re suggesting that Rhode Island doesn’t deserve HSR. If you want have the conversation about screwing over Providence for whatever reason, we can have that conversation instead.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Why does the “mainline” have to go through Providence? There are more people in Metro Hartford than there are in Rhode Island. Why don’t Hartford, Springfield and Worcester deserve HSR? Boston-NY via Providence is almost the same distance as through Hartford and Springfield. Building HSR through Rhode Island and Connecticut doesn’t help Massachusetts residents get to Albany. Building it through Springfield does.
            Connecticut will care. If it goes through Springfield it gives Hartford high speed service to Boston, NY and points south. And Albany and points west when that gets built. Going to Providence gives them Providence.

          • Ryan

            No, going to Providence gives them PVD – HFD, which is an important connection that should have been made/preserved 50 years ago and wasn’t. The Washington Secondary is a valuable corridor for both commuter/regional and intercity traffic (and, barring some problem areas in West Warwick, is either straight enough for HSR already or runs through sparse-to-undeveloped back country where straightening curves won’t be a problem), the Coventry Greenway looks like it was designed with 220 MPH in mind, I-384 (including its eventual extension to Willmantic) was actually DESIGNED for a rail component, which is worlds better than every single other HSR bypass-via-highway that has been and will be proposed (all of which WEREN’T), Willmantic to the state line and the Coventry Greenway is hardly an insurmountable challenge, and it’s the only part of the “Vision” plan in general that doesn’t completely suck. The line’s going to have to merge into New Haven – Springfield so that everyone can use the same platforms anyway, so it isn’t like going PVD – HFD locks us into the Waterbury – Danbury – New Rochelle alignment either.

            Meanwhile, the Inland Route, which is New Haven – Hartford – Springfield – Worcester – Boston, is has and always will be a completely separate issue and a separate discussion. Boston – Springfield – Albany is a separate discussion as well. And both of these things will get built. Spiking HSR on the mainline (and by the way, it’s the mainline because it would connect three state capitals and their metro areas to New York City) doesn’t get you anything that you wouldn’t have had already, it just denies Providence (as well as Metro Providence, which by the way, has more than twice the population of Metro Springfield) HSR to Boston and New York for no good reason. At least, no good reason that I can fathom.

          • Adirondacker12800

            If the train goes from New Haven to Boston via Providence you won’t be able to get on or off in Hartford. If it goes via Springfield or even a more direct route from Hartford to Worcester you won’t be able to get on or off in Providence.

      • Nathanael

        For clarity, I said if [B]MASSACHUSETTS[/B] was thinking in intercity/HSR terms, it should target Springfield-Worcester.

        If some other state or the federal government were thinking in intercity/HSR terms, it should do something different. But the route which benefits [B]MASSACHUSETTS[/B] the most is Springfield-Worcester.

        • Ryan

          Right, I get that. Unfortunately:

          a) As past and current behavior by the associated agencies in Massachusetts have indicated (and as has been pointed out further up in this very topic) – “thinking in intercity terms” is the punchline to an extremely bad joke. They’ve shown exactly zero initiative to implement even the most basic reforms, they actively run away from common-sense and low cost improvement initiatives – forget electrification, forget implementing level boarding, they can’t even be bothered to properly put together their consists half the time! It should be the most simple, zero-mental-effort, “Thanks, Captain Obvious!” thing in the world to say “hey maybe it’s not a great idea to lash up a train with five bilevels rated for 90 mph operation and then stick a single-level coach restricted to 80 mph on the end so that our entire train can be moving even slower than it otherwise would” – but not in the pants-on-head bizarro universe of MBCR operation, where it’s a larger surprise when you DON’T see a train with 5 bilevels and 1 single-level sitting right next to a train with 5 single-level coaches and a bilevel on the end parked in South Station.

          And don’t even get me started on the Fairmount Line, where we can talk all day long about what an injustice it is that the Line is so underserved, and we can parade around a grand old wish list of Fairmount Line Improvements, but double the total number of trips on the line tomorrow morning by rerouting all of the Franklin Line trains off of the NEC and onto the Fairmount Line where they belong? Oh, no no no! You can’t do that! Why, the revolution will have been all for naught if Johnny Kiss-and-Ride has to change trains to get from Norwood to Back Bay.

          Oh, but when it comes to the South Coast? Spare no expense, says Deval Patrick and the South Coast Task Force Cheer Squad, as they bring the Greatest Show on Earth to every, ahem, ‘impacted’ community promising anything and everything to get politicians whose support of the project runs the whole gamut from “lukewarm” to “NIMBY” and even to “false-flag advocacy!” Wow! But, wait, you’re saying – there’s plenty of potential for the intercity rail network to be advanced here. Those tie-ins for service to Newport and the Cape, a resurrected Cape Codder service… but nobody told our cheerleading friends that, since they didn’t even bother to put in a cursory call down to Amtrak to find out if, hey, maybe they were interested in getting on board?

          b) Of course, even if all of my dreams came true and there was a state-wide epiphany on the level of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life rolled into one and multiplied several times, and everyone in Massachusetts woke up tomorrow going “Oh my god, we could have had a V8!” – there’s still the tiny little issue of the fact that Massachusetts is just one state at the tail end of a corridor spanning eight plus the nation’s capital. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Massachusetts is pretty good – but it’s not so good that it can take unilateral action and expect Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York State to fall into lock-step behind it.

          Again, Worcester – Springfield is a perfectly serviceable HSR routing for Boston – Albany. There’s no doubt that a lot of support would line up behind that corridor – but that corridor isn’t the NEC and shouldn’t even be considered as in the running for NEC. There’s just no way that Rhode Island and Connecticut are going to line up behind a routing for NEC HSR that directly hurts one of them and indirectly hurts the other.

          • Adirondacker12800

            It’s a few miles more between Boston and New Haven if you go through Springfield instead of Providence. A few miles less if you go directly from Worcester to Hartford. There are more people along that route. Like the mileage, not many more but more. Rhode Island might not like the idea but Vermont would love it.

          • Ryan

            It’s a few miles more between Boston and New Haven if you go through Springfield instead of Providence. A few miles less if you go directly from Worcester to Hartford. There are more people along that route. Like the mileage, not many more but more.

            “Not many more” is right. The difference between Boston – Hartford – New Haven via Providence and via Worcester is about ten miles in Worcester’s favor – small enough to be a rounding error on a corridor spanning 450+ miles. Similarly, the population difference along the route is small enough to be a rounding error – I would rule it in favor of the Providence alignment rather than the Worcester one, however. Either way, it’s close enough to a wash that absolute mileage and absolute population numbers aren’t going to sway the decision, which brings us right back to the other efficiency metrics, all of which clearly favor Providence over Worcester.

            Rhode Island might not like the idea but Vermont would love it.

            Huh? Now you’re pulling Vermont into the discussion? Vermont is even more emphatically not part of the NEC, first of all – they’re a branch line feeding into the New York – Philadelphia – Washington half of the NEC. Vermont cares far more about improving and upgrading their connections to New York on the Vermonter (which further entrenches New Haven – Hartford – Springfield as something disconnected from the “NEC Main Line” discussions) and the Ethan Allen Express (which never even enters Massachusetts or Connecticut). Besides, Vermont has shown forward thinking and initiative on several passenger rail projects to date – their plans to extend the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington even if they can’t get federal funding for it springs to mind immediately, as does their focus on getting federal money for upping speeds on the Vermonter and rerouting it away from Palmer. What doesn’t spring to mind is Boston – and, indeed, without the North-South Rail Link, Worcester – Boston and Worcester – Vermont are mutually exclusive propositions, with absolutely no way to go Hartford – Worcester – Vermont other than changing trains (bad) or reversing direction (worse).

            If Vermont cares about better access to Boston, they’ll be chasing after Boston – Montreal HSR, because there is no road from here to there that doesn’t go through Vermont – but I don’t think they care. Certainly, at least, they care a lot less about Vermont – Boston than they care about Vermont – New York and Vermont – Montreal.

          • Adirondacker12800

            all of which clearly favor Providence over Worcester.

            They clearly favor Worcester in my opinion.

            Yep, people in Vermont care more about good service to Boston and New York from Vermont than how good the service is for Rhode Islanders. Selfiish of them isn’t it? I suggest that New Yorkers and Bostonians care a bit more about service to Vermont than they do about Providence. Providence isn’t noted for it’s skiing. Or being a place to escape the summer heat. Or maple sugaring festivals. Or even outlet malls.

          • Ryan

            Boston – Vermont, New York – Vermont, and Boston – New York are all mutually exclusive corridors.

            There is no possible way to run Vermont – Worcester – Hartford – New York without reversing direction at least once, probably twice.

            You’re right, Vermont doesn’t care about Providence. But they don’t care about Worcester, either.

            Again, they care an awful lot about the Vermonter’s route. They care about New Haven – Hartford – Springfield by its association to the Vermonter’s route. They care about the Boston – Montreal routing, since there’s no way for Boston – Montreal to happen without passing through Vermont. They even care about the proposed “Central Corridor Rail Line” from New London to Brattleboro.

            They don’t care about the Main Line NEC. There is no possible Main Line routing that isn’t mutually exclusive and totally irrelevant to every single ROW into Vermont.

            Vermont has absolutely no business being involved in this conversation. It’s as ludicrous as entering South Carolina into the discussion of Amtrak Regional services in Virginia.

  12. Peter Brassard

    This discussion of HSR from Boston to Worcester to Springfield to Hartford to Albany seems a bit confused. Is it Hartford or Albany? It’s unlikely that it could be both at the same time.

    The Hartford MSA 1.2 million and the Providence MSA 1.6 million are basically equivalent. Both cities are economic engines for their regions, as well as capitol cities. If a new HSR corridor were to be created from Boston to Hartford to New York they’d use the I-84 corridor. This would serve Worcester but avoid Springfield. Rhode Island’s population density is 130% greater than Worcester County. Density along with population is usually helpful for train service to be successful.

    If Long Island and Albany are included with Southern New England, there are potentially four east-west routes and three north-south routes. For the foreseeable future they can’t all be HSR.

    Given the current comedy show in Congress is it at all realistic or likely that something new will be built from scratch—probably not. If anything at all were to happen, which is a big if; the most likely scenario would be upgrades to the existing NEC route. That should be the focus.

    • Ryan

      The discussion is a bit confused, but mostly because people are trying to couple separate issues together that have absolutely no business being coupled together.

      As I said, I-384 (including its eventual extension to Willmantic) was and is being designed with rail in mind, which puts it worlds ahead of the “works on paper” fantasy routings for HSR along I-84 or I-95 (neither of which are ever getting built, by the way). Furthermore, the Hartford – Providence corridor enjoys perennial support even in the current political climate at both the state and federal level – and it certainly enjoys a hell of a lot more support than Worcester – Springfield or Worcester – Hartford does. If you want to talk about new-build rail corridors, Hartford – Providence is the only one with any real chance of actually getting built within the next 25 years. Not to mention that both on paper and in practice, Hartford – Providence is a better routing than Hartford – Worcester in every single respect if we have to pick just one of them.

      I don’t think we have to pick just one of them. Boston – Springfield – Albany is a strong enough corridor to stand on its own merits, and the necessary improvements to New Haven – Hartford – Springfield are already being made as part of that rail project. In other words, the Inland Route is going to happen anyway. As long as we don’t permanently couple the NEC’s improvements to the Inland Route, we can have both routes. The only either/or decision we would have to make here is one we would create for ourselves.

      • T0

        They’ve been trying to extend I-384 for 30 years… what makes you think taking the property for HSR is any more likely?

        • Adirondacker12800

          The thriving metropolis of WIllamantic doesn’t need Interstate grade highway, I-84 and I-395 are close enough. The Interstate grade highway they have built may have been built with rail in mind but it wasn’t built with high speed rail in mind. Taking property so that people can get to New York or Boston might be a bit easier than taking property so they can get to Willamantic 10 minutes faster. Not that many of them want to go to WIllamantic.

          • Ryan

            The Interstate grade highway they have built may have been built with rail in mind but it wasn’t built with high speed rail in mind.

            Which still means it’s in a much better position than two corridors (I-84, I-95) that weren’t even designed with “conventional” rail in mind – retrofitting a designed and available but unbuilt rail corridor into an HSR corridor is worlds better and orders of magnitude cheaper than trying to staple HSR into an interstate median that was never designed for even legacy-grade intercity rail operations, much less the extreme demands of HSR – to say nothing of the institutional slugfest you’re condemning yourself to when you start suggesting massive construction work to pick up and move Interstate 95 so that your HSR bypass can fit.

            And for what? No, really, for what? If it costs you more, if it’s more disruptive, if it’s going to be harder to actually get done and it leaves you with a service strictly worse than the one you could have for cheaper/easier/less work, why would you seriously consider it?

          • Joey

            Ryan: What’s the obsession with the median anyway? I-95 would have to be modified minimally because HSR would be built next to it, not in it. And this is pretty standard practice. The only time it makes sense to put HSR in a freeway median is if the freeway is being built concurrently so things like curve radii, grades, vertical transitions, etc can be build to HSR standards. And even then, it may make more sense to just build them separately given the differing needs.

          • Ryan

            Does it really matter, Joey? Once you couple together an HSR corridor with an interstate one, you face the same challenges borne of using (and retrofitting) an interstate’s ROW no matter whether you build in the median or on either side. Okay, so HSR isn’t “median-running,” it’s going to run alongside I-95. Mentally substitute every time the word “median” occurs in one of my comments for “side” instead – my argument doesn’t change. You’re still running up against problems where one side of the road or the other doesn’t have enough ‘free space’ for two tracks, you’re still going to have to reconfigure parts of the interstate (albiet, likely different parts), and you’re still facing an enormous uphill struggle associated with getting your HSR corridor attached to the interstate, and keeping it attached.

            You hit the nail on the head when you said the only time median-running makes sense is when the Interstate in question was designed for it, as 384 was and is. Unfortunately, “when the Interstate in question was designed for it” is also the only time running alongside an Interstate makes sense.

            And before you try to “Gotcha!” me over the brief stretches of Rhode Island’s part of the NEC where rail runs near I-95 or the 6-10 Connector, bear in mind that the total distance is just about two miles (a full Shore Line bypass, on the other hand, is easily seventy miles at the minimum) and, more importantly, the roads were designed around the rails in both cases.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Ryan, running largely adjacent to or in proximity to a highway corridor is not uncommon. (I could provide several examples, but I’m tired of doing everybody’s homework all the time.)

            This can largely work, whereas running within a freeway median does not work at all, because the the geometry of 300+kmh rail and 150kmh roads are far from identical any time any sort of curve occurs, which is ~100% of the time to a good approximation.

            The aim is not for the road ROW to be used by trains at “no cost” (as if constructing every single interchange and overcrossing and undercrossing were cost-free), it’s that various environmental, social and political impacts of two noisy industrial controlled-access barriers can be partially mitigated by quasi-adjacency.

            (I have no opinion on I-384; not even to the extent of googling it.)

          • Ryan

            Ryan, running largely adjacent to or in proximity to a highway corridor is not uncommon. (I could provide several examples, but I’m tired of doing everybody’s homework all the time.)

            Right, Richard, and most of the Northeast Corridor we have today is in fact largely in proximity to Interstate 95. But being “in proximity to” or even “largely adjacent to” is not the same thing as a full-on Interstate Bypass, which uses the actual corridor itself. And when you use the actual corridor itself, it no longer matters if you’re running next to, in between, above, below or zig-zagging across the actual pavement that cars are driving on, because you have tethered yourself to the corridor and the available land around the corridor. It works if it was designed to work that way, and it doesn’t work if it wasn’t designed that way.

            More to the point, once you get far away from an Interstate corridor that you can reasonably expect not to be a) conjoined to the existing path, unfortunate curvature and all or b) forced to build expensive and frequent “deviations” so that your rails can be straight even as the highway snakes around, to and fro, you’ve also gotten far enough away that you’re no longer really using the corridor as a bypass, but running a brand-new alignment that kind of sort of follows in the same direction and around the same place as the Interstate. And there’s no real environmental, social, OR political mitigation benefits to be had from taking great pains to build your new HSR alignment in “kind of sort of in roughly the same place” as an Interstate.

            There’s a reason why none of these fabled Interstate Bypasses have actually made it out of the concept phase, after all.

            The aim is not for the road ROW to be used by trains at “no cost” (as if constructing every single interchange and overcrossing and undercrossing were cost-free)

            I’ll thank you to note that I never claimed the goal was anything even remotely approaching “no cost.”

          • Joey

            So then what’s the benefit of running along I-384 for two miles and then through open country as opposed to running next to or close to I-95 for the whole way? It’s not like there’s a lack of space along I-95.

          • Ryan

            I’m glad you asked, Joey! There are several benefits:

            #1) Hartford – Providence is the best possible corridor from an intercity rail perspective. However, several stretches of this corridor (Hartford – Manchester – (UConn/Storrs? -) Willimantic, Coventry – West Warwick – Warwick – Cranston – Providence) are also very good candidates for regional/commuter rail. Fortunately, they’re not mutually exclusive propositions, the corridor is wide or can be widened enough to support both, and coupling a new commuter rail line to the foundations of a new HSR corridor will help garner support for both.

            #2) I-384 to Willimantic is happening eventually. The only question is when. Keeping that in mind, riding on the impending extension – particularly where it’s actually designed so as to accomodate rail – makes sense from an operational simplicity standpoint. You only have to run through the permitting processes once, long-term material acquisitions happen in parallel, only one EIS needed, and coupling the projects also reduces the risk of “mitigations” or “concessions” compromising both.

            #3) Richard isn’t wrong when he says that there are political, social and environmental benefits to having an Interstate and rail co-existing in the same corridor – I just disagree with his assessment that those benefits are still there if the rail is simply “in proximity” to the Interstate rather than conjoined to it. Again, as I-384 out to Willmantic is and will be designed for rail, there’s a clear and present advantage to be had by taking advantage of those rail provisions.

            #4) There isn’t nearly as much room in the vicinity of I-95 as you might think from driving down it on a breezy summer afternoon – and in many cases, where there is apparently plenty of land for taking, it’s actually fruit of the poisoned environmental preservation tree. Parkland, cemeteries and reservoirs are a lot harder to punch through than strip malls and big box stores.

          • Joey

            #4) There isn’t nearly as much room in the vicinity of I-95 as you might think from driving down it on a breezy summer afternoon – and in many cases, where there is apparently plenty of land for taking, it’s actually fruit of the poisoned environmental preservation tree. Parkland, cemeteries and reservoirs are a lot harder to punch through than strip malls and big box stores.

            I don’t make this assertion from driving down I-95 on a breezy summer afternoon – I make it by actually looking at the alignment in detail on Google Earth.

            So tell me again how the parkland, cemeteries, and reservoirs along I-95 are more difficult than the parkland, cemeteries, and reservoirs between Willamantic and Coventry? Even assuming that everything West/South of Willamantic was a free ride (which it is most certainly not), there’s still a lot of terrain to get through, and basically nothing to align to (and aligning to something, even loosely, does significantly reduce the impacts).

          • Ryan

            There’s far more room to work with out in the back country east of Willimantic, for one thing. Precisely because there’s nothing to align to, we have much greater freedom to set the alignment ourselves and correct for necessary minor diversions around “insurmountable” obstacles like parkland as well as reducing the impact from necessary water crossings.

            Also owing to the relative sparseness of “Back Country,” even if we must resort to taking land, there will be far less land that would need to be actively taken and far more ability for us to come to a reasonable agreement that benefits everybody. There’s significantly less room to work with in the vicinity of I-95.

            Another minor point, the only “problem” areas are Willimantic to Plainfield and Plainfield to just west of the state line. The entire Coventry Greenway from Coventry, RI to Moosup, CT is land banked and ready for use at any time – the part from Moosup to the state line is bad and would require a bypass, but owing once again to the vast amounts of land we have available to work with, neither problem area is too large to overcome.

            I may have worded #4 somewhat poorly. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some real hurdles we’d need to clear in the pursuit of a Hartford – Providence corridor, but every potential greenfield alignment has its challenges, and this particular alignment’s challenges are easier to overcome than the alternatives.

          • Joey

            So then the reduced environmental effects of aligning to an existing corridor mean nothing?

          • Ryan

            Perhaps not “nothing,” but they certainly don’t matter enough to be a good reason to choose a strictly inferior alignment to an existing corridor over a brand new corridor. Especially not, as is the case here, where the supposed reduction in environmental impact is more or less completely negated by the fact that there’s no way for the I-95 corridor option to avoid having to impact far more environmentally sensitive land than the new corridor would.

          • Joey

            I still don’t see why you know that the land along I-95 is more environmentally sensitive than the land between Hartford and Providence. I’m not an ecologist, but I know enough to know that the effect of a new corridor on “edge” vs “interior” habitats is very large – by cutting a new corridor, you destroy a lot of interior habitat (converting it to edge habitat – most of this is not the land occupied by the corridor itself but the land around it), not to mention disrupting local wildlife movement patterns. If you align to an existing corridor, the only land you mess up is the land you take, and wildlife movement isn’t any more disrupted than it is already.

          • Ryan

            I can make an educated guess based on the sizable amount of designated (and presumably protected) park land in the vicinity of I-95, its general proximity to the coast line as well as the mouth of the Connecticut and Thames Rivers creating far more problematic crossings than would otherwise exist farther upstream, and several reservoirs.

            Nothing so immediately problematic is apparent in the land between Hartford and Providence. It could very well turn out that your concerns about interior habitats and wildlife movement patterns are entirely valid, and I would expect the EIS to make that apparent one way or the other, but I have a sneaking suspicion that no such problems will arise.

          • Alon Levy

            The Connecticut crossing is basically a solved problem: Amtrak has already studied raising the existing railroad bridge, and building an HSR bridge is the same work except a little easier because there’s no need to work around an active rail line. The Thames crossing is in principle the same, but in practice it’s the most difficult part of an I-95 alignment, because I-95 funnels the line right north of downtown New London; the choice then boils down to going around New London on a greenfield alignment and doing takings, or tripling the I-95 bridge and either using the new span or reusing one of the old ones and doing a few takings right north of the existing bridge.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Drilling tunnels through the rolling dills of central Connecticut isn’t going to be trivial. Or building the viaducts to connect the ends of the tunnels on either side of the valley. Those rivers that become estuaries down on the coast are still rivers upland. It’s much flatter down near I-95.

          • Peter Brassard

            There’s a bigger issue at hand that this discussion reveals. I doesn’t really matter which potential HSR corridor, I-95, I-84, or the I-384 Hartford-Providence route or somewhere else. It hasn’t been since the 50s, 60s or 70s with the construction of the interstate system that there’s the potential for such a large-scale and widespread environmental disruption. The freeway revolts of the 60s and 70s from Lower Manhattan Expressway to Rhode Islander’s killing I-84 from Hartford to Providence to Bostonian’s successfully fighting off I-95 through Mattapan to Roxbury, individuals became empowered developing the experience and knowledge to fight major infrastructure projects. This kind of fight is still happening. Case in point the TF Green runway expansion in Rhode Island. The protracted fight has been going on since 1997. Last year the City of Warwick finally ended its opposition to the project giving it a green light. Now there’s a very small group of residents who have gone to court questioning the entire EIS process, which could again stall or threaten the project for another four or five years. The real question is do American’s and particularly those who live in New England have the stomach in the 2010s for such an environmental disruption for the sake of HSR?

          • Ryan

            Peter, I’m not sure that the question really matters. To be frank, the only option that avoids environmental disruption on any level is the “no-build” option – and while most of us here have our disagreements, I think we can all agree at least as far as to say that we’re not going to be able to complete any kind of HSR working from a “no build” standpoint.

            I can’t answer the question as to whether Americans or even residents of Rhode Island and Connecticut in particular are going to be able to stomach “significant” environmental disruption. To be somewhat cynical, I think that the kind of activism you get even out of Warwick residents or New London residents just isn’t going to exist in West Greenwich or Canterbury. On a more optimistic note, I don’t think that being environmentally conscious and undertaking huge infrastructure projects are mutually exclusive.

            I have said and I do believe that there’s nothing lurking out in Central / Eastern Connecticut that could or should be used as a reason to stop this project. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s a potential to do damage here – but I do believe that it’ll be much easier to mitigate, as necessary, and I also believe that the net effect on the environment of having a direct rail corridor from Hartford to Providence would be positive.

          • T0

            This is really getting into another issue altogether – environmental review in the US is a sham. The “acceptability” of environmental impacts is directly related to the financial resources of the community available to file lawsuits. That suggests things will be more difficult, not easier, in well-to-do Connecticut suburbs than in relatively working-class Warwick. Fundamentally, I-384 is no different than the 11, Super 7, or any other incomplete freeway in Connecticut, the odds of whose completion grow more remote every year. Or to use a local example here in LA, there’s a reason that the 105 got built, the 710 in Pasadena faces a huge uphill battle, and the 2 west of the 101 is dead, kaput, kicked the bucket, !@#$ the bed, and it doesn’t have anything to do with relative environmental impacts or engineering considerations.

            Objectively, I don’t see much difference between the 95 and the 384 corridors in terms of environmental impact, suitability for HSR, etc. The enormous advantage of the 95 corridor, from a legal standpoint, is that it already exists. For those interested in more on the history of the 384, see Kurumi ( and Steve Anderson ( To me, it’s hard to read those accounts and accept the construction of the 384 between Bolton and Willimantic as a foregone conclusion.

        • Ryan

          For one, the fact that 384 to Willmantic would have been up and running ten years ago if the US Army Corps of Engineers had not taken their ball and bat and gone home over the fact that the established routing was not their preferred routing – an administrative pissing contest spiked this project, not community opposition. In fact, the community by and large supported this, and I see no reason to believe that’s changed or would change. More broadly, the fact that a future Interstate 82 between Hartford and Providence is a proposal that isn’t laughed right out of the room every time it comes up gives me reason to believe that this can get done.

          For another, the fact that building the rail component doesn’t preclude going back and building the road component later, and vice versa. In fact, building the rail component means that there’s already an established foothold for the road component, which we can leverage to actually get the “car culture” on our side for once.

          For a third, Hartford and Providence has gone wanting for a connection for fifty years and no, “Suicide 6” does not count – I do believe both metro regions have suffered for it. Two state capitals with similar and sizable metro regions, with nothing really between them that would make the connection a horrible idea.

          Finally, the project is easily split into phases, and what’s more, none of its individual phases (save the very last one) are without merit even if the rest of the project somehow falls through (it won’t.) A Hartford-Manchester commuter rail shuttle down 384 isn’t a horrid proposal in a vacuum, and neither is Kent County Commuter Rail down the Washington Secondary into West Warwick and Coventry. Once you get as far as Manchester, you’re already half way to Willmantic and something reasonably approximate to a full (if short) commuter rail line with plenty of potential for future extension – even branching service patterns, with two ROWs both wholly inappropriate for HSR but intact and serviceable enough for commuter rail lines out to Norwich and Plainfield! Even the inevitable “Plainfield Junction” looks entire worlds better than Wickford Junction, situated on top of an actual junction with the New London – Worcester Corridor and right in the middle of where the logical extrapolation of an extension from the Coventry Greenway ROW would end up. Plenty of traffic, plenty of (real) development potential, and even as a zero-effort Park and Ride it still manages to look better than Wickford Junction does.

          The only part of this entire arrangement that doesn’t look good without the banner of HSR attached to it is the brand-new greenfield alignment from Willmantic to Plainfield, and that’s not even necessary for any phase of this except the very last one, once every other part of the line is up and running and there’s tremendous pressure to get the last ten miles of the corridor HSR-capable.

          We can do this. We should do this.

  13. Peter Brassard

    @Adirondacker12800, besides ski and leaf season, could you explain why Vermont with its burgeoning population is so critically important to the economic vitality of the NEC megalopolis? If the discussion is about creating a second parallel NEC HSR route 30- to 60-miles north of the existing route, an argument can be made to extend from New York to Hartford-Springfield-Worcester-Boston; or Hartford-Worcester-Boston; or Hartford-Providence-Boston, but I don’t see how throwing in Vermont works, unless you’re proposing two or three additional HSR routes.

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