Coordinated Planning and High-Speed Rail

High-speed rail and rapid transit both change economic geography, in that they compress distances along the lines built, emphasizing connections along the lines at the expense of ones perpendicular to them. I’ve written about this before, giving the example of the division of Uptown Manhattan into East and West Sides. In contrast to the similar implications for economic geography, we see different political treatment of transportation planning: rapid transit is usually planned centrally within a city, together with lower-capacity perpendicular forms of public transit, but there is less centralized planning of high-speed rail and connecting legacy lines.

It’s against this background that I’ve read two recent posts on Itinerant Urbanist, one advocating Northeast-wide intercity rail planning, and one expressing skepticism of plans to run trains from New York to Pittsfield along the Housatonic Railroad, whose southern end hosts the Danbury Branch. In the second post, Sandy shows how, even today, it is faster to get from New York to Pittsfield via Albany, along existing Amtrak routes, than it could be via the curvy Housatonic. The trains from New York to Albany are not HSR, but are some of the fastest in the US outside the Northeast Corridor, and that’s enough to obviate the need for some adjacent lines. But we can extend this analysis further, looking at potential HSR routes and identifying the effect on other regional and intercity lines mentioned in Sandy’s first post.

For our main example, consider Providence-Worcester. There is a direct line, the Providence and Worcester mainline, which hosts no passenger trains. I have previously called for running passenger service on the southern 25 km of the line, from Providence to Woonsocket, and integrating the schedules with MBTA trains to Boston and future HSR; in 2009, the Providence Foundation made a similar proposal, finding that it was possible to slot a reasonable frequency of in-state regional trains between the Providence and Worcester freight trains. Superficially, one might think that trains should not turn at Woonsocket, but go all the way to Worcester, a distance of 69 km, providing a key crosstown link in a New England-wide rail network.

The problem is that the presence of HSR makes the line completely useless for end-to-end traffic. HSR averages between 180 and 260 km/h, whereas regional trains average between 50 and 90, with a few trains overlapping with intercity rail going up to 120. This makes it worthwhile to go two to three times as long as the most direct route, if this can be done on high-speed lines.

It’s 70 km from Providence to Boston; from Boston to Worcester, it’s 71 along the present Worcester Line, while an HSR line following I-90 would be about 65, serving Worcester at an outlying station at the intersection with Route 122 (and the Providence and Worcester line), 6 km outside the legacy station. My attempt to work out a schedule for Providence-Boston gives about 20.5 minutes for nonstop HSR; Boston-Worcester is probably similar, giving 41 minutes plus a short transfer time. (Trains with intermediate stops would stop at Back Bay, and if the transfer can happen there, then it saves about 3 minutes total.) Let’s say the transfers at Boston are not optimized, and the total travel time is 50 minutes.

It is not easy to achieve this travel time on the legacy Providence and Worcester line: 69 km in 50 minutes is 83 km/h, and 63 km (from Providence to I-90 and Route 122) is 76. The latter speed is very ambitious, and the former even more so. While there are regional lines in New England that could approach 100, this is not one of them. The line hosts some freight traffic, so it requires additional sidings if passenger trains go at intercity rail speeds and not at regional rail speeds, which are similar to freight speeds. There is a significant commuter market at the Providence end, requiring more stops in Providence and its inner suburbs: the end-to-end travel time in the schedule I constructed for Providence-Woonsocket is 26 minutes, an average speed of 59 km/h. To get to I-90 in 50 minutes, trains would need to average 94 km/h north of Woonsocket; achieving this makes it almost impossible to stop anywhere in Massachusetts except Worcester, which defeats the purpose of the line. Worcester-Woonsocket is not important enough a travel market to reopen a passenger rail line for. For the same reason, there is no hope of achieving sufficient speed by including a mix of local and express trains: there’s not enough demand to support multiple service patterns.

The Providence-Worcester example is somewhat unfair in that it’s unlikely such a line could be activated without interstate cooperation in intercity rail planning. The same cooperation that could restore service on the Providence and Worcester line would first push for faster intercity trains on the Northeast Corridor, which would be the first step in obviating this direct line. I bring this up because it’s a very clean example of how the presence of HSR allows for circuitous routings on some city pairs, and how this should be reflected in rail planning. There are less clean examples, pitting a unified system with HSR as a trunk and branches feeding the trunk against potential in-state projects and priorities:

1. Unless HSR fares are designed to discourage this, the fastest way to get to New York from suburbs far out along the New Haven Line, and to a lesser extent the Northeast Corridor Line in New Jersey, would be to take commuter rail to New Haven or Trenton and then backtrack on HSR. This changes the optimal service patterns, away from express trains to New York and toward local trains in the outer service area, and this in turn influences planning for capacity improvement. For example, fitting HSR and commuter trains on existing tracks in New Jersey probably requires giving up express service south of Rahway, but at the outer end of the line, around Princeton Junction, going out to Trenton and backtracking on HSR would make this not as onerous as commuters may initially think. On the level of station design, the presence of backtracking means that stations may need to be reconfigured to have more access points from northbound to southbound platforms, to make transfers easier.

2. New Jersey Transit has plans from last decade to reactivate passenger rail service along the West Trenton Line. The presence of HSR makes West Trenton a less useful commuter rail station, to either Philadelphia or New York. In Philadelphia it remains useful if one wants to go to destinations on the Reading side of SEPTA, such as Temple University, or even Market East, but in New York, the nearest job center to West Trenton is Newark, which is on the Northeast Corridor. This means that better transit service from West Trenton to Trenton becomes a greater priority than direct rail service from West Trenton to New York.

3. There is a secondary rail line from New London to Norwich, passing next to Mohegan Sun. It is not very useful if intercity trains remain as they are, but the presence of HSR makes it a good feeder, and also allows trains to beat express buses for trips from New York to the casino.

4. It is vanishingly unlikely Pennsylvania will try to build in-state rail service to Erie. However, if it does, Erie-Pittsburgh service would be similar to Providence-Worcester service, with Cleveland fulfilling the same function as Boston in New England.


  1. sajohnston

    Very interesting stuff, Alon. One question–do you think HSR going west of Boston (to Worcester, Springfield, across the Berkshires to Albany) is possible/worth the investment? The physical barriers west of Springfield seem pretty daunting (though I’m entirely unfamiliar with how the Europeans or Japanese approach these things) and I can’t see it being worth building HSR just to Worcester and Springfield. The population along the line is pretty thin too, and though I live in Albany, I’m very much aware it’s not exactly the center of the world in terms of trip generation :-). The power of cross-Berkshires HSR would be in connecting Boston to Upstate New York, and I’m not sure how big that travel market is. I suppose, on the theme of turning corners instead of going directly, you could go to Montreal via Albany, Rutland, and Burlington, rather than Montreal-Boston directly through New Hampshire.

    • Alon Levy

      Well, Boston-Albany-Buffalo-Toronto is not a big market by itself, but the advantage is that you get the entire market by building just 250 km of HSR from Boston to Albany, once New York-Albany-Buffalo-Toronto exists. A lot of branches and extensions are massively powerful on the same principle. For example, when I employed the primitive “ridership is independent of distance in the 300-750 km range” model, which is empirically pretty accurate across Europe and Japan, I found that the highest-performing lines after the NEC are extensions of the NEC into the South, since e.g. 180 km of DC-Richmond HSR generate passengers who pay the ticket prices of 540 km of NY-Richmond. When you’re making operating profits, passenger-km become the correct metric.

      • sajohnston

        That makes a lot of sense. I guess my question is whether there are international parallels to confronting a barrier as big as the Berkshires for a market as small as Boston-Upstate? It just seems to me like getting through the Berkshires would be massively expensive, even though it’s a relatively short distance as the crow flies.

        • Adirondacker12800

          4 million people across I-90/Thruway in New York, 9 million between Niagara Falls Ontario and Toronto, 3 million in Montreal and then the people scattered on either side of Lake Champlain, 2 million in Cleveland, isn’t all that small. Fast enough and it sucks in the Southern Tier because the hour long bus ride to the train station in Buffalo, Rochester or Syracuse and a fast train to Boston, New York, Cleveland, Columbus, Toronto and Montreal is faster than flying or driving. Going across the Berkshires also gets most of New England. Providence and Hartford to Montreal Toronto and Cleveland. Stamford to Albany etc.

          • Alon Levy

            I just want to say the Southern Tier is another example of how integrated planning can result in a good network of HSR trunks and lower-speed feeders. I only didn’t include it in the post because the New York-Scranton-Binghamton part would probably get built independently of whether there’s HSR on the Empire Corridor, because of intercity demand from Scranton and Binghamton. The presence of HSR makes Binghamton-Syracuse more useful, though.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The problem with Southern Tier to Erie Canal cities is that the railroads squiggle all over the place. No matter what you do to them they’ll still be slower than a bus. There aren’t enough people in Metro Binghamton to build new train corridor that would be better than the bus. Binghamton-Scranton on the other hand has ROW that was straightened out and could be better than a bus with cheap improvements. Driving to New York can turn into sitting in a parking lot with an Interstate designation quite easily so “as fast as driving” can be much faster than driving fairly often.

            ….. The Phoebe Snow had the shortest route to Buf-fa-lo. It didn’t have the fastest.



          • Nathanael

            Adirondack is correct about the east-west routes in the Southern Tier; they mostly follow the mighty twisty Susquehanna, and they’re even worse further west. Same is true of the roads, of course.

            The north-south routes have much more potential for speed, partly due to following the geography of the Finger Lakes region. South of there, Binghamton-Scranton is a spectacular piece of engineering which should be very fast. But you can continue north from Binghamton to Cortland and Syracuse at fairly reasonable speeds too.

    • anonymouse

      I travel between Boston and Albany pretty regularly, and I’ve gone by bus, train, and car. None of these modes show that there’s any huge amount of demand for service on this corridor: the bus runs something like 3 or 4 times a day, and the one daily train has only two intercity coaches (though it does get full on long weekends). There’s a lot more demand between Boston and Springfield, though, and likely to be more when NHHS and Knowledge Corridor services start up. The north-south connections might also drive a bit more demand for services from Pittsfield and further west, but Boston-Albany itself is still a relatively weak corridor and really doesn’t warrant major improvements, especially given the difficult mountain terrain.

      • sajohnston

        I would tend to agree with you. I tend to think that rail service between Boston and Albany could be competitive with other modes with relatively little effort, but I doubt demand justifies a ton of investment. The B&A route is very curvy, but it actually only ends up being 30 miles longer than the freeway (200 vs. 170). Realistic driving times between Boston and Albany are about 3 hours; without schedule padding and without track improvements, current Amtrak equipment could do the trip in about 4 hours, I think. Some double-tracking and tilt trains could probably cut 45 minutes to an hour off that, maybe more. (I’m planning a post on this). That should be enough to attract a significant share of travelers, enough to justify several trains a day in each direction.

        • anonymouse

          Without schedule padding, current Amtrak travel time is around 4:30 (as evidenced by the fact that many westbound trains arrive in Albany an hour early). The main causes of delay are actually meets with the eastbound: there’s no sidings between East Chatham and Albany, though in a pinch they can use the junction between the main line and the Post Road Branch as a sort of single ended siding. The most obviously needed track improvements are actually just raising speeds on the straight sections (the top speed in CSX territory is 60) and more double track to avoid delays from passing.

          • anonymouse

            Yes, a big part of that being due to overall low line speeds. Raising the 60 mph limits to 80 mph would probably lower that a bit, as would shorter dwells and more double track. Keep in mind, though, that buses don’t stop at Worcester and Pittsfield (or maybe they stop at Worcester but not Springfield, I forget). And the stop penalty for a bus is much higher than for a train.

          • Adirondacker12800

            It raises the average speed to a bit less slower than a bus…. Squeezing an hour out of the schedule attracts people who like to take slow train rides instead of faster buses. It doesn’t get you to Rochester or Syracuse faster than flying. And doesn’t make Cleveland, Toronto and Montreal possibilities. It’s 700 miles from Boston to Detroit via Southern Ontario or 800 via Cleveland. 5 or 6 hours to Detroit will attract some customers because getting to Worcester is easier than getting to Logan. Ya can’t do that if it takes four and half hours to get to Albany.

      • Adirondacker12800

        To get to Cleveland, Toronto and Montreal the cheapest way is to go through Albany. The few people from Erie who want to go to Albany are replaced by the few people from Clifton Park and the scores of people from Rochester are replaced by people from Albany etc. You end up with lots of trains going over the Berkshires

      • Nathanael

        The market is really New England to Points West, not so much Boston to Albany. Vermont in particular has strong social links with all of upstate NY, but so does Connecticut and even Maine.

        Getting Albany-Springfield up to driving speeds would be worthwhile.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Speeding up a railroad isn’t lineal. Doing the the cheap things will get you as fast as a bus. And slower than an express bus.

  2. Steve Dunham

    Your analysis addresses mainly end points. I’d like to see you take it further and look at the intermediate markets: for example, I think that some towns in the Berkshires south of Pittsfield will be traffic generators as important as Pittsfield itself. Would travel from New York to those points via Albany still be faster? Also, the West Trenton line would have commuters from towns between West Trenton and Bound Brook. Would better transit for them also require connections to the Northeast Corridor or maybe to the Raritan Valley line rather than direct rail service to Newark and possibly beyond?

    • Adirondacker12800

      The Raritan Valley line has direct service to New York during off peak hours now, The Raritan Valley line is more or less what is left of the Central of New Jersey’s line that the Reading and the B&O used for service to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC. It’s one of the few places in North America where it might make sense to be running intercity trains on nearly parallel tracks. Harrisburg to Boston via West Trenton and Hartford for instance. No one would use it for Paoli to Boston but it would be useful for Paoli to Market East, Temple to Stamford, Plainfield to Hartford etc. Alternating with a train that goes from Boston to Washington DC making all stops so that people in Bound Brook can get to Baltimore and Providence.

      • Joey

        Why would it be useful for intercity service? It’s not grade-separated, largely not electrified, and to my knowledge has a lot of freight traffic. Much of it is single-track and none of it is maintained for particularly high speeds. The NEC might have capacity issues, but so will those tracks if you try to cram any meaningful number of express trains between the locals. You could fix those issues but if you’re going to spend the money why not just upgrade the NEC’s capacity?

        • Adirondacker12800

          There’s a lot of people along the line who want to get from Pennsylvania to New York or New Jersey to Philadelphia. And enough of them that want to get to places beyond New York or Philadelphia that they could fill up a train once an hour. A branch of the NEC like the Keystone or Empire trains. That is parallel to the NEC instead of perpendicular to the NEC.

          It’s the former main line for the Reading and B&O between New York and Philadelphia. It’s mostly grade separated, four tracks wide and unencroached. It’s partly electrified. The single tracked parts are going to get upgraded and probably electrified for commuter service.

          It’s not easy to get from those suburbs to the NEC which is why there are fairly frequent commuter trains in them. Being able to get to a station easily balances out the slower trip between Newark and Philadelphia. The train would be for people who want to go to or from those places not for people who have origins and destinations outside of it.

          • Joey

            There aren’t all that many people along the line. Density falls off sharply south of Raritan (Manville) and much of it is downright rural.

            It was mostly 4 tracks and partially grade separated, but 2-3 of those tracks have been gone for a long time. And it looks like some of the new grade separations (I-95) are only build for two tracks. A lot of it is straight but it also has some fairly sharp curves.

            You might be able to generate some ridership on local service, but for any longer trips it probably makes sense to just drive to the NEC where faster, more frequent trains will be running, noting that the population density is so low that everyone is going to be driving to the station to begin with.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Silly silly SEPTA and NJTransit running trains on those lines, the commuters using those trains could just drive to the NEC. Where the traffic is awful and parking scarce and expensive.
            Parking garages aren’t cheap to build. or the additional lanes of highway needed to get the automobliles to them. 30 miles of track and catenary from Bound Brook to Ewing and the people in the densely populated suburbs of Philadelphia can get to New York and points beyond without going to the NEC and people in the densely populated suburbs of New York can get to Philadelphia and beyond without going to the NEC.
            Shifting whole trainsloads of people to stations closer to home and off the NEC is a good thing.

          • Joey

            Distance matters more for commuter trips as opposed to intercity. And SEPTA/NJT already serve the areas most in need of commuter service – the gap between them is the most sparsely populated. Like I said, some degree of local service mixed with the freight would probably be fine, but if you’re actually spending money on upgrades there are much higher priorities than restoring service along sparsely populated secondary routes.

    • Alon Levy

      I didn’t talk that much about the intermediate markets, but they’re all small. The only significant cities between Providence and Worcester are Pawtucket and Woonsocket, both of which are pretty small. The suburbs along the Raritan Valley Line are low-density except near the inner end, where backtracking through Newark would get people to Philly faster, and none hosts a major edge city; between Bound Brook and West Trenton the population is even smaller. The population of Berkshire County is already low, and most of it is around or north of Pittsfield; the towns along the Housatonic Railroad from I-90 south – Stockbridge, Great Barrington, and Sheffield – have 12,000 people between them.

      • Adirondacker12800

        More than half of the people boarding NJTransit trains in Trenton and Hamilton are Pennsylvanians going to Manhattan. I’ll see if I can find the Amtrak study. 5,000 a day if I remember correctly. Instead of building bigger parking garages in New Jersey for Pennsylvanians to use to get to New York it makes more sense for them to get on trains in Pennsylvania that go to New York. Gets them off the bridges and roads to the bridges too.
        Amtrak’s wish list is for 6 tracks between Newark and Rahway. The station in North Brunswick and the flyover is far along in planning. Apparently space has been reserved for a flyover for the Raritan Valley trains. Apparently Metropark is designed to someday be configured like Newark Airport. Also Secaucus. Though there is speculation that upper level in Secaucus is destined to be two side platforms someday. I can’t find current plans for the Portal Bridge replacement. The original plans remove Morris and Essex line trains from the current NEC, which should unclog things a bit.

        Far far in the future when things start to get congested again instead of building more capacity in Midtown they have to examine shifting some of the passengers out of Penn Station to Wall Street as an alternative. Except for trains between Trenton and Wall Street everything else could be diverted off the NEC…

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  4. Jeff

    Regarding example 1 of New Haven into New York: Would you really want to encourage commuters to take HSR into New York?

    Unless you want people standing, you’d want to have reserved seats. Seats reserved for New Haven to New York would probably be empty fairly often from Boston to New Haven… would the lost revenue be worth promoting this sort of use?

    Where I lived in Japan, we had something similar where the local trains on our line between Okayama and Himeji rather towards one or the other city where you could connect to the Shinkansen, with only a few trains traversing the whole line. However, the way pricing worked, you’d wait for the less frequent local train unless you really needed to get there quick, since the HSR options costs over twice as much (roughly $40 vs $15).

    • Alon Levy

      I am not sure about this. This is why I brought up the possibility that the fare system would discourage it, which I didn’t in the case of Providence-Worcester.

      That said, I presume that there are going to be more trains south of New Haven than between New Haven and Boston. Some trains would split off from the NEC and go to Hartford and Springfield. Between this and the greater length of HSR trains, the difference in seat occupancy south and north of New Haven may be small enough to justify this pattern.

        • Alon Levy

          Bear in mind that on serious rail networks, it’s possible to roll over seats. Germany does it as a matter of habit: seat reservation is not mandatory (leading to standees), and there’s an indicator above each seat saying for which portions of the trip it’s reserved, so that people with unreserved tickets can know when they can sit. (France, however, wants everyone to have a reserved seat, and prefers running mostly nonstop trains to avoid having to match seats for rolling over; the TGVs have a much higher seat utilization than the ICEs, though the Cascades’ seat utilization isn’t much higher than the ICEs’.) I have no idea why Amtrak is incapable of that – I’d have thought that the seat reservation system is the same as on the NEC, and that the NEC makes extensive use of rollover.

          • Jeff

            Yea, I’ve gotten to see the seat reservation signs on the ICE. Pretty neat. The thought (on the part of someone who doesn’t know the NEC that well) was that even with rollover seats, the demand in the morning from New Haven to New York with commuters involved would probably be less than Boston to New Haven. If standing it allowed though, then there wouldn’t be an issue.

          • Alon Levy

            I think Philadelphia is actually a much bigger problem than New Haven. New Haven is a natural branch point: some trains would go to Springfield, giving more capacity south of New Haven. Philadelphia is just beyond the natural branch point with the Keystone corridor, unless trains reverse direction (time-consuming, makes people sit facing backward). Philadelphia is also a much larger city than New Haven, with a larger supply of preexisting housing near the train station, which means more commute trips earlier, i.e. before there’s time to four-track the Hudson tunnels.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The people who paid for a seat will get pissed off when someone stands over them sloshing their coffee while fiddling with their iThingy.

          • Joey

            Re: Philadelphia … what about a new line from Newark, DE to Lancaster, PA? It allows Harrisburgh/Pittsburgh trains to leave 30th street the right way, requires basically zero tunneling (except near Gap, PA which is a useful cutoff anyway), and it allows reasonably fast DC-Harrisburgh-Pittsburgh service. It would improve travel times too, but it’s difficult to say by how much – the existing Keystone route is more direct and doesn’t have any speed-limiting capacity issues, but it also has a lot of r ~ 0.5 km curves which would be difficult to realign. Overall, maybe you could get Philadelphia-Downington up to 160 km/h with a few slow restrictions. By contrast, most of the NEC between Philadelphia and Newark is suitable for 200+km/h and much could be upgraded to be even faster. Wilmington is a slow section but a bypass should be built for express trains anyway.

          • Alon Levy

            You can start bypassing the line around Paoli or Malvern. But yeah, it’s still 32 km of pain. Still, going through Delaware adds 32 km that aren’t the easiest either. Very long-term, express trains from New York to points west should use a bypass paralleling freight lines.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There’s a bypass of Philadelphia already in place, the New York-Pittsburgh Subway on the west side of Zoo. it’s the way the train that got “lost” in Cynwyd used to get to New York. In the heydey the Chicago-New York expresses did not stop in downtown Philadelphia. If they stopped in Philadelphia at all they stopped at North Philadelphia. In the heydey the New York-Philadelphia expresses originated and terminated in Suburban. Or Reading Terminal. There’s a gazillion ways they could do it, the Pittsburgh-Boston Nozomi expresses through Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh-DC Nozomi uses the lower level at 30th and only stops at 30th and the Pittsburgh-New York Kodama stops at 30th, Suburban. Market East, Temple and a few stops along the West Trenton line.
            If you want to speed up Pittsburgh-DC the way to go is more directly to Baltimore. Harrisburg to Harve de Grace for instance. A bypass roughly parallel to the Trenton Cutoff would be far far in the future when there’s enough traffic from Chicago to make it worthwhile.

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