The Northeast Corridor high-speed rail investment studies are moving forward, and four days ago the FRA released an early environmental impact study on the subject, as part of the NEC Future program. The study moves in part in the right direction, in that it considers many different segment-level improvements (for example, specific bypasses of curvy segments), but it still isn’t quite going in the right direction. It’s not a bad study in itself, but it does have a lot of drawbacks, and I would like to discuss the ultimate problems with its approach.
The EIS studies three alternatives, as well as an obligatory No Build option.
Alternative 1 includes minimal investment: capacity improvements already under consideration, including new Hudson tunnels; grade-separation of at-grade rail junctions, including Shell interlocking between the Metro-North New Haven Line to Grand Central and the NEC, which imposes a severe speed limit (30 mph, the worst outside major city stations) and a capacity constraint; and a limited I-95 bypass of the legacy NEC route in eastern Connecticut, to avoid the existing movable bridges. The bulk of the expense under this alternative, excluding the predominantly commuter-oriented new Hudson tunnels, involves replacing or bypassing obsolete or slow bridges with faster segments. I have advocated such an approach in certain cases for years, such as the Cos Cob Bridge; if anything, Alternative 1 does not do this enough, but I do appreciate that it uses this solution.
Alternative 2 constructs HSR along the NEC route, except for a major deviation to serve Hartford. It is also bundled with various bypasses and new stations elsewhere: under this alternative, Philadelphia and Baltimore get new stations, with extensive urban tunneling to reach those stations. Alternative 3 does the same, but considers more deviations, including a tunnel between Long Island and New Haven, and an inland route through Connecticut, closer to I-84 than to I-95 and the legacy NEC; it also constructs dedicated HSR tracks between New York and Washington.
The EIS does not include cost figures. It includes travel time figures on PDF-p. 51, which seem to be based on unfavorable assumptions: Alternative 2, called Run 5, does New York-Boston in 2:17 for trains making a few major-city intermediate stops; the Alternative 3 proposals vary widely depending on alignment, of which the fastest, the I-84 inland route, takes 1:51, again making intermediate stops.
First, the EIS includes service plan elements, stating the projected frequency of regional and express trains using the tracks. It also talks about clockface scheduling and proposes a pulse in Philadelphia, allowing timed transfers in all directions between local and express intercity trains as well as trains on the Keystone corridor. It goes further and discusses regional rail on the intercity tracks in the alternatives that include extensive new construction. In these ways, it focuses on regionwide rail integration far more than previous plans.
Second, in general, the correct way to think about NEC investment is component by component. The EIS gets closer to this ideal, by considering many different route combinations north of New York, and advancing several of them under the Alternative 3 umbrella.
And third, the concept of Alternative 1 is solid. In many cases, it is possible to bundle a trip time or capacity improvement into the replacement of an obsolete structure at very low additional cost. The example I keep coming back to is the Cos Cob Bridge, but it is equally true of the movable bridges east of New Haven. I also greatly appreciate that Alternative 1 recognizes the importance of grade-separating railroad junctions.
Ultimately, the EIS does not take the three good concepts – integrated service planning, component-by-component thinking, and bundling trip-time improvements when the marginal cost of doing so is low – to their full conclusion. Thus, there is no attempt at running intercity trains at high speed on shared track with commuter rail with timed overtakes, as I have proposed for both the inner New Haven Line and the Providence Line. On the contrary, the plan for capacity investment on the Providence Line includes extensive three-tracking, rather than limited, strategic four-track bypass segments. This cascades to the trip times, which are quite slow between New York and New Haven (1:08, for an average speed of 103 km/h), and a bit slower than they could be between Providence and Boston (24 minutes, whereas about 21 is possible with about zero investment into concrete).
The concepts of Alternatives 1, 2, and 3 represent bundles of levels of investment. This is the wrong approach. Alternatives 2 and 3 include new tunneled city-center stations in Baltimore and Philadelphia; but wouldn’t we want to consider city-center station tunnels in those two cities separately? It’s possible for one to turn out to be cost-effective but not the other. It’s possible for neither to be cost-effective, but for other improvements included in Alternative 2, such as curve modification around Metropark and Metuchen, to pencil out.
There’s far more interaction between different macro-level alignments, by which I mean such questions as “inland route or coastal route?” and “serve Hartford on the mainline or put it on a branch?”, than between such micro-level investments as individual curve modifications and urban tunnels. This means that instead of discrete alternatives, there should be one umbrella, taking in Alternative 2 and 3 variants, proposing all of those options as possibilities. A future study, with detailed cost figures, could then rank those options in terms of trip time saving per unit of cost, or in terms of social and financial ROI. This way, there would be concrete proposals for what a $5 billion plan, a $10 billion plan, a $20 billion plan, and so on would be.
Two elements in the study are inexcusable. First, the service plan description explicitly keeps Amtrak’s current separation of premium-fare Regionals and even-more-premium-fare Acelas. This is not how the rest of the world structures HSR: even when the HSR fares are substantially higher than the legacy rail fares, as in Spain, the fare per passenger-km is not very high, and is not targeted exclusively at business travelers. In France, the intercity fare (including TGVs, which are the bulk of French intercity traffic) was on average €0.112 per passenger-km in 2011. Premium service is provided on the same TGVs as standard service, in first-class cars. In contrast, Amtrak charges about $0.29 per passenger-km on the Regional and $0.53 on the Acela.
And second, the investment alternatives appear to include more tunneling than is necessary. I will focus on the Hartford-Providence-Boston segment in Alternative 2, since it is less sensitive to assumptions on commuter rail track-sharing than the segments overlapping the New Haven Line. It is possible to go all the way from Hartford to the western margin of the Providence built-up area without any tunneling, and without outrageous bridging; see a past post of mine on the subject here, which concludes that it’s better to just go parallel to I-95 for trip time reasons. In Providence, tunnels are unavoidable, but can still be limited to short segments, mixed with elevated routes along pre-impacted freeway corridors. When I looked at it two years ago, I saw an alignment with just 2 km of tunnel, in Providence itself. In contrast, run A in figure 9 on PDF-p. 56 says that tunnels are about 27% of new construction between Hartford and Boston, which consists of, at a minimum, about 100 km of track between Hartford and Providence.
The EIS is a step in the right direction, insofar as it does consider issues of integrated service planning and prioritizing construction based on where it can be cheaply bundled into bridge replacement. However, it fails to consider cost limitations, as seen in the excessive tunneling proposed even in areas where high-speed tracks can run entirely above ground. It’s considering more options, which is good, but, Alternative 1, while representing a golden concept, is not sufficiently developed.
What I would like to see from a study in this direction is a mixture of the following:
- Discussion of how to avoid tunnels, including various tradeoffs that have to be made (for example, above-ground construction may require more takings). Generally, I want to see much less tunneling than is currently proposed.
- A well-developed incremental option, similar to Alternative 1 but more extensive, including for example I-95 bypasses all the way from New Haven to Kingston and along strategic segments of the New Haven Line, such as in Port Chester and Greenwich.
- Greater integration with regional rail; one litmus test is whether the Providence Line is proposed to be three-tracked for long stretches, or four-tracked at a key bypass station (the options are Sharon and the Route 128-Readville segment), and another is discussion of high-acceleration electric multiple units on the Providence Line and the Penn Line.
- Unbundling of projects within each alignment – there is no need to, for example, consider the Philadelphia and Baltimore tunnels together (I also think neither is a good idea, but that’s a separate discussion). The view should be toward an optimal set of projects within each alignment, since macro-level decisions such as whether to serve Hartford are more political than micro-level ones of which curves to fix. This permits explicit discussions such as “would you be willing to spend $2 billion and slow through-trains by 9 minutes to serve Hartford?”.
Except for the first, all are kind of present in this study, but in insufficient amount for me to view it as truly a step forward. The ultimate goal must be HSR in the Northeast on a reasonable budget – closer to $10 or even $20 billion than to the Amtrak Vision’s proposed $150 billion – and this requires carefully looking at which scope is required and which is not. The EIS has elements that can be used toward that goal, but ultimately it is a step sideways, not forward or in the wrong direction.