Scope Creep is the New Black

In 2009, studies began for a replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Tunnel. This tunnel, located immediately west of Baltimore Penn Station, has sharp curves, limiting passenger trains to about 50 km/h today. The plan was a two-track passenger rail tunnel, called the Great Circle Tunnel since it would sweep a wide circular arc; see yellow line here. It would be about 3 kilometers and cost $750 million, on the high side for a tunnel with no stations, but nothing to get too outraged about. Since then, costs have mounted. In 2014, the plan, still for two tracks, was up to $1 billion to $1.5 billion. Since then, costs have exploded, and the new Final Environmental Impact Statement puts the project at $4 billion. This is worth getting outraged about; at this cost, even at half this cost, the tunnel should not be built. However, unlike in some other cases of high construction costs that I have criticized, here the problem is not high unit costs, but pure scope creep. The new scope should be deleted in order to reduce costs; as I will explain, the required capacity is well within the capability of two tracks.

First, some background, summarized from the original report from 2009, which I can no longer find: Baltimore was a bottleneck of US rail transportation in the mid-19th century. In the Civil War, there was no route through the city; Union troops had to lug supplies across the city, fighting off mobs of Confederate sympathizers. This in turn is because Baltimore’s terrain is quite hilly, with no coastal plain to speak of: the only flat land on which a railroad could be easily built was already developed and urbanized by the time the railroad was invented. It took until the 1870s to build routes across the city, by which time the US already had a transcontinental railroad. Moreover, intense competition between the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) ensured that each company would built its own tunnel. The two-track B&P is the PRR tunnel; there’s also a single-track freight tunnel, originally built by the B&O, now owned by CSX, into which the B&O later merged.

Because of the duplication of routes and the difficult geography, the tunnels were not built to high standards. The ruling grade on the B&P is higher than freight railroads would like, 1.34% uphill departing the station, the steepest on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) south of Philadelphia. This grade also reduces initial acceleration for passenger trains. The tunnel also has multiple sharp curves, with the curve at the western portal limiting trains today to 30 mph (about 50 km/h). The CSX tunnel, called Howard Street Tunnel, has a grade as well. The B&P maintenance costs are high due to poor construction, but a shutdown for repairs is not possible as it is a key NEC link with no possible reroute.

In 2009, the FRA’s plan was to bypass the B&P Tunnel with a two-track passenger rail tunnel, the Great Circle Tunnel. The tunnel would be a little longer than the B&P, but permit much higher speeds, around 160 km/h, saving Acela trains around 1.5 minutes. Actually the impact would be even higher, since near-terminal speed limits are a worse constraint for trains with higher initial acceleration; for high-performance trains, the saving is about 2-2.5 minutes. No accommodation was made for freight in the original plan: CSX indicated lack of interest in a joint passenger and freight rail tunnel. Besides, the NEC’s loading gauge is incompatible with double-stacked freight; accommodating such trains would require many small infrastructure upgrades, raising bridges, in addition to building a new tunnel.

In contrast, the new plan accommodates freight. Thus, the plan is for four tracks, all built to support double-stacked freight. This is despite the fact that there is no service plan that requires such capacity. Nor can the rest of the NEC support double-stacked freight easily. Of note, Amtrak only plans on using this tunnel under scenarios of what it considers low or intermediate investment into high-speed rail. Under the high-investment scenario, the so-called Alternative 3 of NEC Future, the plan is to build a two-track tunnel under Downtown Baltimore, dedicated to high-speed trains. Thus, the ultimate plan is really for six tracks.

Moreover, as pointed out by Elizabeth Alexis of CARRD, a Californian advocacy group that has criticized California’s own high-speed rail cost overruns, the new tunnel is planned to accommodate diesel trains. This is because since 2009, the commuter rail line connecting Baltimore and Washington on the NEC, called the MARC Penn Line, has deelectrified. The route is entirely electrified, and MARC used to run electric trains on it. However, in the last few years MARC deelectrified. There are conflicting rumors as to why: MARC used the pool of Amtrak electric locomotives, and Amtrak is stopping maintaining them as it is getting new locomotives; Amtrak is overcharging MARC on electricity; MARC wants fleet compatibility with its two other lines, which are unelectrified (although the Penn Line has more ridership than both other lines combined). No matter what, MARC should immediately reverse course and buy new electric trains to use on the Penn Line.

Freight trains are more complicated – all US freight trains are dieselized, even under catenary, because of a combination of unelectrified yards and Amtrak’s overcharging on electric rates. However, if freight through the Great Circle Tunnel is desired, Amtrak should work with Norfolk Southern on setting up an electric district, or else Norfolk Southern should negotiate trackage rights on CSX’s existing tunnel. If more freight capacity is desired, private companies NS and CSX can spend their own money on freight tunnels.

In contrast, a realistic scenario would ignore freight entirely, and put intercity and regional trains in the same two-track tunnel. The maximum capacity of a two-track high-speed rail line is 12 trains per hour. Near Baltimore Penn the line would not be high-speed, so capacity is defined by the limit of a normal line, which is about 24 tph. If there is a service plan under which the MARC Penn Line could get more than 12 tph at the peak, I have not seen it. The plans I have seen call for 4 peak tph and 2 off-peak tph. There is a throwaway line about “transit-like” service on page 17, but it’s not clear what is meant in terms of frequency.

Regardless of what the state of Maryland thinks MARC could support, 12 peak regional tph through Baltimore is not a reasonable assumption in any scenario in which cars remain legal. The tunnels are not planned to have any stations, so the only city station west of Baltimore Penn is West Baltimore. Baltimore is not a very dense city, nor is West Baltimore, most famous for being the location of The Wire, a hot location for transit-oriented development. Most of Baltimore’s suburbs on the Penn Line are very low-density. In any scenario in which high-speed rail actually fills 12 tph, many would be long-range commuters, which means people who live in Baltimore and work in Washington would be commuting on high-speed trains and not on regional trains. About the upper limit of what I can see for the Penn Line in a realistic scenario is 6 tph peak, 3-4 tph off-peak.

Moreover, there is no real need to separate high-speed and regional trains for reasons of speed. High-speed trains take time to accelerate from a stop at Baltimore: by the portal, even high-acceleration sets could not go much faster than 200 km/h. An in-tunnel speed limit in the 160-180 km/h area only slows down high-speed trains by a few seconds. Nor does it lead to any noticeable speed difference with electrified regional trains, which would reduce capacity: modern regional trains like the FLIRT accelerate to 160 km/h as fast as the fastest-accelerating high-speed train, the N700-I, both having an acceleration penalty of about 25 seconds.

The upshot is that there is no need for any of the new scope added since 2009. There is no need for four tracks; two will suffice. There is no need to design for double-stacked freight; the rest of the line only accommodates single-stacked freight, and the NEC has little freight traffic anyway. Under no circumstances should diesel passenger trains be allowed under the catenary, not when the Penn Line is entirely electrified.

The new tunnel has no reason to cost $4 billion. Slashing the number of tunnels from four to two should halve the cost, and reducing the tunnels’ size and ventilation needs should substantially reduce cost as well. With the potential time gained by intercity and regional trains and the reduced maintenance cost, the original budget of $750 million is acceptable, and even slightly higher costs can be justified. However, again because the existing two-track capacity can accommodate any passenger rail volume that can be reasonably expected, the new tunnel is not a must-have. $4 billion is too high a cost, and good transit activists should reject the current plan.


  1. Ben Ross

    The 2007 MARC Growth & Investment Plan proposed a new 2-track tunnel for Amtrak, followed by refurbishing the existing tunnel for use by MARC. This would provide much higher capacity than just a new 2-track tunnel (regardless of whether you agree with the blog’s calculation of that capacity) and allow the current use of the tunnel for single-stacked freight to resume.

  2. Nathan Williams

    I feel like this analysis is missing something. What motivated the scope creep in the first place?

    • Alon Levy

      A couple of reasons.

      1. Norfolk Southern suddenly got interested in the project; in 2009 it wasn’t involved, or wasn’t interested. (CSX is still uninvolved as far as I understand.)

      2. The plan to build a two-track tunnel and then rehab the B&P Tunnel and raise its clearances by lowering its floor proved infeasible. So the only way to permit double-stacked freight turns out to be to build the new tunnels to accommodate it.

      3. Amtrak and MARC both made noises about capacity that got interpreted as “must have four tracks.” MARC even says “transit-like service” in its old plan for service in 2035, even though anything beyond 6-8 peak tph is lolzy unless cars are banned. Amtrak later decided that it actually wants a new two-track tunnel serving Charles Center, independently of the four-track Great Circle Tunnel.

      4. MARC deelectrified the Penn Line.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Just because Amtrak wants to spend a gazillion dollars to get people ten blocks closer to where a few of their passengers want to go, doesn’t mean they will ever get the money. I doubt they are every going to burrowing things across Baltimore or across Philadelphia. It costs too much for the few minutes it would save.
        12 trains an hour is optimistic when it takes 6 hours to get to Boston from Washington DC. Within the realms of possibility when it takes 7 to get from Atlanta to Boston. A little low when it takes 8 from Atlanta to Montreal.

        • Alon Levy

          The capacity of a 2-track HSR line with not all trains making all stops is 12 tph, give or take. Maybe the NEC can squeeze more since so much of it has four tracks that the Kodama could stay on the local tracks without mucking up the commuter trains too much… but it can’t squeeze too much more. Absolute maximum with ETCS 2 is 20 tph, and that’s assuming all trains travel at the same speed and don’t make any stops on the line – the stops have to be on branches or at the ends of the line, not at stations on the line even on extra tracks.

          On a different note… why is 7 hours Atlanta-Boston different from 8 hours Atlanta-Montreal? Montreal isn’t even going to directly send trains to the NEC, because the Empire Connection enters Penn Station from the wrong direction. I guess rerouting it through Grand Central and Penn is possible, but for what? Montreal-New York isn’t a very thick connection (language barriers, international border), Montreal-DC is probably not thick enough to justify extra service. Buffalo-Albany-Washington, maybe… but Upstate doesn’t have thaaaaaat many people.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Trains can back out of stations. I see how thick the connection between Montreal and New York is everyday on I-87. NYSDOT and Vermont AOT even have numbers. 10 million people in metro Washington-Baltimore, 6 million in metro Philadelphia, 20 plus in metro New York and 10 million in southern New England are gonna generate a lot of traffic between Albany and Montreal. It’s the same tracks that take them to Cleveland and Toronto.
            There aren’t unlimited amounts of office space in Manhattan. Some day commuter traffic is going to peak. Project very conservative numbers out to 2040 there needs to be more tracks into Manhattan. I’m partial to a deep cavern between 40th and Madison and 35th and 6th. That connects to the tunnel to North White Plains. The alternative is out to Yaphank and a causeway across the Sound. Partial to a tunnel all the way to Rahway too. Solves problems with Newark and Elizabeth. The Nozomi doesn’t have to stop in New Jersey, Delawware or Connecticut. The Hikari and Kodamas can,
            10 million Canadians on the western end of Lake Ontario, 5 million on the Saint Lawrence and 50 million Americans along the NEC, there’s going to be a lot of traffic.

          • Bruce Hain

            I’m trying to figure that out. Sorry. Oh, here we are: “The plan to build a two-track tunnel and then rehab the B&P Tunnel and raise its clearances by lowering its floor proved infeasible. So the only way to permit double-stacked freight turns out to be to build the new tunnels to accommodate it.” I just don’t believe they can’t get a few feet out of the floor. But in fact there is no point in Amtrak building a new tunnel there since a new station with more direct access to NEC is needed – just another one of their MOs. – several undesirable plans. Believe by the grade profile of the one fr. the 1930’s is best – but where tunnel A crosses UNDER tunnel 1 or whatever in the current plan is simply Unbelievable. Can’t believe they dared to publish it.

  3. Ian Mitchell

    So, should MARC go for systemwide electrification, or just Penn?

    Also, is there really no reason for a stop between Penn and west? It’s about 3 miles of downtown.
    There’s no benefit to a station in/around Upton?

    • Alon Levy

      Well, the plans don’t call for intermediate stops. Obviously if for whatever reason they build four tracks, two should have local stops. But in such a cost-is-no-object scenario… why not build downtown? See crayon here.

      • Ian Mitchell

        So is the problem that the stop between West Baltimore and Baltimore on MARC would require four tracks? Is that true, given likely traffic numbers?

        • Alon Levy

          No, the problem is that the stop would have to be built inside a bored tunnel, raising construction costs. With two tracks, one stop can still be accommodated, just not at 12 tph regional + 12 tph intercity (but 10/10 should be fine).

  4. Owen Evans

    I have been following this project pretty closely for more than a decade.
    Four tracks were always proposed from the beginning. So was freight. So neither really qualify as scope creep. You could certainly make a valid argument that they are not necessary, but they’ve always been there as a part of the project.

    The original 2005 alternatives study that identified the Great Circle Passenger Tunnel Route actually suggested a Great Circle Freight Tunnel as well. Baltimore is legitimately a severe bottleneck for freight movement – it is in many ways the reason that there isn’t much freight movement along the NEC and through the northeast in general. The idea is, if you take out that cork, then you’ll see freight volumes rise. Again, is this desirable? Maybe, maybe not.

    In that same study, the total cost for a four-track (two passenger, two freight) solution was estimated around $1.8 billion in 2003 dollars (Which inflates to about $2.4 billion today.)

    The real scope creep is planning all four tunnels for double stack freight clearances and ventilation for diesel operations, rather than just the two dedicated freight tunnels. Is it scope creep, yes, but if the cost were not that great it could also possibly be justified in terms of extra flexibility

    The “preferred altermative” document actually mentions the cost as $4.5 billion, not $4.0 billion. However this is YOE, assuming project completion in 2025, so perhaps converting back to 2016 dollars would yield a figure around $4.0 billion. (Not really sure how to do that math.)

    But anyway, How much of the escalation from $2.4 billion to $4 billion is due to that scope creep, how much is due to poor estimation back in 2005, and how much is due to corruption/graft/inefficiency (“high unit costs” as you put it) is a very worthy subject for debate.

    I also agree that trying to pass this project off as an Amtrak project would be disingenuous. As you mention, perhaps more than half of the scope of the project is due to freight accommodations. In fact a large part of the political coalition trying to make it happen cares more about freight than about passenger trains, so you could possibly make the argument that without freight, this project might not be happening at all.

    We don’t know where the money for this project will come from. But it probably won’t come from a 100% passenger-dedicated funding source. In the US, public funding for rail projects tends to all get lumped into a single slush fund.

    But I do agree that Amtrak should not be paying for freight accommodations.

    • Owen Evans

      To add, the only four-track passenger alternative that makes sense is to build a two-track Great Circle Passenger Tunnel for high speed trains, and then shut down the B&P to renovate it for local trains with a station at Upton for a transfer to the Baltimore Metro. When the B&P tunnel was built, there was a station there (called Pennsylvania Avenue) and at some point MARC even explicitly had this station in their plans. That was a good plan, IMO; I wonder what happened?

    • Alon Levy

      The study from later in the 2000s specifically looked just at the Great Circle passenger tunnel and not at the freight tunnel, citing lack of interest from the Class I freight operator. The cost projection at the time was $750 million.

      I don’t think this is an Amtrak project, but I do think one of the reasons for the scope creep is Amtrak vs. MARC turf battles, which led MARC to deelectrify.

    • Owen Evans

      “Excess Scope” I could possibly agree to.

      If they optimize one tunnel pair for freight by dropping the electrification but keeping double-stack clearances and ventilation, and optimize the other pair for passenger trains by removing double stack clearances and ventilation but keeping the wire, I wonder how much money could be saved, and on the flipside, how much that loss of flexibility would affect operations.

      In such a scenario, I could see Amtrak and MARC contributing to the passenger tunnel pair, and Norfolk-Southern contributing to the freight pair (paying the cost of the ventilation systems for example), but let’s be clear that the notion of “freight pays for X, passenger pays for Y” is a bit misleading. This project will mostly be financed from the same (Federal) sources which will be “rail funds”, not “passenger rail funds” or “freight rail funds.” By the way, I am not necessarily opposed to federal money being spent on projects that mostly benefit freight trains, even though the freight railroads are privately owned, profit-seeking corporations. If the public cost:public benefit part of the equation adds up then I’m all for it.

      As I have stated before this was not a passenger-only project to begin with where freight is an unwelcome interloper, nor is it the Caltrain corridor where freight is the obvious tail wagging the dog since freight volumes are tiny and the only destination is the SF peninsula (essentially a dead end). This is basically the gateway for freight to reach the entire northeastern US with a population of over 50 million people. Freight is important.

      None of this excuses the fact that this exact piece of infrastructure built to the exact same specifications would probably cost half as much if it were to be built in Sweden for example. That, IMO, is the real scandal here.

    • Bruce Hain

      Given their dangerous track record and likely concern for safety in future years – besides the obvious overarching need to build a new high-speed passenger interface in the city, leaving the old route for freight – the carriers should be permanently banned from that tunnel. Of course the first thing used to raise objections to having the trolleys moved underground on Howard Street is that modifications necessary for stations are incompatible with the historical nature of the structure, a huge disrespectful project. Quatsch. Deepening it for double-stack is likely to modify the entire structure of the tunnel. It’s a tunnel damn it, was designed to serve passengers with quickest-safest-possible transportation, and is still indispensable in that regard. Less so for freight if you look at a map.

  5. Zack Rules

    How frustrating, this tunnel’s high cost will probably sink the project, much as the Red Line light rail tunnel was sunk. And it does not address downtown Baltimore’s inadequate commuter rail service. While it is 15 blocks and has light rail connection from Penn Station to downtown, the light rail connection is slow, infrequent, and inconvenient. There is a Camden station downtown but it only goes south to Washington on CSX’s slow freight line during weekdays, it does not even work on game days. Putting downtown Baltimore on the NEC would solve a structural problem for the city economic development.

    One thought I had was to build the 2 track electric Great Circle Tunnel as proposed and then swap the CSX Howard St tunnel for the old B&P one. The old B&P could be rehabbed to carry the tallest freight trains because it already peaks at 20’4″ (I’ll bet the original study which rejected this rehab looked only at a two track option, not a single track option). CSX could connect its existing tracks to the old B&P tunnel without constructing very much new track. The Howard St tunnel could be then rehabbed for commuter trains and a few intercity trains with a tight turn connection to the NEC at Baltimore Penn. Alternatively, Howard St could house light rail instead as it runs above it at street level today. Instead of constructing new 6 tracks in new tunnels as Amtrak and others proposed, this plan would construct only one 2 track tunnel and rehab two others instead, and put downtown Baltimore in a more economically competitive place than before.

      • kclo3

        It was double-track in the days of the B&O until 1958. The presentation posted above has a cross-section that indicates nearly 20 feet of width and around 15 ft of side vertical clearance. If the MTA bought slightly smaller light rail cars, which are currently among the largest in the world, they would probably fit. Stations of course are the sticking point, but it’s a worthwhile long-term goal because the surface-running configuration today is a clusterfuck.

    • Adirondacker12800

      The solution is to run the light rail more often, not spend a gazillion dollars to make a few trips slightly more convenient.

  6. Ryan

    Even if the number of Penn Line MARC trains is zeroed out, 12 TPH is still fairly trivial to arrive at – 6 locals between New York (3 to Boston, 3 to Albany and points north/west) and DC (3 to stop there, 1 each headed to Raleigh, Roanoke, and VA Beach), 2 BOS-DC-VA expresses (both to VA Beach via Richmond), 2 NY-Points South expresses (one to Atlanta, one to Savannah), and 2 Canada-DC expresses (to terminate in DC.)

    That’s not an unreasonable service plan for full-fat HSR, and it also leaves no room at all for local trains.

    • Alon Levy

      It leaves room for 12 regional tph. The capacity at low speed is around 24 tph when all trains make the same stops, in this case all trains stopping at Baltimore Penn. At high speed, the capacity is lower, especially if there’s a mixture of stopping patterns.

      Re service plan, think less in terms of origin-destination pairs and more in terms of intercity travel demand modeling.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Maryland is never going to be New Jersey or Long Island. It’s not easy to drive to DC or Baltimore but it’s a lot easier than driving and parking in Manhattan. MARC is never going to have much more than 6 trains an hour. Maybe 8 at the peak of the peak.
        There are going to be trains to Pittsburgh and Ohio. Might not go through Baltimore. But might too. Depends on what compromises are made in Pennsylvania. The Ohioans would want to go through Hagerstown. The Pennsylvanians through Harrisburg. Detroit is within HSR range if it’s a PITA to get to the airport. On either end.
        The operator will have demand management software. All sorts of peculiar routes, Saratoga Springs via West Trenton and Hartford. With enough demand, there might be, to Montreal. Less peculiar, once an hour to Boston via Hartford. No one will take it to get to Boston from Maryland but Hartford, Springfield and Worcester have quite a few people. Very easy to imagine a dozen trains an hour in each direction through Baltimore.

      • Ryan

        All trains stopping at Baltimore Penn is certainly a reasonable assumption to make; it is highly unlikely that Amtrak will ever be able to implement the kind of super-express stopping pattern that it has fantasized about, with trains making none of the stops between DC and Philadelphia.

        The Baltimore Metro subway crosses the Penn Line at the tunnel, though, and for that reason I don’t think it’s a reasonable assumption that you’re never going to want to stop trains there. (Why this isn’t in the plans already, I’m not certain.)

        As for the demand modeling: I maintain that origin-destination pairing is instructive because anyone who is trying to get from east/north of NYC to west/south of DC by train is all but forced to interact with the NEC in some capacity, which means that some portion of the demand for all the NEC-crossing city pairings can be added to the intra-NEC demand. This is why I mentioned 6 tph just pinging back and forth between NYC and DC in addition to 6 tph that would start and end elsewhere.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Even if there was a train once an hour that only served DC, NY and Boston, it would be less than ten percent of the trains passing through Baltimore, Philadelphia and Providence. If in some alternate universe there is enough demand that the corridor needs a second set of tracks it’s cheaper to build them out in the median of the New Jersey Turnpike than burrowing them under Philadelphia and Baltimore. . . Yaphank, Hicksville, Jamaica and Brooklyn serve more people than Boston. And makes it possible for those people to take the train to Boston in addition to Philadelphia and DC. Philadelphia-New York gets congested because of the trains coming in from Pittsburgh, divert half of them through Allentown. … one of the reasons for burrowing under Philadelphia is so that the intercity trains can serve Suburban. They could serve Suburban today if Amtrak wanted to. Once or twice an hour that makes a lot of stops in Philadelphia might be better for passengers than shoveling them all into a deep cavern under City Hall. Instead of a deep cavern in Midtown Manhattan a deep cavern near Wall Street diverts commuters out of Penn Station. An intercity train once or twice an hour to Wall Street means those people aren’t in Penn Station or on the subway.

          There are alternatives to focusing solely on the existing route(s).

    • Ian Mitchell

      I doubt that kind of service pattern. Seems much more likely to me that Richmond would be a transfer point for anything coming from east (hampton rds), southwest (NC, Atlanta), South (SC, Savannah) or west (Roanoke). Whatever passengers on those trains travelling to the NEC could transfer there. I don’t see more than 20 tph total through Baltimore as likely enough to build for, to be honest. A tunnel for 20 tph, with an Upton station for MARC, seems to fit likely reality, rather than blow limited budget resources on fantasy.

      • Ryan

        I disagree; Richmond is the 45th largest MSA with an estimated ~1.27 million people, versus the District MSA at #6 with ~6.1 million (around five times larger.) I can buy the argument that DC Union becomes the logical transfer point between travelers coming from anywhere south, but not Richmond. Further, while the train has to end somewhere (even if “end” really just means changing crews, cleaning the interior, and continuing on under a new name), demand for through trips between points south of DC and NYC as well as demand for through trips from north of NYC to DC makes it highly probable that there will be a large share of through trains on the corridor. 12 intercity TPH is highly likely here; 12 or 10 or even 8 regional TPH may not be as much, but I have no doubt in my mind that when the trains move at an average speed of even 160 km/h (nevermind 200+ averages, which may be achievable in my lifetime but only because I’m expecting to see the 22nd century) you’re not going to have trouble filling a high-speed train every 5 minutes.

        • Alon Levy

          The logical transfer point is where lines intersect. It doesn’t have to be a large node on its own. In Switzerland, some transfer points, like Olten and Arth-Goldau, are not significant cities (Olten is a small city and Goldau is a village).

          The flip side of filling a train every 5 minutes is that trains are big, on the order of 1,100 seats per train. There are either two or three lines that do that today: the Tokaido Shinkansen, the Tohoku Shinkansen, and maybe the LGV Sud-Est (I think it peaks at 10 tph, but don’t quote me on that). Tokaido achieves this by connecting Tokyo to Nagoya and Osaka, and also carrying a little bit of high-speed commuter traffic. Tohoku achieves this by connecting Tokyo to smaller cities in the north, and also carrying a ton of high-speed commuter traffic.

          If you try to project NEC ridership by applying a gravity model on actual ridership in Japan, France, and Spain, and projecting based on US city sizes, a reasonable projection for intercity (not commuter) ridership is around 15 million per year on NY-DC and NY-Boston each, 6 million on DC-Boston, and 5 million on DC-Philly and Boston-Philly. I’m not comfortable enough projecting NY-Philly, which is far closer than the city pairs I’m basing this on. So, ignoring NY-Philly (which is a lot) and high-speed commuters (which is also a lot), there are 26 million annual passengers passing through each segment. That’s 71,000 per day. 6 tph in each direction provides a capacity of 220,000. This isn’t as big a discrepancy as it looks – NY-DC is actually somewhat more than 15, there’s a ton of NY-Philly, you can scratch a couple more million out of Hartford and Springfield, actual traffic north of New Haven would probably be just 4 tph – and eventually you can get to around 130,000 daily passengers on NY-Philly, or 60% of the capacity of 6 tph. At 60% of capacity, you’re probably close to 100% at the peak. Maybe in the case of the NEC it’s lower because this is just intercity ridership, but the point of this exercise is that the NEC alone probably doesn’t support more than 6 tph.

          With Southern tie-ins, yes, you can more ridership. But not that much more. Richmond, Hampton Roads, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte aren’t that big, and beyond Charlotte you’re too far from New York to get that much through-ridership. Ridership to Washington and Philadelphia would remain strong, but the peak tph count is determined by New York and not by Washington. You could squeeze 2 extra tph’s worth of demand, but that’s about it.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Usual number tossed around for the NEC is that there are 50 million people within 25 miles of a station. There are 65 million people in France.
            11 million in Ohio, 10 million in greater greater Toronto, 5 million in Montreal. 4 million in the along the Erie Canal, 1.6 million in Newport News, 1.2 million in Richmond.. it adds up.

  7. STrRedWolf

    Ooooh the inaccuracies and omissions of fact. You must not ride the train often enough.

    First: The B&P Tunnel IS PART of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor (NEC), which is rated as a Class I Passenger Railroad for 125 MPH service. However, the B&P Tunnel itself, dating back to the Civil War Era (over 100 years old!), is in such a state that both Amtrak AND MARC trains can only go through it at… 30 MPH. That is the maximum safe speed.

    Yes, 30 MPH. While it’s 125 MPH between Washington DC and West Baltimore. The B&P Tunnel can’t support any more than that by it’s old, outdated design. And it’s already max’ed out with Amtrak and MARC train traffic.

    So you build two tunnels that support faster rail. Fine. Trains can go faster. That better?

    No. You still have the issue of having Amtrak and MARC trains share the same damn rail. It’s the same issue up in New York City with Amtrak and NJ Transit. They can do 24 trains per hour in the Hudson River tunnel. If one train breaks down on the track, they have to single-track and take turns. That cuts it down to 6 trains per hour. MUCH slower.

    Thus why you have four tracks, so you have what is called “operational flexibility”. Train breaks down in one tunnel? Not a problem, send a rescue engine in, and multiplex trains on three tracks. Plus with the current preferred design, MARC would be on the outer tracks (3 and A) and Amtrak on the inners at the south end (1 and 2), but out of the tunnels up north, Amtrak will be lined up for tracks 6 and 7 and MARC on 4 and 5. No need for complicated switching or getting MARC trains delayed because Amtrak has priority.

    So build four tunnels for faster speeds, reduced switching, faster access to the station. Much faster than two fast tracks.

    Second: MARC is not de-electrifying the Penn line. It *can’t*. It doesn’t own the line. The Penn line is basically the NEC, and it’s owned by Amtrak. In fact, MARC contracts out to Amtrak to run MARC equipment on the Penn line (Bombardier is the contractor for running on the other two lines which are owned by CSX). It can run just diesel engines, though, which is what is happening. They’re getting rid of the out-of-warranty electrics (the AEM-7’s, not the HHP-8’s, but those are on the chopping block), and getting new diesels.

    Why new diesels? Because they’re cheaper than the electrics by over ten times and they can run on the CSX owned lines. Now doesn’t it make sense to operate equipment that’s compatible on all the lines? There’s that “operational flexibility” again.

    Third: $4 billion? Of course it’s going to get bigger. The more you study it, the cost is going to inflate, and the build date gets pushed back. The Circle Tunnels have been studied for over 50 years now, and in at least five studies now. The cost has only gotten higher each time. Want to bet they study your two line idea, and it comes out to be $6 billion because everythings’ more expensive now?

    • Alon Levy

      Please consider the fact that I do know what I’m talking about.

      To wit:

      1. If a train breaks down, it cuts capacity. The solution is to get trains that don’t break down, just like every two-track subway in the world. The MDBF on the LIRR’s new EMUs is in the 6 figures, and in Tokyo the commuter trains’ MDBF is around a million km. Diesel locos don’t get anywhere near that: on the LIRR it’s on the order of 20,000 km, on the MBTA it’s around 5,000 km.

      2. It is not normal for diesels to be ten times cheaper than electrics. Diesels consistently have higher operating costs. The reason competent passenger railroads (i.e. nothing in North America) run diesels at all is that hanging wires costs money, so on lower-traffic lines diesels are cheaper. This is why I am accusing Amtrak of shortchanging other railroads on electric rates; this apparently is also the reason Conrail stopped running electrics on the NEC.

      3. When some lines are wired and some aren’t, you run a mixed fleet. It’s pretty common to equip each line with its own captive fleet, even when loading gauges and electrification match. On MARC, most of the ridership is on the Penn Line anyway; deelectrifying the trains for compatibility with the even lower-ridership CSX lines is the tail wagging the dog. It’s even stupider than the MBTA’s refusal to hang wires on a few sidings and run EMUs on the Providence Line – the Providence Line isn’t the majority of the MBTA’s ridership.

      4. The bigger the tunnels and the more of them you build, the more expensive they get. If there’s no way to build the tunnel for less than around $1-1.5 billion, it should not be built. It’s fine to live with a 50 km/h slow restriction for a few km out of Baltimore; it slows intercity trains by 2-2.5 minutes, but there are cheaper ways to save the same amount of time. The Avelia Liberty has a cost premium of about $1 billion at current fleet size, and under the right investment plan saves a couple minutes over trains that tilt less or have lower top speed. (Under the current investment plan – actual plan, not NEC Future crayon – it’s probably even with the Pendolino.)

  8. johndmuller

    The B&P tunnel is downright scary. I commuted on that line on and off for a year or two and sometimes the door at the end of the car would fail to latch and it would slide open and you could see through the vestibule to the back edge of the car ahead. It was frightening to see how much displacement there was between the ends of the two cars and how it would shear back and forth as we went through those S curves – sometimes up and down too at the same time; made me wonder how the couplings held together and the trucks stayed on the tracks. I grew up in NYC where people changed cars with impunity and imagining changing cars in that tunnel would give me a queasy feeling in the stomach and make me (almost) want to swear off the practice. In other words, that tunnel sucks big time.

    While we are at it, Baltimore Penn Station itself is not really in a great location. While the city transit is pretty decent there, it would still be better if the main station were somewhat closer to the downtown area. Camden station is not much better on the other side of downtown. so even the unlikely configuration of connecting them together would still leave you without a real center city stop. [Rebuilding/replacing the Howard St. tunnel for whatever purpose(s) (freight, intercity, subway, light rail) would not be such a terrible idea IMhO; they keep trying one facelift after another to reclaim Howard St.’s faded glory as one of the city’s Main Strips; maybe completely digging it up and putting in some heavy infrastructure would happen to work.]

    The route 40 alignment doesn’t look that bad from point of view of view of being nice and straight and allowing for a much better situated center city station; obviously a lot of digging, but we’re already talking big numbers, so probably not any worse (except for the Spiro T. Agnew Transportation Center station cavern and headhouse). If Amtrak is already thinking of doing something like this in the future, then maybe the lesser of the tunnel options is more appropriate than the full 4-track monte. Should something involving renovating the Howard St. tunnel for MARC happen, the Agnew Center Headhouse should also accommodate their station as well.

    Maryland and Baltimore are really into the Port of Baltimore and shipping and freight trains going to and fro, so the threat of Tea Party economics torpedoing freight rail infrastructure is not as great as in other places.

    • Ian Mitchell

      Baltimore had 950,000 people in 1950 and Penn station worked fine. It has 620,000 today.
      I don’t think 330,000 fewer people need new that badly.
      Baltimore is still shrinking. I’m not confident it will recover to a million person city in our lifetimes.
      Smart infrastructure, not new for new’s sake.

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