New England High- and Low-Speed Rail

After drawing a map of an integrated timed transfer intercity rail network for the state of New York, people asked me to do other parts of the United States. Here is New England, with trains running every 30 minutes between major cities:

New England is a much friendlier environment for intercity rail growth than Upstate New York, but planning there is much more delicate. The map thus has unavoidable omissions and judgment calls, unlike the New York map, which straightforwardly follows the rule of depicting intercity lines but not suburban lines like the Long Island network. I ask that people not flame me about why I included X but not Y without reading the following explanations.

The tension between S-Bahn and ITT planning

The S-Bahn concept involves interlining suburban rail lines through city center to provide a high-frequency urban trunk line. For example, trains from a number of East Berlin neighborhoods and Brandenburg suburbs interline to form the Stadtbahn: in the suburbs, they run every 10 or 20 minutes, but within the Ring, they combine to form a diameter running regularly every 3:20 minutes.

The integrated transfer timetable concept instead involves connecting different nodes at regular intervals, typically half an hour or an hour, such that trains arrive at every node just before a common time and leave just after, to allow people to transfer. In a number of major Swiss cities, intercity trains arrive a few minutes before the hour every 30 minutes and depart a few minutes after, so that people can connect in a short amount of time.

S-Bahn and ITT planning are both crucial tools for good rail service, but they conflict in major cities. The ITT requires all trains to arrive in a city around the same time, and depart a few minutes later. This forces trains from different cities to have different approach tracks; if they share a trunk, they can still arrive spaced 2-3 minutes apart, but this lengthens the transfer window. The idea of an S-Bahn trunk involves trains serving the trunk evenly, which is not how one runs an ITT.

Normally, this is no problem – ITTs are for intercity trains, S-Bahns are for local service. But this becomes a problem if a city is so big that its S-Bahn network grows to encompass nearby city centers. In New York, the city is so big that its shadow reaches as far as Eastern Long Island, New Haven, Poughkeepsie, and Trenton. Boston is smaller but still casts shadows as far as southern New Hampshire and Cape Cod.

This is why I don’t depict anything on Long Island on my map: it has to be treated as the extension of an S-Bahn system, and cannot be the priority for any intercity ITT. This is also true of Danbury and Waterbury: both are excellent outer ends for an electrified half-hourly regional rail system, but setting up the timed transfers with the New Haven Line (which should be running every 10 minutes) and with high-speed rail (which has no reason to stop at the branch points with either Danbury or Waterbury) is infeasible. In Boston I do depict some lines – see below on the complications of the North-South Rail Link.

The issue of NSRL

The North-South Rail Link is a proposed north-south regional rail tunnel connecting Boston’s North and South Stations. Current plans call for a four-track tunnel extending across the river just north of North Station, about 4.5 km of route; it should cost $4 billion including stations, but Massachusetts is so intent on not building it lies that the cost is $12 billion in 2018 dollars.

In common American fashion, NSRL plans are vague about how service is to run through the tunnel. There are some promises of running intercity trains in addition to regional ones; Amtrak has expressed some interest in running trains through from the Northeast Corridor up to the northern suburbs and thence to Maine. However, we are not engaging in bad American planning for the purposes of this post, but in good Central European planning, and thus we must talk about what trains should run and design the tunnel appropriately.

The rub is that Boston’s location makes NSRL great for local traffic and terrible for intercity traffic. When it comes to local traffic, Boston is right in the middle of its metropolitan region, just offset to the east because of the coast. The populations of the North Side and South Side suburbs are fairly close, as are their commuter volumes into Boston. Current commuter rail ridership is about twice as high on the South Side, but that’s because South Station’s location is more central than North Station’s. NSRL really is a perfect S-Bahn trunk tunnel.

But when it comes to intercity traffic, Boston is in the northeast corner of the United States. There are no major cities north of Boston – the largest such city, Portland, is a metro area of 600,000. In contrast, going south, New York should not be much more than an hour and a half away by high-speed rail. Thus, high-speed rail has no business running through north of Boston – the demand mismatch south and north is too high.

Since NSRL is greatly useful for regional traffic but not intercity traffic, the physical infrastructure should be based on S-Bahn and not ITT principles, even though the regional network connects cities quite far away. For one, the tunnel should require all trains to make all stops (South Station, Aquarium, North Station) for maximum local connectivity. High-speed trains can keep feeding South Station on the surface, while all other traffic uses the tunnel.

But on the North Side, feeding North Station on the surface is not a good idea for intercity trains. The station is still awkwardly just outside city center. It also offers no opportunity to transfer to intercity trains to the most important city of all, New York.

The only resolution is to treat trains to Portland and New Hampshire as regional trains that just go farther than normal. The Nashua-Manchester-Concord corridor is already as economically linked to Boston as Providence and Worcester, and there are plans for commuter rail service there already, which were delayed due to political opposition to spending money on trains from New Hampshire Republicans after their 2010 election victory. Portland is more speculative, but electric trains could connect it with Boston in around an hour and a half to two hours. These trains would be making suburban stops north of Boston that an intercity train shouldn’t normally make, but it’s fine, the Lowell Line has wide stop spacing and the intermediate stops are pretty important post-industrial cities. At Portland, passengers can make a timed connection to trains to Bangor, on the same schedule but with shorter trainsets as the demand north of Portland is much weaker.

On the map, I also depict Boston-Cape Cod trains, which like Boston-Concord trains are really suburban trains but going farther. Potentially, the branch to Cape Cod – the Middleborough branch of the Old Colony Lines – could even run through with the Lowell Line, either the branch to Concord or the Wildcat Branch to Haverhill and Portland. Moreover, the sequencing of the branches should aim to give short connections to Boston-Albany high-speed trains as far as reasonable.

The issue of the Northeast Corridor

The Northeast Corridor wrecks the ITT plan in two ways, one substantial and one graphical.

The snag is that there should be service on legacy track running at a maximum speed of 160-200 km/h in addition to high-speed service on high-speed tracks. There may be some track sharing between New York and New Haven to reduce construction costs, using timed overtakes instead of full track segregation, but east of New Haven the high-speed trains should run on a new line near I-95 to bypass the Shore Line’s curves, and the Shore Line should be running electric regional trains to connect to the intermediate cities.

The graphical problem is that the distance between where the legacy route is and where the high-speed tracks should be is short, especially west of New Haven, and depicting a red line and a blue line together on the map is not easy. I will eventually post something at much higher resolution than 1 pixel = 500 meters. This also affects long-distance regional lines that I’d like to depict on the map but connect only to legacy trains on the Northeast Corridor, that is the Danbury and Waterbury Branches.

For planning purposes, figure that both run every half hour all day, are electric, run through to and beyond New York as branches of the New Haven Line, and are timed to have reasonable connections to high-speed trains to Albany and points north in New York. Figure the same for trains between New Haven and Providence, with some additional runs in the Providence suburbs giving 15-minute urban frequencies to such destinations as Olneyville and Cranston.

The substantial issue is that the Northeast Corridor is far too high-demand for a half-hourly ITT. Intercity trains run between New York and Boston better than hourly today, and that’s taking twice as long as a TGV and charging 2.5-4 times as much. My unspoken assumption when planning how everything should fit together is that there should be a 400-meter long train every 15 minutes on the corridor past New Haven, spaced evenly around Boston to overtake regional trains to Providence at consistent locations. Potentially, there should be more local trains taking around 1:50 and more express trains taking around 1:35, and then all timed transfers should be to the local trains.

On the New Haven Line, too, regional rail demand is much more than a train every half hour. Trains run mostly every half hour today, with management that is flagrantly indifferent to off-peak service, and trip times that are about 50% longer than they should be. Nonetheless, best practice is to set up timed transfers such that various branches all connect to the same train, so that passengers can connect between different branches. This mostly affects Waterbury; it’s useful to ensure that Waterbury trains arrive at Bridgeport with a short transfer to a train toward New Haven that offers a quick connection to trains to points north and east.

Planning HSR around timed connections

Not counting lines that are in the Boston sphere, or the lines around Albany, which I discussed two weeks ago, there are three lines proposed for timed connection to high-speed rail: New London-Norwich, Providence-Worcester-Fitchburg, Springfield-Greenfield.

All three are regional lines, not intercity lines. They are not optimized for intercity speed, but instead make a number of local urban and suburban stops. This is especially true of Springfield-Northampton-Greenfield, a line that Sandy Johnston and I have been talking about since 2014. A Springfield-Greenfield line with 1-2 intermediate stops might be able to do a one-way trip in around 39 minutes, at which point a 45-minute operator schedule may be feasible with a very tight turnaround regime – but there’s enough urban demand along the southern half of the route that adding stops to make it about 50 minutes with a one-hour operator schedule is better.

The Providence-Worcester line is likewise slower than it could be if it were just about Providence and Worcester. The reason is that high-speed rail compresses distances along its route. Providence-Boston by high-speed rail is about 22 minutes nonstop, including schedule contingency. Boston-Worcester is about the same – slower near Boston because of scheduling difficulties along the Turnpike and the inner Worcester Line, faster near the outer end because Worcester has no chance of getting a city center station but rather gets a highway station. Now, passengers have a range of transfer penalties, and to those who are averse to connections and have a high personal penalty, the trip between the two cities is more attractive directly than via Boston. But there are enough passengers who’d make the trip via Boston that the relative importance of intermediate points grows: Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Uxbridge, Millbury. In that situation, the importance of frequency grows (half-hourly is a must, not hourly) and that of raw speed diminishes.

The onward connection to Fitchburg is about three things. First, connecting Providence with Fitchburg. Second, connecting Worcester with Fitchburg. And third, connecting Fitchburg with the high-speed line. This makes investments into higher speed more valuable, since Fitchburg’s importance is high compared with that of points between Worcester and Fitchburg. The transfer between the line and high-speed rail should be timed in the direction of Fitchburg-to-Albany first of all, and Providence-to-Albany second of all, as the connections from the endpoints to Boston are slower than direct commuter trains.

The presence of this connection also forces the Worcester station to be at the intersection with the line to Providence. Without this connection, it may be better to site the station slightly to the west, at 290 rather than 146, as the area already has Auburn Mall.

Finally, the New London-Norwich line is a pure last-mile connector from the New London train station, which is forced to be right underneath the I-95 bridge over the river, to destinations to the north. The northern anchor is Norwich opposite the historic center, but the main destination is probably the Mohegan Sun casino complex. Already there are many buses connecting passengers from New York to the casino. The one-way trip time should be on the order of 21-22 minutes, but with a turnaround it’s a 30-minute schedule, and the extension south to the historic center of New London is for completeness; with a timed connection, trains could get between Penn Station and Norwich in around 1:20 counting connection time, and between Penn Station and Mohegan Sun in maybe 5 minutes less.

What about Vermont?

Vermont’s situation is awkward. Burlington is too far north and too small to justify a connection to high-speed rail by itself. A low-speed connection might work, but the line from Burlington south points toward Rutland and not New York, and connecting it onward requires reversing direction. If Vermont had twice its actual population this might be viable, but it doesn’t.

But Vermont is right between New York and Montreal. I generally don’t show New York-Montreal high-speed rail on my maps. It’s a viable line, but people in both cities severely overrate it, especially compared with New York-Toronto; I have to remind readers this whenever I write about international high-speed trains. In the event such a line does open, Burlington is the only plausible location for a Vermont stop – everything else is too small, even towns that historically did have rail service, like Middlebury. Rutland could get a line running partly on high-speed track and partly on legacy track taking it down to Glens Falls or Saratoga Springs to transfer to onward destinations, or maybe Albany if trains run 2-3 minutes apart in pairs every 30 minutes.

Current plans for Vermont try to connect it directly to Boston via New Hampshire, and that is wrong. The Vermonter route is mountainous from Greenfield to Burlington; trains will never be competitive with driving there. Another route under occasional study going into Boston from the north was even included on a 2009 wishlist of high-speed rail routes, under the traditional American definition of high-speed rail as “train that is faster than a sports bicycle.” That route, crossing mountains in both New Hampshire and Vermont, is even worse. The north-south orientation of the mountains in both states forces east-west routes to either stick to the lowlands or consolidate to strong enough routes that high-speed rail tunnels are worthwhile.

How much does this cost?

As always, I am going to completely omit the Northeast Corridor from this cost analysis; an analysis of that will happen later, and suffice is to say, the benefit-cost ratio if there’s even semi-decent cost control is extremely high.

With that in mind, the central pieces of this program are high-speed lines from Boston to Albany and from New Haven to Springfield, in a T system. The 99 km New Haven-Springfield line, timetabled at 45 minutes including turnaround and maybe 36 minutes in motion, is on the slow side for high-speed rail, as it is short and has a crucial intermediate station in Hartford. It does not need any tunnels or complex viaducts, and property takings are nonzero but light; the cost should not be higher than about $2-2.5 billion, utilizing legacy track for much of the way.

The Boston-Albany line is much costlier. It’s 260 km, and crosses the aforementioned north-south mountains in Western Massachusetts. Tunnels are unavoidable, including a few kilometers of digging required just west of Springfield to avoid a slowdown on suburban curves. At the Boston end, tunneling may also be unavoidable next to the Turnpike. The alternative is sharing a two-track narrows with the MBTA Worcester Line in Newton; it’s possible if the trains run no more than every 15 minutes, which is a reasonable short-term imposition but may be too onerous in the longer term if better service builds up more demand for commuter rail frequency in Newton. My best guess is that without Newton, the line needs around 20 km of tunnel and can piggyback on 35 km of existing lines at both ends, for a total cost in the $6-8 billion range. This figure is sensitive to whether my 20 km estimate is correct, but not too sensitive – at 40 it grows to maybe $9 billion, at 0 it shrinks to $4.5 billion.

Estimating the costs of the blue lines on the map is harder. All of them are, by the standard of high-speed rail, very cheap per kilometer. A track renewal machine on a one-third-in-tunnel German high-speed line can do track rebuilding for about a million euros per single-track-kilometer. All of these lines would also need to be electrified from scratch, for $1.5-3 million per kilometer. Stations would need to be built, for a few million apiece. My first-order estimate is $1 billion for the three blue connector lines and about the same for Boston-Portland-Bangor; the Hyannis and Concord lines would go in a regional rail basket. The NSRL tunnel should be $4 billion or not much more, and not what Massachusetts wants voters to believe it is to justify its decision not to build it.

The reason for the relatively limited map (e.g. no Montreal service) is that these lines are not such slam dunks that they’re worth it at any price. Cost control is paramount, subject to the bare minimum of good service (e.g. electrification and level boarding). For what I think a fair cost is, those lines are still good, providing fast connectivity across New England from most places to most other places. Moreover, the locations of the major nodes, like Worcester and Springfield, allow timing bus interchanges as well, providing further connections to various suburbs and city neighborhoods.

The red high-speed lines are flashy, but the blue ones are important too. That’s the key takeaway from planning in Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, all of which have high rail usage without great geography for intercity rail. Trains should be planned coherently as a network, with all parts designed in tandem to maximize connectivity. This isn’t just about going between Boston and Springfield or Boston and Albany or New Haven and Springfield, but also the long tail of weaker markets using timed connections, like New Haven-Amherst, Brockton-Worcester, Dover-Providence, Stamford-Mohegan Sun, and so on. A robust rail network based on ITT design principles could make all of these and many more connections at reasonable cost and speed.

100 comments

  1. Benjamin Turon

    Ha-ha! MassDOT just released a preliminary study that stated spending $25 billion on East-West Rail would lead to ridership equal to a little bit more than Hudson NY’s annual Amtrak ridership! Apparently not many people in the Commonwealth want to go to Boston from Springfield. ‘Passenger Rail Journal’ in its latest issue has an article on how the New York Central work to drive passengers away from its Boston-Albany “Beeliner” Budd RDC service in the 1960s. The gran-kids of those NYC folks must now work for MassDOT… lol…

    WMAC NORTHEAST PUBLIC RADIO — East-West Rail Proponents Question Study’s Ridership Estimates
    https://www.wamc.org/post/east-west-rail-proponents-question-studys-ridership-estimates

    STUDY LINK… https://www.mass.gov/doc/massdot-east-west-passenger-rail-study-advancing/download

      • Benjamin Turon

        The last study they did — Northern New England yada yada yada — predicted ridership in the millions, gee what a difference a two years make! Their having a public meeting on Wednesday in Springfield that I will attended. From the media coverage the supporters are not buying the ridership estimates, not with the ridership of the New Haven-Springfield-Springfield service now over a million, and also given the ridership of stations north of Springfield served by the once daily ‘Vermonter’.

        When visited Springfield last winter for the last East-West Rail meeting, I noticed all the Peter Pan buses at Union Station — the owner of Peter Pan if memory serves is a big donor to the current governor… lol…

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, that they’re projecting less ridership on Boston-Pittsfield than a single Peter Pan bus while multiple direct buses go every day…

          • adirondacker12800

            I gave Peter Pan a whirl. One bus a day from Pittsfield to Boston and two a day from Boston. Weekdays in February or April. I gave up after that. There’s not going to be lot of traffic from what used to be Berkshire County, there’s not many people out there and they are spread kinda thin.

          • Alon Levy

            “Not a lot of traffic” and what they said (7 weekday riders PIT BOS) are still pretty different, and by itself it doesn’t matter, but with how they’re sandbagging Boston-Springfield projections it does.

          • Benjamin Turon

            A few of the state legislator supporters have pointed out that Albany is the logical terminus for East-West Rail service and not Pittsfield. I have had several letters-to-the-editor printed pointing this out, and of course included it in my comments to the study last spring. The seasonal Berkshire Flyer from NYC via Rensselaer actually has funding.

          • Benjamin Turon

            Saratoga Springs sees 38,000 annual passengers with just two daily trains. Tourist, conference and college down with some industry, somewhat similar to Berkshire County. Just adding one additional Boston-Albany frequency would likely triple ridership at Pittsfield, currently 8,464 for the ‘Lake Shore Limited’. Train could leave Rensselaer in the morning, turn at Boston for a round-trip to Springfield, then return in the evening back to its base at Rensselaer. Cost would be low.

          • adirondacker12800

            The cost is not going to be low if you have to take out all the squiggles that make it slower than a bus. You have to make it faster than a bus or people will take the bus. It’s 145 miles from Albany Airport to Boston/Logan. 170 from Albany to Boston on I-90, 182 if you insist on going through Pittsfield and 200 on the schedule for the Lake Shore Limited. There a lot squiggle to be taken out.
            Saratoga Springs and Schenectady have lousy ridership numbers because it’s faster to drive to Rensselaer. Rensselaer had 800,000, Hudson had 217,000 and Schenectady had 50,000. They are driving to Rensselaer.
            Berkshire County has 137,000 people. Saratoga County has 217.000. What was the gate for the 2019 season at the track? Amtrak has been known to run “extras” during the season. I’m sure the hotel courtesy bus drivers know where the station is. Those people filling the new condos have friends and relatives in places like Boston and New York… Berkshire County is more like Washington and Warren counties with Glens Falls/Queensbury as the big town. Which is never going to have passenger train service again because there are too many squiggles on the existing tracks.

          • adirondacker12800

            The logical end point for a very high speed rail system from Boston is Chicago. Because the section from Boston to Albany lets New England use all the very high speed tracks that will be there for the New York City market. Not for the Boston-Chicago market, people will fly, but for everything in between.

    • adirondacker12800

      equal to a little bit more than Hudson NY’s annual Amtrak ridership!
      Because they can leave their car in Hudson all week and drive to their dacha in the Berkshires faster than they can get to Hartford. Some of them leave their car in Wassaic.

  2. Coridon Henshaw

    Every time I see imaginings of rest-of-the-developed-world style intercity rail in the US/Canada I wonder if it’s feasible to get respectable ridership given the lack of public transport in most North American cities. North Americans can drive to their stations, but ridership will suffer if the only thing available when riders get off their trains are carparks or buses that run once every four hours and don’t go anywhere useful.

    Locating carshare depots/car rental branches at intercity rail stations might help ridership on longer-distance (beyond comfortable driving distance–people will drive for comfortable driving distances even if there’s a train) rail trips without needing to reinvent North American land use along urban European lines.

    • Alon Levy

      If the destination is a city, the last mile isn’t that big of a deal. New York and Boston obviously have connections, but not just. Providence Station is walkable to most downtown destinations. It’s somewhat of a schlep to College Hill, but there are existing (but terrible) buses that go up the hill. New Haven Union Station is at a bad location, but does have a well-used taxi stand, and also trains from points north should all stop at State Street, which is more or less walkable to much of city center and Yale campus. Worcester is walkable to what passes for Downtown Worcester, which isn’t much; I’ve walked from there to WPI, but it’s not a pleasant walk. Stamford is not amazing but decently walkable to much of the city center development, including the mall and the hotels – the problem is auto-scale streets, not walk distance.

      Worcester and Springfield generally put their stations in central enough locations that I think they can just pulse their buses there, and IIRC Springfield kind of sort of does. There’s a lot of bus service in Pioneer Valley, it just has some hilariously bad integration between the municipal and the university buses, e.g. they’re dispatched separately so if they’re timed to connect to each other and one bus is late, the other won’t wait for it. Years ago I even crayoned a tram-train to get into Amherst, with UMass and Amherst College stops, but eh.

    • Lee Ratner

      I have the same concerns. There are few cities where there is enough of a downtown and transit to work or at least kind of work. Places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia on the East Coast or San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle on the West Coast at least kind of. There are several cities with decently sized but underused light rail networks. Many places just have some very bad transit and not enough of downtown for rail travel though. So getting off a train literally leads to nothing.

      • Alon Levy

        Yeah, Los Angeles in particular has an incredibly weak CBD, even weaker than San Diego relative to population, and that’s a problem. But it’s still a huge city with legendarily bad traffic and something approximating a subway system connecting Union Station to a number of potential destinations. There just aren’t any marginal HSR lines in and around California for the weak CBDs to matter – everything is either so strong as to overcome the weak-center malus, like LA-SF and LA-SD but also LA-Vegas and LA-Phoenix, or too weak no matter how strong the CBDs are, like Vegas-SLC or NorCal-Portland.

        • Lee Ratner

          Los Angeles CBD seemed to be reviving in a hipster sort of way and it has the bones of a decent transit system, but it still needs work.

    • Henry Miller

      For trips over a couple hours people will have plans on the other end. Whoever you are going to meet will pick you up in a lot of cases. Failing that, rental car companies already have options to drop cars off anywhere in the city (there is the problem of getting the keys, but the candy store next door only needs to check ID, the car is already on credit card and rental company pays them a buck for that).

  3. Jacob Manaker

    The Vermonter route is mountainous from Greenfield to Burlington; trains will never be competitive with driving there.

    Is this conclusion based solely on speed considerations? Yes, the tracks through New England are mountainous, but so are the roads, and it can get very snowy in the winter. Not everyone is willing to drive for hours through snow — ostensibly, this is part of why the Empire Builder gets such (relatively) high ridership given its desolate route. My impression (from the opposite side of the country, now) is that New England thirsts for passenger rail not just for speed, but as an alternative to strenuous roads.

    • PeakVT

      No high-speed or heavily-improved rail route going southeast from Burlington will ever make sense short of banning private vehicles. Density pretty much dictates this, and the terrain doesn’t help. A few snowy days of inconvenience is not a sufficient reason to throw out the economics on the other 360+ days of the year.

    • Mike

      After riding the Empire Builder, the other issue I saw is that the area it serves doesn’t have a lot of commercial airports. Flights are stupidly priced out of western North Dakota and Montana and incomes aren’t great there. With Amtrak you can more or less walk on to get somewhere for relatively low cost, even if it does take longer and you’re stuck in coach.

  4. Tom M

    A mostly totally unrelated question: There is a continual debate in Australia about building a high speed rail network, typically Sydney-Melbourne (with express and local service at regional centres) and sometimes including a Sydney-Brisbane route as well. Various Government studies get completed which typically show a very high cost (-$100 billion) and hence not worth it. My question is if you’ve ever looked at this proposal and/or have any thoughts on it?

    • Eric

      In the last post’s comments Alon wrote “Spain has some lines for around $15 million per km, but $25-30 million is more common around Europe”. Sydney-Melbourne is around 800km so the cost should be about $20-25 billion at European rates. More at Australian rates presumably.

      • Eric

        A look here suggests projected costs between $84B AUD=$56B USD and $114B=$76B USD for Melbourne-Brisbane. This is roughly in line with European costs, maybe a bit higher.

        Personally I would start with Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney, which is the higher priority corridor and (based on my glance at the terraine) likely the cheaper corridor. Once that is finished Australia can think about Sydney-Brisbane.

    • Alon Levy

      Taking cost as a black box – let’s say, US$30 million/km, so A$45 million/km – the two basic tensions are a) the Sydney-Melbourne and Sydney-Brisbane distances are both at the high end of where HSR can be competitive, but b) Australia is undergoing fast population growth so the market is going to grow in the future.

      My guess is that if you are good at cost control, you can get a financial ROI of maybe 3% out of this at current population levels. But if you assume future population growth the ROI grows, maybe to 5% – and this population growth is why 3% looks bad (cf. Japan, where 3% is very good because there are no great domestic investments). All of these numbers are guesses using an estimation method that’s better than throwing darts at a board but not by much.

        • Roger Senserrich

          Madrid-Seville is unusually cheap in no small part because it is not a pure HSR. Most of the line is limited to 250 Km/h; the short 300 Km/h is in the middle of nowhere in La Mancha flatlands. The Sierra Morena crossing has several 160/200 sections, and from Cordoba to Seville is a solid 220/250 line, sharing ROI with the old line much of the way.

          The thing is, the conventional line through Despeñaperros was so utterly terrible that even a sorta-HSR cut travel times by 2/3s.

      • df1982

        Australia has one of the fastest population growth rates in the developed world, and most of it is concentrated on Melbourne and Sydney, so the ROI would probably be closer to your latter scenario. The problem is precisely in containing costs: Melbourne and Sydney both have major Crossrail-style underground lines through their CBDs presently under construction, with costs on each ballooning to around the $1billion per km mark. In general it follows Anglo-Saxon trends in this area (exacerbated by booming property markets in the capitals).

        That said if a solution can be found for the urban approaches (existing lines are generally running close to capacity with local trains), then the terrain for the Sydney-Melbourne corridor is mostly benign and would require a low proportion of tunnelling, so it should be able to be done for the lower end of the spectrum in global HSR comparisons.

        Maybe a Madrid-Seville solution would indeed be best: 250km/h tilt trains could do the line in 4h non-stop (at the upper limit of where HSR is competitive with flying), and a large section of an existing rail corridor (between Junee, NSW and Seymour, VIC) is mostly straight enough to be repurposed for a higher-speed alignment with only a moderate amount of straightening..

        • Alon Levy

          It’s 800 km, and in theory you can average 200 km/h with a maximum speed of 250 but in practice not really (Berlin-Hamburg averages 190 with a maximum speed of 230), and if you build the track to lower standard then you’re locked to it as the cities grow. Do it right from the start and aim for a top speed of 350 and an average speed of 280, perfectly achievable on such a long stretch with just one intermediate stop.

          • df1982

            As a general question: apart from curvature, what are the differences in track standard between 250km/h and 350km/h? And what is the price differential between the two, all else being equal? How about operational costs?

            Canberra is the only city of note between Sydney and Melbourne, and that would almost certainly be on a branch (because it’s nestled within a massive mountain range which it’s best that the main line avoids). All other towns are sub-100k in population. They should have stations, but the majority of services would simply run express between the endpoints, perhaps also with suburban parkway stations on the urban fringe. So I imagine you could get an average speed that is close-ish to the line’s maximum speed, particularly if it’s all new track. A lot of the Berlin-Hamburg line is upgraded legacy track, right?

          • Matthew Hutton

            The Tokaido Shinkansen is almost entirely on a massive mountain range and it was built for $25 million a track kilometre (albeit a while ago).

          • Mikel

            As a general question: apart from curvature, what are the differences in track standard between 250km/h and 350km/h? And what is the price differential between the two, all else being equal? How about operational costs?

            The higher the speed, you also need narrower tolerance in track geometry to limit jerk. But this should not be a big problem in Australia, because the climate along the Sydney-Melbourne route is comparable to that of the TGV or AVE, and much milder than the Saudi or Russian HSLs.

            Another problem is that at v > 300 km/h aerodynamic forces lift the ballast from the ground, causing damage to the trains’ underside in the long term. Japan avoids this problem because IIRC it mostly uses slab track, whereas Spain is testing custom-shaped ties to allow Madrid-Barcelona to run at the 350 km/h design speed. No idea how China does it, though.

            They should have stations, but the majority of services would simply run express between the endpoints, perhaps also with suburban parkway stations on the urban fringe.

            Yep, Sydney-Melbourne feels like the distance where the competitiveness of rail against planes starts falling off, so the trains should try to run as fast as possible. The cities definitely have enough population to fill at least one nonstop train every hour…

        • michaelrjames

          Maybe a Madrid-Seville solution would indeed be best: 250km/h tilt trains could do the line in 4h non-stop (at the upper limit of where HSR is competitive with flying

          This is the exact opposite of what needs to be done, as I believe Alon is saying. Precisely because of the distances in Australia, if we eventually choose to build HSR between the 4 east-coast capitals, it will need to have the capacity of the fastest HSR in the world. We already have slow trains and making them somewhat faster will achieve precisely nothing except wasting a lot of money. This doesn’t mean all trains need to travel at the somewhat uneconomic highest speed (≈350km/h) but some will have to or forget getting people out of those planes. There needs to be some express trains, eg. Melbourne-Sydney that don’t stop in Canberra or the perhaps half-dozen other towns to be served (yes French-style, with a station maybe not so many trains!). For these reasons all stations need to be thru-running, including Canberra (the current plan, such as it is, has a gigantic wye way north of Canberra which is beyond stupid).

          Plus, the cost differential between those speeds is being penny-wise pound-foolish, which I think is also what Alon is saying. But that would be more typical of the Australian way!

          However the first thing that needs to be done, is for the Feds to create a dedicated department and staff it with competent people who are on long contracts with no-compete clauses (ie. so they can’t take their newfound insiders knowledge to go work for the big contractors to screw the government on building the thing, ie. SOP in the Anglosphere). For the same reason, any ex-Brits should be sent packing, or interned on Christmas Island because their culture is worse than any coronavirus. Just like with CaHSR, the French (Alstom before it was even named that?) proposed building this for a few billion back in 1984 …. because of some ridiculous argument over ROIs. Does anyone even need to think about the opportunity cost of that dumb decision?

          • Eric

            “the current plan, such as it is, has a gigantic wye way north of Canberra which is beyond stupid”

            Sounds like you’ve never looked at a topographic map of Australia, otherwise you would notice the big mountains to the west of Canberra which make a direct route with a Canberra stop beyond unaffordable.

          • michaelrjames

            You mean like the approx. 300km of tunnel thru the mountains of Japan for the Chūō Shinkansen? Includes 100km of deep tunnel in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

            See, a few hills and utter defeatism …. no wonder we Anglosphereans don’t build anything challenging anymore.

          • Eric

            Chuo Shinkansen – $79 billion for 438km track. About $180M/km
            Australian HSR with wye – ~$65 billion for ~1600km track. About ~40M/km

            You’re free to live in your fantasies where the cost of major projects can be quadrupled at will and the money will magically appear from somewhere. The rest of us live in the real world.

          • michaelrjames

            fantasies where the cost of major projects can be quadrupled at will and the money will magically appear from somewhere

            Nightmares, not fantasies. And they aren’t quadrupled “at will” but, in the Anglosphere, as a matter of course, without reasons given and for no apparent improvement. As I pointed out earlier, Sydney’s SW-Metro just increased $4bn in cost. The very issue in the Anglosphere is we never know what we will pay and the estimated costs are so unreliable that they have long been suppressing politicians or voters willing to commit to any infrastructure. I wonder if you were one who supported those plans for east-coast HSR all those decades ago? On the basis of some completely nebulous bit of cost-benefit accountancy.

            And my main problem is the way we run such projects, and the preliminary study of HSR by AECOM was typical in seemingly designed to kill it. The cost is $114bn but no one can have any confidence. Of course I want to see a proper study by companies who have actually built HSR (so that means, horror, going outside the Anglosphere–of course AECOM ‘consulted’ with Alstom etc but ….). But of course this preliminary study is the kind of thing that is still done ‘in-house’ by nations serious about transit.

            http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/27/high-speed-east-coast-rail-link-could-cost-half-previous-estimate
            High-speed east coast rail link ‘could cost half previous estimate’ Australasian Railway Association releases comparison of international construction costs – and says project should be put on global market
            Australian Associated Press,
            Monday 27 October 2014

            Also, if we’re going to make estimates based on extravagant cases, on these pages I once suggested–only partly in jest–that if we could get the Swiss to build it like their Gotthard Base Tunnel, we could tunnel all the way from Sydney to Canberra for $19.3bn. And that is the deepest tunnel ever built, ie. with a mountain above it the likes of which simply don’t exist in Australia, least of all those low hills west of Canberra.

          • Eric

            So now it’s just “add $19.3B to the construction cost for almost no benefit”.

            As for the rest of your comment: while we all want to decrease unnecessarily high construction costs, you offer no concrete suggestions for how to get there.

          • michaelrjames

            Calm down Eric.
            I suppose blogs are no place for subtlety or nuance. The remark about building a Swiss tunnel all the way from Sydney to Canberra (280km) was to show, ludicrously but not actually completely silly, that it would cost less than the ridiculously expensive suggestions by AECOM (which does actually involve 64km of extremely expensive tunnel in Sydney; by itself almost certainly more expensive than the 150km of double-width super-deep tunnel of the Gotthard Base Tunnel).

            As to concrete suggestions on how to reduce costs, I could not have been more explicit. I have been saying it on this blog well before Alon himself got on board with the concept: in the Anglosphere it is the decimation of capabilities within our own governments that lies at the heart of the out-of-control nature of infrastructure builds. And yes, it will take a generation to reverse (40 years since it began in 1979/80) but we will get nowhere until we realise it. If you don’t agree with that then we are truly at a communications impasse.

      • Eric

        What about the cost savings of not having to build road/air infrastructure as an alterative means of meeting the travel demand? Sydney airport is at capacity, and over 40% of its passengers are flying to Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, or Gold Coast. HSR could replace massive investment in another airport.

        • Tom M

          The construction of a new airport in the Sydney basin (called Sydney West for now) has already started with an estimated cost of A$2.4bn for one runway with an estimated opening in 2025. The relatively low cost (A$2.4bn) for a new airport vs Sydney-Melbourne HSR (800km x A$45m/km gives A$30bn to A$40bn) I think will always be a major hindrance to Sydney-Melbourne or Sydney-Brisbane HSR. HSR between those two places may save sometime vs. flying but will require a 350+km/hr capable line to be competitive (as outlined by others above), and if the argument is on reducing carbon emissions, then currently there are plenty of far better and impactful ways for Australia to spend its money to reduce its emissions e.g. replace its coal-fired electricity base with renewables plus storage, stop land clearing in Queensland. I think a Canberra-Sydney-Newcastle HSR is a far more viable proposition (major time-saving plus reducing road travel injury and fatalities) on the other hand.

          • Eric

            Well, that’s $2.4B for one runway, then a lot more for the access road, then a lot more for the access railway, then a lot more for the terminal expansion now needed as traffic grows, then a lot more for the second runway. Pretty soon you are up to the cost of HSR, you just paid for it in bits and pieces, and also in the form of a large piece of valuable land being unavailable forever, and loud planes overflying a much larger area.

        • Alon Levy

          That’s not a saving, that’s a positive externality of economic development. New capacity doesn’t have to be built – evidently the city functions today without it. It’s a nice-to-have for future development, and depending on costs and benefits, options include HSR, new airport capacity, or no build.

          • Eric

            I expect you’re worried that Sydney-Melbourne flights will just be replaced by longer international flights and carbon emissions will rise, and so better not to build HSR at all, and instead to make flights super-expensive to discourage travel demand.

            But this is a complete political non-starter, as shown by the fact that rather than restricting air travel, they’re just building another airport.

          • michaelrjames

            evidently the city functions today without it

            Everyone (residents, air passengers, airlines, governments) have been screaming about it for about three decades which is how long there have been various plans for a second Sydney airport. Just like HSR in the 80s we are afflicted with British disease and we never build major infrastructure when it would be timely, cheaper and vastly easier. Indeed we often sell off government-owned rights-of-way just to make it more difficult for us in the future.

            The real solution was probably to have built a new total-replacement airport on the other side of Botany Bay at Kurnell where there are oil terminals etc. but that would have been very uncharacteristically unAustralian. It would have been a gigantic project but easier than how Hong Kong built their new airport (and for the same reason: Sydney Kingsford-Smith is only 8km from Circular Quay, an incredibly constrained site for which the $20bn WestConnex road tunnels are being built to “solve”). Instead, at least they reserved land about 50km west but now they are going to try the “two airports” system which has generally been a lot less than optimal wherever tried. Sydney West should be the sole airport in Sydney and KSA should be closed down. None of the airlines want to run dual services out of two airports in the same city–just like they don’t anywhere in the world if given a choice (eg. Gatwick today runs zero American airlines as they quickly migrated back to Heathrow despite official fantasies of a neatly divided market between the London airports; needless to say the Brits to this day have never resolved the Heathrow dilemma and are about to spend $30bn on another expansion!).

            Of course this would necessitate better city transit, but that is seen as a liability and not the opportunity that it is; and typically the current lot are hesitating on building the train right to this new airport with many arguing they should wait until there is the pax to justify it (and when it will doubtless cost $20bn and they will spend as much on doubling the roads servicing the airport etc). Etc. etc. Various governments (local western Sydney councils, state & fed) have realised what a boon an aerotropolis in Western Sydney could be … but I reckon it is at considerable jeopardy with KSA still operating. I can’t imagine airlines wanting to split international operations from there, except maybe a bogan-bus to Bali (which actually is operated like a domestic flight anyway). The notions that it could be the freight airport ignores the huge role of freight on passenger jets these days; again the airlines won’t want to deal with two separate logistic operations in the same city.

            Oh, and it would pay for itself because the 14km2 of the KSA site–remember right next door to the CBD–is crown land and could be the most fantastic urban regeneration site in the world, with land and bayside living for 250,000 people in a Sydney absolutely knackered with housing shortage and affordability issues.

            But we don’t do that kind of thinking in the Anglosphere.

          • adirondacker12800

            250,000 people buying a closed airport and financing a new airport at 25 billion have to come up with 100,000 per capita, not per household, to do that. Then find the money to tear down the old airport. Before they start building.
            The biggest fish in a small pond looks enormous. Gatwick is busier than Sydney. And in very round numbers only a quarter as busy as Atlanta a metro area of the same size. That has something to do with 300 million people having the opportunity to change planes in Atlanta. On domestic flights.

          • michaelrjames

            That is some funky economics, adirondacker. You obviously haven’t looked at house (and apartment) prices in Sydney, even those far flung exurbs of Western Sydney let alone anything within spitting distance of the centre! $100k won’t buy you an outside dunny (hasn’t for about two decades). Just today, in the main Murdoch rag there is a study of this by a demographer who draws a “Millennial Wall” about 12km west of Circular Quay (the ferry terminal in the CBD next to the Opera House), east of which he says Millennials will never be able to afford to live.

            Building a new city-by-the-bay would be self-financing, though it has the considerable advantage of being owned by the feds (state governments are notoriously under the control of the property developers) who could actually insist on affordability (which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t bring in tens of billions in revenue). Ask yourself what San Francisco would do if it had 14km2 of “free” land; in fact of course SF built SFO about 25km south on reclaimed bay as an exclave of the city. Or Hong Kong with the (smaller) Kai Tak site on its fragrant harbour.

            As to Gatwick, we’ve had this discussion before. Of course it is big (for a single runway) because it serves the second biggest city in Europe and the south-coast as well as London etc. In fact it is the LCC airport for Brits going (mostly) to Europe and the near-east. Logically it should have replaced Heathrow, having land, relative isolation (in as much as anything in SE England is …) and good transport links (less than 30m by train to London). The land Heathrow sits on must be worth $200bn or maybe the big 12 zeroes, even with a bit of parkland thrown in. Not inconsequentially ridding most of London (and Wimbledon tennis) of air traffic noise and pollution. Any sensible government would have done it 60 years ago (when Paris did) when everyone knew exactly what was going to happen ….

      • Tom M

        Using the model outlined by @Alon in his next post, for a Geelong-Melbourne-Albury-Canberra-Sydney-Newcastle 980km network, I get annual passenger-km of 2.5 billion, generating an annual operating profit (revenue less operating cost) of US$163 million. Assuming US$ track cost of 30 million per km, generates a return of 0.6%. Assuming all populations are 50% higher only increases the return to 1.1%. I get a return of ~3% assuming Sydney and Melbourne populations are doubled (so 10 million each) and the the non-Sydney and Melbourne cities have populations of two million each. So Sydney-Melbourne HSR is a challenge until the population corridor basically trebles (corridor population today is ~12 million vs. ~36 million for the 3% scenario). A Canberrra-Sydney-Newcastle network also struggles unless population is dramatically higher.

        • michaelrjames

          So Sydney-Melbourne HSR is a challenge until the population corridor basically trebles (corridor population today is ~12 million vs. ~36 million for the 3% scenario).

          Yes, of course. Paris-Lyon should never have been built.
          Today’s population of Geelong-Melbourne-Albury-Canberra-Sydney-Newcastle already approaches that of Paris + Lyon, and at current growth rates will greatly exceed it soon enough.

          Also, you seem to assume only a 23% share of the current (latest data 2017, link below) 11.05m Sydney-Melbourne & Canberra air market, whereas in most HSR linked cities it is closer to 70% if not higher.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_busiest_air_routes_in_Australia_by_passenger_traffic

          • Tom M

            Not sure where you got the 23% from as I didn’t provide a trip figure in my earlier comment. Total annual passenger trips (just number of trips, not passenger-kms which was in my earlier comment) from the model is 5.3 million which is ~50% of that air market. Total passenger trips need to go up by a factor of 5 to 6 times to reach a ~3% return. Hitting a 70% or greater share of the air market isn’t going to do anything meaningful in terms of economic returns.

            Not sure that the Paris-Lyon example is an applicable case study. The route is half the length (at 425km), and when originally built was connected into an already existing passenger rail network providing further feeder traffic. I certainly would love to see a HSR network on the east cost of Australia, however wether the analysis is exceedingly simple (as in this case) or complex (any number of government funded studies) they all seem to point to the same problem of too little population over too great of a distance leading to the conclusion that infrastructure and/or emission reduction spending is far better off being spent elsewhere to provide better bang fo the buck.

          • michaelrjames

            Way to miss the point.
            Read again what you wrote/endorsed: not possible until population catchment is >36 million!
            The thing is I fundamentally object to this kind of econometric nonsense. If you really believed in threshold ROIs being the be-all and end-all in what gets built then you would build almost nothing. And guess what, that more or less describes the Anglosphere these past 40 years of neoliberalism. (The UK only has the tunnel and Eurostar because of the French, they had to wait for Maggie to go gaga before building HS1, and are taking 25 years and maybe $150bn to build a few hundred km of HSR only a bit longer than what France completed 40 years ago.)
            Further, these complicated pseudo-mathematical models are very sensitive to assumptions and inputs. Are you really saying you would rely 100% on what such a model told you to build something or not?
            Apparently, yes.

            BTW, yours is exactly the mindset that causes the explosion in costs, and ends with paralysis. Earlier in the new millennium it was thought the Melb-Canb-Syd 935km HSR could cost about A$15B if it could be built at the then average cost/km of French TGV. It suddenly jumped to at least $60bn. As I recall, the original offer to build it in the mid-80s for a few billion by the French, was killed for exactly the same reason: ROI couldn’t justify it being privately financed! Doh, like every HSR in the world was privately financed …
            But anyway, of course in Australia many things suffer from being such a huge geographical entity with few people. What was the ROI on building roads to Woop Woop, not to mention telecoms?
            In the 60s you would have agreed with the incoming conservative state government and stopped building the Sydney Opera House, because I am sure it had a severely negative ROI. On the same basis you wouldn’t build any public hospitals … oh, wait … you’d privatise them (or effectively by stealth such as the UK’s PFI that generates a generous ROI …. for investors, not so much for the patients but hey, the ROI can’t be wrong can it?). What do you suppose the ROI is on the $200bn (lifetime costs) of the new submarines or the $80bn (lifetime costs) of the 72 F-35s we have committed to? And those things don’t last a fraction of the life of a railway.

            Incidentally, the awkwardly large distances between our major cities is my argument for maglev. But I suppose it’s ROI would be even worse …

  5. Henry Miller

    Is that 4 billion for 4.8km really reasonable, or just reasonable for the US. Could Spain do the same tunnels for $500 million, or is there something that means it has to be that high.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s 4 tracks and it’s regional rail under city center, so it’s really $400 million per double-track-km – cf. Citybanan for ~$300 million/km in today’s money. If stations have to be mined, which they don’t, then it gets more expensive; Citybanan mines two stations over 6 km, whereas this would mine three stations in 5 km.

  6. Car(e)-Free LA

    What is the value of having true HSR up the Connecticut Valley and along the coast through Rhode Island? Routing 330km/h HSR from New York through New Haven, Hartford, and Worcester serves basically every population center of interest in New England except Providence and Springfield, each of which can be accessed by a quick transfer to electrified conventional rail at New Haven for Providence or Hartford for Springfield. It just doesn’t seem worthwhile to me to spend billions more to essentially just bring HSR to New London and Providence.

    • Alon Levy

      Providence is a bigger city than Hartford. And a slog on legacy track from New Haven to Providence is really not a quick transfer.

      • adirondacker12800

        It doesn’t connect New England to Albany and beyond or Albany and beyond to New England. Compared to other places in the U.S. there’s a lot of beyond past Albany.

      • Car(e)-Free LA

        Providence has (generously) 1.6 million people. Assuming your Worcester-Providence regional line is built, then Providence-New York trips would take about 2:15 with a transfer at Worcester. This compares to about 1:15 with a high speed line along the coast and 4:00 today. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it to spend at least $6 billion to cut an hour off a trip from Providence to New York, and even without the coast line, high speed rail would still take the lion’s share of RI-NY traffic.

        • adirondacker12800

          The fastest Acela makes it 3:04 now and ignoring the dead of night train that moseys along at a stately pace the slowest Regional does it in 3:39. Building railroad on the flattish part of Connecticut, near the coast but not on it like the current tracks. between Providence and New Haven, will cost a lot less than tunnels and viaducts across the hills and valleys between Worcester and Hartford.

        • Alon Levy

          Why is it $6 billion? New Haven-Kingston is 120 km in flat terrain and only two problem viaducts (over the Quinnipiac and Niantic), so $2.5-3 billion. And Hartford-Sturbridge is 70 km and maybe $2 billion – and that’s without getting into real capacity problems on the Worcester Line that make more than 4 tph expensive to provide. So, for the same 4 tph service, you’re spending $1 billion to get NY-Providence, a route that’s around 8 minutes shorter on NY-Boston, and cheaper upfront cost because New Haven-Hartford and Sturbridge-Newton are together a lot more than $1 billion, at the cost of making Boston-Hartford take 12 minutes longer.

          You could of course make the mainline detour through Springfield and cut off the $3 billion on the I-95 route entirely, but then you’re making NY-Boston slower by 20 minutes, forgoing the 12-minute gain on Boston-Hartford, and spending even more money upfront.

          • Car(e)-Free LA

            Because you wouldn’t have to build the second approach into Boston. So you cut $3 billion from New Haven-Kingston (let’s be real, it’s the USA so it’ll be $5 billion) and another $2 billion getting into Boston. With this $7 billion saved, you take another $1 billion to bypass the Worcester Line and it’s $6 billion saved. The key is to route directly from Hartford to Worcester and bypass Springfield. That way, New Haven-Boston is 215 km vs 240 km along the coast, and by going inland, maintaining 330 km/h the whole way should be possible. Local trains can branch off the HSR mainline at Hartford up to Springfield. All in all, the system would look like this: https://i.postimg.cc/TY9ZQrxd/New-England.png

            All in all, this should cut NY-Boston by 15 minutes, cut Hartford-Boston by 30 minutes, lengthen NY-Springfield by 10 minutes, and lengthen NY-Providence by 40 minutes. With the cost savings and shorter trip on NY-Boston, it seems worthwhile to me. Obviously, this assumes Boston-Albany and New Haven-Hartford-Springfield would otherwise be built, but that seems obvious to me.

          • Alon Levy

            The actual cost of getting into Boston via the Providence Line is zero, because the approach already exists. You need to do some minor spending (high single-digit millions) on rebuilding the South Station throat to avoid 10 mph slowdowns, but that is both cheap and useful for regional trains as well. If you mean the four-track overtake needed around Route 128-Readville, then that is a few km of four-tracking, so figure double-digit millions – and this isn’t just a European cost, it’s in line with the cost of a current double-tracking project on the Franklin Line. It’s nothing like the Worcester Line and the world of pain that is the Newton trench, or the world of pain that is the route you’ve drawn, which I think requires some light tunneling between Hartford and Shin-Worcester.

            Nor can you maintain 330 km/h in Connecticut on the Hartford line. Look at it on Google Earth: it’s hemmed by extensive suburban development. There’s a reason I’m only promising ~160 km/h average speeds between New Haven and Springfield even on a high-speed line.

          • Jim Shilliday

            The other problem with New Haven – Hartford – Worcester – Boston is that tiny Rhode Island still has two US senators. Good luck adding 40 minutes to NY-Providence.

          • Car(e)-Free LA

            Getting from New Haven-Hartford-Worcester at 330 km/h isn’t as hard as you think it is. It would require 15 km of tunneling (on top of what is already needed from Worcester-Springfield), but it would allow New Haven-Hartford in 0:16, and Hartford-Worcester in 0:24. Good luck getting from New Haven-Providence in 0:40. Except for the approach into New Haven and the segment from New Britain-Hartford, this could all be done at top speed. Segment maps are below:
            New Haven-New Britain: https://i.postimg.cc/SxFTCdj1/New-Haven-New-Britain.png
            New Britain-Stafford: https://i.postimg.cc/DzcM2Gvj/New-Britain-Stafford.png
            Springfield-Stafford: https://i.postimg.cc/W33XTffz/Springfield-Stafford.png

          • Alon Levy

            15 km of tunneling, at normal first-world costs, is maybe $2 billion. So much for doing it cheaply. And New Haven-Providence via I-95 + the legacy line in RI has no speed restrictions whatsoever from the Quinnipiac bridge to East Greenwich, so yeah, it can be done in around 36 minutes without pad (38.5 with).

          • adirondacker12800

            If you are going to eventually build an extensive high speed system, one approach to Boston doesn’t have enough capacity.

          • adirondacker12800

            The tunnel between New Haven and Hartford would be very expensive because you aren’t tearing down that much Connecticut suburb without a decades long fight. They’ve been at this since somebody suggested widening Boston Post Road 100 years ago.

  7. adirondacker12800

    45 minutes between New Haven and Springfield is not high speed. They managed to get the all stops train back to what they had been and the trains that skip a few stops down to 75. Straighten a few curves, electrify and put in full level boarding 45 for trains that only stop in Hartford might be possible. It’s not high speed. It implies 15 between Springfield and Hartford and 30 between Hartford and New Haven which is good enough but it’s not high speed.

    • Alon Levy

      I wrote “times include turnarounds” for a reason. This is not supposed to be 45 minutes on a moving train – more like 36 minutes on a moving train and then (45-36)*2 = 18 minutes of turnaround at Springfield. The outer limit of upgraded legacy track on this line is probably 50-ish, which would look like an hour on the map (where, again, times include turnarounds) and mess up the bus transfers at either Springfield or Hartford.

      • adirondacker12800

        There are a nasty curve or two out in the middle of nowhere. 36 minutes isn’t high speed either.

        • Alon Levy

          36 minutes over that distance is 165 km/h, which is faster than nearly any ICE line in Germany and almost as fast as the Hikari.

          • adirondacker12800

            I’m assuming it’s only going to stop in Hartford. And the 36 minutes is between Union Station New Haven and Union Station Springfield. Stop at State Street too, the kinda thing intraregional trains do, it drops below 160kph. And then I want to know if you are using the distance on Wikipedia for the Hartford line or the distances in the Amtrak Schedule. They don’t agree. If we have to quibble over a station stop or whether or not it’s 62 miles or 63 miles to get it over the magic 100 mph it’s not high speed. And railroads unless they do something spectacular like the DL&W did with the Cutoff in between Dover and the Water Gap or the one between Scranton and Binghamton, don’t adjust their distances if it’s a small amount. It could be 63.56. The mileposts by the side of the highway lie too.

  8. Jim Shilliday

    “Portland is more speculative, but electric trains could connect it with Boston in around an hour and a half to two hours. These trains would be making suburban stops north of Boston that an intercity train shouldn’t normally make, but it’s fine….”

    “Speculative” seems generous. Are your proposals meant to be recommendations or more along the lines of “If one did it, here’s how it should be done”? I ask because I can’t imagine how a Boston-Portland service at half-hour intervals and taking 90-120 minutes would work economically. Amtrak runs a state-subsidized train from North Station on a three-hour schedule, taking 2 ½ hours and costing $60. But you can take an express bus every hour between Portland and Logan Airport ($20), or between Portland and South Station ($24). The nonstop trips usually take 115 minutes (just long enough for the movie), and they’re timed to meet continuing service to/from Augusta/Bangor. There’s always space because they just add another bus as needed (which suggests that if there were enough demand to justify half-hourly service, they’d provide it). By the time you could improve and electrify the track for 90-minute train service, the buses will be electric and possibly driverless. With these buses available, no one connecting at Logan or with the NEC will ever take a train, even a fast one, to/from North Station. But Amtrak does have onboard lobster rolls and delivers lots of elderly tourists to the Freeport malls just north of Portland…. What am I missing?

    • Alon Levy

      First of all, all the times I’m giving bake in turnaround time; Boston-Portland is more like 1:45 slotted into a 2-hour turnaround.

      Second, trains over that distance should cost more like $30. Amtrak has really high operating costs.

      Third, electric trains are a mature technology (and electrification done right takes 6-8 years decision to completion); electric buses over that distance aren’t, and neither is driverless anything.

      And fourth, the buses today are not timed with trains to onward destinations, like New York.

      • adirondacker12800

        Why would it turn around? Why wouldn’t it become the Kodama to Grand Central via Hartford every other train and the Kodama to Penn Station via New London and Stamford every other train? Or run ’em all to Penn Station where they become Kodama to Pennsylvania destinations?

        • Alon Levy

          Yeah, it becomes the Kodama to Penn Station, but at the Springfield end, it turns, with a timed connection to Boston rather than a direct train.

          • adirondacker12800

            I’m confused. How is it getting from Portland to Springfield so it can turn around and go to New York? Wouldn’t it turn around and go back to Boston and Portland? Why are people changing from very similar trains when the trains can just…………….run through?…

          • SB

            @ adirondacker12800
            Reread the section The issue of NSRL
            Mr. Levy wrote his reason why Portland-Boston section is not through-running to Northeast Corridor and Portland-Boston section is more extension of commuter service.

          • adirondacker12800

            If it’s a commuter train there’s no reason why it can’t run through to Springfield. Like the Train-to-the-game trains from New Haven magically turn into a train to Trenton in Penn Station New York. People in Maine want to get to Boston, Boston or Boston but a few of them do want to get to Framingham, Worcester and Springfield. Or Route 128 or Providence.
            RIght now there are two and half classes of service on the NEC. Regionals that make a lot of stops, Regionals that make more stops than Acela and Acela. The short train that goes between Portland and Boston can turn into the short train that serves Worcester, Springfield, Bridgeport, Stamford and New Rochelle before going to Grand Central. With better seats, wider seat spacing and maybe even food service.
            …and all this talk about 110 mph grade crossings. Except for some NJTransit trains that toy with going faster than 100, commuter trains peak out at 90.

      • Jim Shilliday

        Thanks. I’m curious — when you estimate costs for the kind of improvements you suggest here (getting Boston-Portland down to 1:45), do you assume the removal of all level crossings, or is updated protection acceptable? There are close to 40 of them between Portland and the Massachusetts border.

        • Alon Levy

          Updated protection. Quad gates are around $500,000 per crossing if I remember right and are good up to 110 mph per FRA regulations (and this is fine by European standards, this isn’t some American weirdness).

          What I didn’t realize when I wrote my previous reply, and realized after working this out, is that like the other NEC tie-ins (like New Haven-Springfield, Philly-Harrisburg, and extensions down to Virginia), Boston-Portland with an NSRL connection, even with a transfer at South Station, is incredibly valuable.

          The key is that with the transfer you get NY-Portland down to around 3:30, so you’re getting a hefty volume of travelers paying NY-Portland fares for construction that only takes place north of Boston. It gets to something like a 9% financial ROI – and I emphasize “something like,” making assumptions that are reasonable but not that robust to small changes in operating costs, fares, or my ridership model. The Downeaster is weak now, because the trains are kind of slow and expensive, and the trains from Boston to New York are kind of slow and expensive, and there’s no NSRL, but in the presence of NEC HSR + NSRL, the ROI on Boston-Portland upgrades skyrockets.

          The flip side is that stuff on the map that isn’t an NEC tie-in doesn’t have a 9% ROI, because it has to stand on its own. I think NY-Buffalo is around 4%, and Boston-Albany is also around 4% if NY-Buffalo already exists (and is much weaker if it doesn’t), both without Toronto. (In the presence of NY-Buffalo, Buffalo-Toronto’s ROI skyrockets – it’s 170 km of construction for 850 km of fare revenue, same principle as NEC extensions.)

          • adirondacker12800

            Boston-Albany is Boston-Montreal too, piggybacking on the tracks for Montreal-NY and Montreal-Philadelphia.
            Google’s road distances for Boston-Montreal are 307 miles or 494 kilometers. It would be mostly new build so it would get higher than average speeds. 2:00 ish. The study Vermont commissioned concluded there isn’t enough demand to be burrowing through mountains and vaulting valleys. Via Albany it’s 391/629. Or 2:30-ish. Meh, that’s faster than flying and the tracks etc. are “free” because they are there for other markets.
            Doing customs and immigration on the ground at the airport eats up an hour. Get the Real Americans(tm) to stop clutching their pearls over immigrants and borders, do customs and immigration while in motion between Saratoga Springs and Montreal it’s Montreal-Washington.

  9. Nilo

    What are you thoughts on what the local transit networks in the smaller cities like Bridgeport and Hartford should look like? Just bus, or is trolleybus/tram appropriate? Ignore Connecticut’s inability to build anything for anything approaching reasonable for this exercise.

    • Alon Levy

      Not sure about Bridgeport, but in Hartford a half-hourly bus pulse at the train station would be valuable. Springfield, same thing. Providence and New Haven could do the same but for the fact that their intercity train stations are at shit locations. Providence should look into a tram on the R route and New Haven on the Farmingdon Canal route paralleling D-Dixwell, but both projects are infeasible unless they have very good cost control.

      • Nilo

        If I understand correct New Haven-State Street is a lot better located than Union Station. Why not pulse the buses to state street to meet the southbound trains, and those trains can then time transfer with the Hartford trains at Union. People going north have to wait ten extra minutes, but that’s not a huge penalty on an intercity journey to Boston or Providence.

        • Alon Levy

          Even State/Chapel isn’t the best place for a bus pulse; the New Haven Green is. At least the J-Whitney hits Union Station, albeit without any kind of timing with trains because a) CT Transit doesn’t care and b) Metro-North doesn’t care.

          • df1982

            State Street is severely limited in the number of trains per hour that can stop at it, and has no facilities for passengers. The bulk of services will continue to stop at Union only, including all Amtrak trains. Probably the best solution is a bus shuttle connecting the station and the green. Which is already there, but it only comes every 20min (and not at all on weekends) and takes a roundabout route between the two locations. Frequency really needs to be every 5min on a direct route to be functional. Such a shuttle could be the basis of a BRT line in New Haven, continuing onto Science Hill, which would serve rail commuters, downtown NH workers and Yale students and staff (if the latter can be drawn away from the Yale shuttle, which is even more dysfunctional than the city buses).

          • Alon Levy

            State Street has platforms. What kind of facilities do you think train stations need?

            And no, a shuttle will never be the basis of BRT and cities in the US need to stop wasting money on such concepts; if New Haven wants something to invest in, the D-Dixwell is right there and even has a rail ROW paralleling it.

          • fjod

            As far as I can tell, State Street could fairly easily add a fourth platform to the northwest, and with 4 platforms on a mixed railway you’re looking at well over ten trains per hour passing through in each direction, which seems to be perfectly adequate for the short term, even with possible frequency expansion. With the kind of rebuild that would be required for HSR anyway, you would be able to fit 6 platforms in, and all kinds of facilities can be provided (assumedly retail, toilets, onward travel provision etc. is what you mean by this). You probably wouldn’t want to terminate trains at such a station, but you already have Union Station for that.

          • adirondacker12800

            Why would a long distance train be stopping at Union Station New Haven and then a few hundred yards/meters away at State Street?

          • df1982

            For the main station in a city with New Haven’s climate: at the very least seating in a heated, sheltered location. And then retail, toilets, drop-off and pick-up facilities, etc. (re-opening the waiting hall at Union station led to a marked uptick in ridership precisely because for this reason). You could build all this along with extra platforms and turnback facilities at State St, but you’d be duplicating facilities less than half a mile away at great expense. Hence why a high-frequency bus connection to Union is probably a better option.

            This is what I meant by shuttle, not the dinky circulators that predominate in American cities. If you continued a high-frequency bus route from Union station to the green and then north along Whitney Ave, you have the activity density that would provide enough potential ridership for a BRT route, particularly if you scoop up the Yale ridership presently riding the sub-standard campus shuttle (of course you’d have to overcome the racism of most Yale staff and students, for whom sharing a bus with local black residents is an unthinkable horror). Dixwell to Grand is the other main candidate for this kind of route, although that would mainly be attracting existing riders. New Haven has the conditions for bus routes that could be run every 5-10min throughout the day, rather than every 20-30min as is the case now.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Building some indoor seating with heating would cost like $1 million dollars? Who cares if it’s duplicated spending?

          • adirondacker12800

            State Street Station opened in 2002. It likely has things like heat and indoor seating. And toilets and elevators to comply with ADA requirements. Great American Stations says it cost 17 million to add a side platform for SLE service, you want to convert that to an island platform so people who think walking or buses are icky, are you an eccentric billionaire who wants to fund it?

          • df1982

            No it doesn’t. It is extremely threadbare, partly because it’s built in a constrained site (that part of track is in a cutting). Prior to the added platform it was a single island platform about two carriages long, with a bit of bench seating. Suitable for commuters to New Haven walking to and from downtown, but that’s about it. Union is “downwind” from the city centre for New York-bound traffic (the vast majority) and would serve the area’s needs well if it had improved transit connections (and a more hospitable immediate environment, but there are long-term plans for that).

          • fjod

            This is $20m for a new platform in a plan that involves tens of billions of dollars’ worth of high-speed rail. I think within these parameters that’s an affordable expense.

            Though it’s technically possible to do so, I don’t know whether prioritising State Street over Union is necessarily the best option for passengers however. I haven’t done a cost-benefit analysis or analysed the mix of people travelling to either location (e.g. if most people are arriving at New Haven’s stations by car, maybe Union is better-located). But it is technically possible to expand State Street such that it no longer has ‘severe limits’ on the number or type of trains stopping there (if it even has those now).

            I’m no engineering expert, but eyeballing it, it looks like you’d have to rebuild State Street anyway (or at least radically modify the approaches) if you’re routing HSR down that alignment.

  10. SB

    So what exactly should be built first?
    Build everything at once might be the ideal answer but reality isn’t ideal.
    I think problem of crayoning in general is that it doesn’t show which lines has the highest priority and should be built first.

    • Joshua Cranmer

      My gut reactions:

      1) Spot NEC improvements that don’t require ROW adjustment. This is probably mostly in MA/RI.
      2) New London-Kingston new alignment. I think these curves are worse than the curves between New Haven and New London, and New London seems to be a natural place to break the new NEC alignment for construction staging anyways.
      3) NSRL in Boston.
      4) Worcester-Boston segment (although I don’t think there’s a big difference between 4-6 in terms of priority).
      5) New Haven-New London
      6) New Haven to Springfield
      7) Springfield to Worcester
      8) New Hampshire to Boston
      9) Springfield to Albany (I’m not including the NY improvements here, but obviously those come before this).
      10) Maine to Boston
      11) Boston to Cape Cod

      Don’t know where to place Norwich, Greenfield, Fitchburg, and Worcester/Providence lines in relation to the rest of the list, other than a vague sense that everything that connects to the Boston-Albany trunk is less important than the connection between Springfield and Boston.

      • adirondacker12800

        A new tunnel between Baltimore and West Baltimore would be good. It’s realllly really slow and realllly really old.

  11. Sean Cunneen

    Mr Levy, what tool do you use to make these maps? Do you just use MS Paint or something, or is there dedicated software for this that can be easily gotten? How do you make sure that the necessary curve radii are achievable using your proposed ROW– does your tool measure curve radii as well?

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