Amtrak Releases Bad Scranton Rail Study

There’s hot news from Amtrak – no, not that it just announced that it hired Andy Byford to head its high-speed rail program, but that it just released a study recommending New York-Scranton intercity rail. I read the study with very low expectations and it met them. Everything about it is bad: the operating model is bad, the proposed equipment is bad and expensive, the proposed service would be laughed at in peripheral semi-rural parts of France and Italy and simply wouldn’t exist anywhere with good operations.

This topic is best analyzed using the triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and schedule, used in Switzerland to maximize the productivity of legacy intercity line, since Swiss cities, like Scranton, are too small to justify a dedicated high-speed rail network as found in France or Japan. Unfortunately, Amtrak’s report falls short on all three. There are glimpses there of trying and failing, which I personally find frustrating; I hope that American transportation planners who wish to imitate European success don’t just read me but also read what I’ve read and proactively reach out to national railways and planners on this side of the Atlantic.

What’s in the study?

The study looks at options for running passenger trains between New York and Scranton. The key piece of infrastructure to be used is the Lackawanna Cutoff, an early-20th century line built to very high standards for the era, where steam trains ran at 160 km/h on the straighter sections and 110 km/h on the curvier ones. The cutoff was subsequently closed, but a project to restore it for commuter service is under construction, to reach outer suburbs near it and eventually go as far as the city’s outermost suburbs around the Delaware Water Gap area.

Amtrak’s plan is to use the cutoff not just for commuter service but also intercity service. The cutoff only goes as far as the Delaware and the New Jersey/Pennsylvania state line, but the historic Lackawanna continued west to Scranton and beyond, albeit on an older, far worse-built alignment. Thus, the speed between the Water Gap and Scranton would be low; with no electrification planned, the projected trip time between New York and Scranton is about three hours.

I harp on the issue of speed because it’s a genuine problem. Google Maps gives me an outbound driving time of 2:06 right now, shortly before 9 pm New York time. The old line, which the cutoff partly bypassed, is curvy, which doesn’t just reduce average speed but also means a greater distance must be traversed on rail: the study quotes the on-rail length as 134 miles, or 216 km, whereas driving is just 195 km. New York is large and congested and has little parking, so the train can afford to be a little slower, but it’s worth it to look for speedups, through electrification and good enough operations so that timetable padding can be minimized (in Switzerland, it’s 7% on top of the technical travel time).


The operations and timetabling in the study are just plain bad. There are two options, both of which include just three trains a day in each direction. There are small French, Italian, and Spanish towns that get service this poor, but I don’t think any of them is as big as Scranton. Clermont-Ferrand, a metro area of the same approximate size as Scranton, gets seven direct trains a day to Paris via intermediate cities similar in size to the Delaware Water Gap region, and these are low-speed intercities, as the area is too far from the high-speed network for even low-speed through-service on TGVs. In Germany and Switzerland, much smaller towns than this can rely on hourly service. I can see a world in which a three-hour train can come every two hours and still succeed, even if hourly service is preferable, but three roundtrips a day is laughable.

Then there is how these three daily trains are timetabled. They take just less than three hours one-way, and are spaced six hours apart, but the timetable is written to require two trainsets rather than just one. Thus, each of the two trainsets is scheduled to make three one-way trips a day, with two turnarounds, one of about an hour and one of about five hours.

Worse, there are still schedule conflicts. The study’s two options differ slightly in arrival times, and are presented as follows:

Based on the results of simulation, Options B and D were carried forward for financial evaluation. Option B has earlier arrival times to both New York and Scranton but may have a commuter train conflict that remains unresolved. Option D has later departure times from New York and Scranton and has no commuter train conflicts identified.

All this work, and all these compromises on speed and equipment utilization, and they’re still programming a schedule conflict in one of the two options. This is inexcusable. And yet, it’s a common problem in American railroading – some of the proposed schedules for Caltrain and high-speed rail operations into Transbay Terminal in San Francisco proposed the same.

Equipment and capital planning

The study does not look at the possibility of extending electrification from its current end in Dover to Scranton. Instead, it proposes a recent American favorite, the dual-mode locomotive. New Jersey Transit has a growing pool of them, the ALP-45DP, bought most recently for $8.8 million each in 2020. Contemporary European medium-speed self-propelled electric trains cost around $2.5 million per US-length car; high-speed trains cost about double – an ongoing ICE 3 Neo procurement is 34 million euros per eight-car set, maybe $6 million per car in mid-2020s prices or $5 million in 2020 prices.

And yet somehow, the six-car dual-mode trains Amtrak is seeking are to cost $70-90 million between the two of them, or $35-45 million per set. Somehow, Amtrak’s rolling stock procurement is so bad that a low-speed train costs more per car than a 320 km/h German train. This interacts poorly with the issue of turnaround times: the timetable as written is almost good enough for operation with a single trainset, and yet Amtrak wants to buy two.

There are so many things that could be done to speed up service for the $266 million in capital costs between the recommended infrastructure program and the rolling stock. This budget by itself should be enough to electrify the 147 km between Dover and Scranton, since the route is single-track and would carry light traffic allowing savings on substations; then the speed improvement should allow easy operations between New York and Scranton every six hours with one trainset costing $15 million and not $35-45 million, or, better yet, every two hours with three sets. Unfortunately, American mainline rail operators are irrationally averse to wiring their lines; the excuses I’ve seen in Boston are unbelievable.

The right project, done wrong

There’s an issue I’d like to revisit at some point, distinguishing planning that chooses the wrong projects to pursue from planning that does the right projects wrong. For example, Second Avenue Subway is the right project – its benefits to passengers are immense – but it has been built poorly in every conceivable way, setting world records for high construction costs. This contrasts with projects that just aren’t good enough and should not have been priorities, like the 7 extension in New York, or many suburban light rail extensions throughout the United States.

The intercity rail proposal to Scranton belongs in the category of right projects done wrong, not in that of wrong projects. Its benefits are significant: putting Scranton three hours away from New York is interesting, and putting it 2.5 hours away with the faster speeds of high-reliability, high-performance electric trains especially so.

As a note of caution, this project is not a slam dunk in the sense of Second Avenue Subway or high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor, since the trip time by train would remain slower than by car. If service is too compromised, it might fail even ignoring construction and equipment costs – and we should not ignore construction or equipment costs. But New York is a large city with difficult car access. There’s a range of different trips that the line to Scranton could unlock, including intercity trips, commuter trips for people who work from home most of the week but need to occasionally show up at the office, and leisure trips to the Delaware Water Gap area.

Unfortunately, the project as proposed manages to be both too expensive and too compromised to succeed. It’s not possible for any public transportation service to succeed when the gap between departures is twice as long as the one-way trip time; people can drive, or, if they’re car-free New Yorkers, avoid the trip and go vacation in more accessible areas. And the sort of planning that assumes the schedule has conflicts and the dispatchers can figure it out on the fly is unacceptable.

There’s a reason planning in Northern Europe has converged on the hourly, or at worst two-hourly, frequency as the basis of regional and intercity timetabling: passengers who can afford cars need the flexibility of frequency to be enticed to take the train. With this base frequency and all associated planning tools, this region, led by Switzerland, has the highest ridership in the world that I know of on trains that are not high-speed and do not connect pairs of large cities, and its success is slowly exported elsewhere in Europe, if not as fast or completely as it should be. It’s possible to get away without doing the work if one builds a TGV-style network, where the frequency is high because Paris and Lyon are large cities and therefore frequency is naturally high even without trying hard. It’s not possible to succeed on a city pair like New York-Scranton without this work, and until Amtrak does it, the correct alternative for this study is not to build the line at all.


  1. Benjamin Turon

    If they electrified then with 110-mph on the 20-mile stretch of the Cuff-off then it would look like High-Speed Rail for Americans, putting a smile on Amtrak Joe Biden’s face when he rides it at the end of his second term… LOL 🙂

    Given that the right-of-way is all publicly owned and partially electrified, they really should just electrify all the way to Scranton, make it a show piece of the new age of passenger rail in the USA, like Brightline. The low frequency is also a head scratcher, given the distance and travel time to New York City, as opposed to Amtrak service to Vermont. Once again, Brightline shows the way with hourly frequencies.

    The FRA and NYSDOT released with no press release last month the Final EIS for the Empire Corridor…

    • Benjamin Turon

      It’s a shame that Binghamton gets left out, it’s only 59 miles more up the well-built mainline of the former Lackawanna Railroad, another 1900s cut-off with concrete arched viaducts.

      • adirondacker12800

        Bus to the high speed rail station in Syracuse would be faster. New York State has to decide to stop playing around with making things as fast as they were in 1950 and build high speed rail.

        • Benjamin Turon

          The average speed of the streamliner ‘Phoebe Snow’ was 55-mph between Scranton and Binghamton in the 1950s, the top speed was 70-mph on this 59-mile stretch of railroad known as the Nicholson Cutoff.

          • adirondacker12800

            An hour and a half bus ride from Binghamton to the Syracuse train station and two hours from there to Manhattan would be faster. And they could get to places other than Manhattan.

  2. adirondacker12800

    At the rate NJtransit is restoring service west of Port Morris it should arrive at the Delaware River in the 2060s. The Phoebe Snow with low platforms, checked bags etc, took 3:15. Level boarding and electrification, higher speeds where possible should make it competitive with driving. In 2070. Electrification would allow tilt trains.

    Google Maps gives me an outbound driving time of 2:06 right now, shortly before 9 pm New York time.

    Google is overly optimistic. It just estimated an average speed that would be impossible. There are slow sections and toll plazas. 2:30 if everything goes well and things can fall apart easily… all along the route.

    Clermont-Ferrand, a metro area of the same approximate size as Scranton, gets seven direct trains a day

    In very round numbers metro Scranton is half the size of metro Albany and the same distance from New York City. Albany gets once an hour all day long, Scranton could fill one, once every two hours. Amtrak local to Rennsalaer is a bit faster then the crack express trains were in the heyday. But slower than the Turboliners were.

    Unfortunately, the project as proposed manages to be both too expensive and too compromised to succeed.

    That may have been the point. It can go on the shelf next to all the other Scranton projects that have been proposed over the decades.

    • Benjamin Turon

      President Biden has mentioned the Scranton (his old hometown) project several times in speeches, I think it will be a priority.

      • Frederick

        Joe Biden will no longer be president when this project breaks ground. It will be lucky if Biden lives to see the project breaks ground, or if the project breaks ground at all.

    • John D.

      “Electrification would allow tilt trains.”

      Diesel tilt trains do exist, and at fairly standard cost – JR Shikoku procured their most recent model (the 2700 series) for around US$3 million per car. Perhaps an option worth considering if electrification and infrastructure upgrades are truly unattainable.

    • Steve

      Not that Scranton shouldn’t get service more frequent than 3x/day, maybe even every 2-3 hours, but Albany is the State capital and has traffic that far outstrips it size as a residential city. Legislators, lobbyists, citizen advocates, vendors and others having State business all make up a substantial amount of the traffic between Albany and NYC, maybe most of it. I don’t see where Scranton can generate that amount of traffic. Additionally, many of the trains to Albany continue on to Buffalo, Chicago, Toronto, Burlington and Montreal, accounting for much of the traffic. If all trains terminated at Albany, as they would for Scranton, fewer would be needed.

  3. wiesmann

    The use of Airo wagons is fascinating. These are basically glorified Eurofima carriages, small doors at the ends, same length (26m), same maximal speed (200 km/h), a bit heavier (50 tons vs 48). There are plenty of these (or the variants like Corail or unity carriages in Switzerland) going around, but buying these new…

  4. Astro

    Well, those are some glaring omissions. What be done about it? It would be horrible for Amtrak to waste the Cut-off’s potential.

    Is there a chance for counter-proposal? Demanding that Amtrak study and price options that would be in-line with European regional rail standards?

  5. Basil Marte

    Q1: does this count as a “sandbag” study?
    Q2: as a wild guess, does perhaps Amtrak use “train-miles” as the headline figure for operation expenses planning, even in preference to actual estimated costs? That would be an unsurprising explanation for why they don’t even attempt to optimize equipment utilization.
    Q3: if they were to electrify this line, what voltage and frequency would they use? (Is there any sort of plan/policy about what to do with East Coast electrification — eventually convert stuff to some system (UIC 25kV~50Hz, local existing 12kV~25Hz, something else), no conversion planning but only string new wire for (…), no conversion and extend the existing system?)

    • Sean Cunneen

      The Morris and Essex lines, which this line connects to, are electrified with 25kv 60hz. They were upgraded to this voltage in 1984 from 3000v DC

    • Alon Levy

      1. No, they really want it.
      2. Yeah, these people don’t think past their metrics. Same thing with scheduling – they don’t conceive of the timetable as having a pad factor that may be modified based on reliability elsewhere on the line.
      3. The Morristown Line was reelectrified as 25 kV 60 Hz in 1984, no need for any nonstandard electrification.

      • adirondacker12800

        They have been really wanting it for decades. Even ran a test train or trains over it before Conrail abandoned it.

  6. Sean Cunneen

    Worth noting that in Amtrak’s proposed schedule, the travel time between Dover and New York varies between 1:03 and 1:06, making only 3 stops (it even skips Secaucus!). Meanwhile Alon’s proposed NJT schedule for the Morris and Essex line, making 21 intermediate stops, takes only 1 hour! This isn’t entirely Amtrak’s fault, as their service would have to overtake multiple slow NJT trains, but it is pretty terrible.

    • adirondacker12800

      Rumor has it it’s wide enough for four tracks and has three most of the way between Hoboken and Summit. In some fantastical future when NJTransit is running 60 trains an hour to and from Manhattan there might be 15 through Newark.

      • Tunnelvision

        Not that 60 trains per hour will be achieved with the current state of the Hudson Tunnels systems and track. Tunnels structurally are fine.

        M/E is definitely three track from Newark Broad to Summit. Beyond Summit the RoW may exist for at least three tracks but four might be a squeeze in some spots, think Morristown to Denville for example especially if trains were ever going to run at more than walking pace…..beyond Dover though its a double track only RoW through to Port Morris

        • adirondacker12800

          Until there are 60 trains an hour what they have is adequate. When it is 60 an hour at least a third of the trains will be going to the Montclair-Boonton branch. That’s 10 an hour to Summit and a few of them will be going to Gladstone. Most are going to terminate in Dover. Two tracks west of Dover would be more than enough. Mostly one to Scranton and one to Hackettstown would be more than enough forever.

  7. Tunnelvision

    2h6 minutes for that trip by car????? Not a chance. It can take that long to get through Lincoln tunnel on a bad day and as for Rt 80 post 287, please….. In rush hours thats at least 2.5 hrs and more likely 3 hrs. especially in the mornings. I used to commute from Dover into NY every day pre COVID and the only way driving was comparable/ faster was if you did not cross the Hudson. Drive to Newark Penn or Secaucus and then hop across to NY Penn. Maybe save 10 to 15 minutes as long as you left home before 5am.

    And that was despite NJ Transits leisurely Midtown “Express” times……

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, that’s why I specified the time of day when I checked this on Google Maps. Obviously this is not happening anytime with serious traffic.

      • adirondacker12800

        Very few people want to go to Manhattan in the dead of night. Even then, there might be traffic. 2:06 is very very optimistic even if everything is free flowing.

    • adirondacker12800

      Midtown Direct emptied the buses going to the Port Authority. Not that “faster than a bus through the Linoln Tunnel” is a good thing. There are lot of things they could do to speed it up. But nobody wants to spend the money.

  8. Gregory Homatas

    The proposed timetables don’t mesh well with the NYC commute. I think they should align one train in each direction per day with the commute to NYC arriving in NYP around 7;00 am to 7:30 am and departing at 5 to 530 pm. There is one man in my office that commutes from the Poconos and I know of more. NE PA is becoming the outer edge of the NYC commute due to lower housing costs in PA than in NYC. I don’t think they will capture the ridership from the buses this way as I thought they wanted to take traffic off the congested I-80 interstate between PA and NJ. There should be room enough in the schedule for the commuter crowd and weekend/weekday travelers between those points, especially in the summer due to the Delaware Water Gaps’ popularity as a getaway destination not to mention the Poconos. Are they setting themselves up for failure with this timetable?

    • Frederick

      Everybody knows about the NYC commute, and that’s why there are already eight trains going from the Morris and Essex lines to NY Penn between 0700 and 0730. Good luck cramming the ninth train into the schedule.

        • adirondacker12800

          There’s plenty of capacity. If they go to Hoboken. There isn’t any into Manhattan and hasn’t been any since the late 90s.

  9. Christopher Parker

    For what it is worth, when I drive the speed limit, I am 10% slower than google map’s timing. (And that is without any traffic delays)

  10. Christopher Parker

    When looking strictly at economics, the obvious questions to me are
    – the utilization of the trainsets
    – the cost of the track upgrade

    I suspect both could be improved (and of course if tracks are improved trainset utilization can get better.).

  11. Eric2

    It would be so much better value just to run buses from Delaware Water Gap to Scranton. Trip time would be faster than this Amtrak proposal, and you could run the buses every hour or so timed to match the train, instead of three times a day.

    • Frederick

      If the train only goes to Delaware Water Gap, there’s no need for Amtrak. Just let NJ Transit operate it; their locomotives are fast enough, and it will be easier to schedule them with other commuter trains. Saved money can also be used to electrify the line to Hackettstown.

    • adirondacker12800

      Conrail pulled up the tracks 40 years ago, There are miles and miles of trees between the Delaware River and where the tracks end, east of there. The highway turns into a parking lot fairly often. The bus would be slower fairly often too.

      • Eric2

        West of the Water Gap, the highway basically never turns into a parking lot.

        Did you read my comment carefully enough to be aware that I was talking about west of the Water Gap? And did you read the post carefully enough to know that NJT is already reactivating the Lackawanna Cutoff as far as the Water Gap?

        • adirondacker12800

          NJtransit maybe perhaps someday will re extend service to Andover. 20 miles away from the river.

  12. Rob Durchola

    NJ Transit triple track on Morristown line ends east of Millburn Station (east of Summit by a few miles) and there are many constricted points west of there where three tracks cannot be accommodated within existing right of way.
    Existing bus service from Scranton to NY PABT takes from 2.5 to 3 hours depending on time and has at least five RTs a day (hourly or better before COVID). Is train needed?

  13. Erik

    Here is the thing most US Polticans often are stuck in what I call the super chief mindset thinking that one long fancy streamlined train can do it just like in the 1950s. The reality is that services to these types of cities need frequent regional rail services with emus and semi-loco hauled stock that is fast and frequent.

  14. James S

    American planners love to spend $500,000,000 in capital construction for a line that will get a $25,000 operating budget

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