Is the North East Corridor a good candidate for 220 mile per hour High Speed Rail?

Opinion by Noel T.Braymer

The urban area between Washington D.C. up through New York City to Boston is heavily populated at around 38 million people. This is also roughly the population of California. Because of the population density in this area it is clearly a good candidate for good rail passenger service. Many people for years have felt that high speed rail is the answer for this region. This corridor already has the fastest scheduled running times of any passenger trains in the United States. The question is will faster service be affordable in the region to build and will faster speeds greatly increase ridership. To answer these questions we should compare the NEC to other High Speed Rail projects.

The original French TGV line from Paris to Lyon looks like a poor candidate for High Speed Passenger Rail service compared with the NEC. The Paris Metropolitan Area’s population is “only” 10.4 million and Lyon’s is 1.4 million while the two cites are 299 miles apart. California by comparison has the Los Angeles region including Orange County and the Inland Empire with 19 million people. The Bay Area has 6.4 million people and the distance by road is 382 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The San Diego region has a population of 3. 5 million and is 504 miles from Sacramento which has a regional population of 2.5 million. When we look at the North East Corridor we find two thirds of the population is in the New York region at almost 20 million and in the Philadelphia region with 6 million only 91 miles apart. Combined the Washington/Baltimore region is 8.2 million and is 226 miles from New York City. That leaves Boston with 4.5 million people 231 miles north of New York City.

When speaking about revenue and transportation distance matters. Revenue is based on passenger miles since most transportation is charged by the mile. The further you travel between 2 points the more passenger miles you generate. Also for High Speed Rail average speed is more important than top speed. The fewer times you have to stop and the greater the distance between stops the higher your average speed. Most people have seen this in action on long road trips by either car or bus. You will often see drivers going very fast passing the vehicle you are in. After a few hours you notice that it is often the same drivers that are speeding past you over and over again. They are driving very fast.  But when they pull over for a break you catch up and pass them. The result is the average speed of most vehicles on a highway is very close. Between the urban areas of the Bay Area and Southern California you have the largely rural San Joaquin Valley. You have over 340 miles between Los Angeles and San Jose and about 500 miles between San Francisco and San Diego. While the NEC is 457 miles long, most of the population is centered in the middle so that most of the travel at best for high speed rail is around 230 miles on the NEC. To raise average speeds on the NEC, eliminating stops would accomplish more than running trains at higher speeds. The problem with that is which cities lose service? Amtrak has tried to increase ridership several times by reducing station stops without success. By comparison there are roughly 9 million people in Northern California who are 400 or more miles from the 22 million in Southern California. On the NEC you have about the same population but most of that population is only 226 miles apart at the most.

What is the best answer for improved rail passenger service on the NEC? The problem with speeds above 120 miles per hour is you usually need dedicated trackage for it. Unlike a freeway, a railroad needs crossovers for trains to go around each over. The greater the difference in speeds of trains on a line the more complicated it is organizing trains passing each other. On the NEC even though Amtrak owns most of it, it must share it with 10 rail commuter agencies and 50 freight trains a day. Amtrak is proposing to build a 220 mile per hour railroad on the NEC over the course of 40 years for 117 billion dollars. To accomplish this would require a largely new railroad separate from the existing line and built in largely urban areas which is very expensive to build often requiring viaducts or tunneling. The highest price estimate for the Anaheim to San Francisco High Speed Rail leg is 62 billion dollars by critics of that project which sounds like bargain compared to 117 billion between Washington and Boston.

What would be a better solution to increasing ridership and revenue on the NEC? Look at the original TGV line between Paris and Lyon which are the 2 largest cities in France. The French National Railroad built a bypass rail line for high speed with few stops between most of the distance between these two cities in a rural area were construction costs were low. As of 2008 eleven TGV trains an hour run on this line out of Paris. Of these 8 trains an hour make it to Lyon. Three trains an hour branch off before getting to Lyon to other cities.Of these 8 trains that get to Lyon each hour 5 trains continue past Lyon with 2 an hour going to Marseille and the other three branching off to other cities. Something similar to this can be done can on the NEC. Why do this? This would open up many new markets and riders to the NEC while taking advantage of existing rail lines.

The extensions are rather obvious and have been proposed by others. A good place to start would be extending service to Richmond and Charlotte. At New York City there is possible service extension to Albany, Montreal and or even Buffalo. Direct service on Long Island or at least an Amtrak Station on Long Island to connect with local commuter trains would be a start. Direct service from Harrisburg or better Pittsburgh to New York City and to Boston is a good candidate. Such services would require some track upgrades but at less cost than largely building a new railroad between Washington and Boston. Full electrification wouldn’t be necessary; diesel locomotives have been added to TGV trains to operate on non-electric lines.

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