Is the North East Corridor a good candidate for 220 mile per hour High Speed Rail? July 6th, 2011
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.
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.
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.