Smart Takes

Amtrak's high-speed rail vision for 2040: New York to Washington in 96 minutes

Amtrak's high-speed rail vision for 2040: New York to Washington in 96 minutes

Posting in Cities

Amtrak on Tuesday unveiled its $117 billion vision for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor by 2040, and it's a doozy: NYC to D.C. or Boston in 1.5 hours.

Amtrak on Tuesday unveiled its vision for high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor by 2040, and it's a doozy.

According to the train operator's "A Vision for High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor" report (.pdf), progress in the next 30 years could bring trips from New York City to Washington, D.C. in 96 minutes and trips from Boston to New York in just 84 minutes.

Amtrak is thinking "world class" rail, and the plan involves speeds of up to 220 miles per hour (about 354 kilometers per hour) that, all said and done, would slash existing commute times between the aforementioned cities in half.

But no plan is without a price tag, and Amtrak hangs that vision on a peg of $117.5 billion.

Here's a statistical rundown of how that adds up on the ground:

  • Deadline: 2040.
  • Ridership by 2040: 18 million.
  • Capacity to expand beyond that: up to 80 million annually.
  • Frequency: one to four trains per hour in each direction, with additional trains for peak demand. Today: 42 per day. Tomorrow: 148.
  • Plan would generate an annual operating surplus (yes, you read that correctly) of about $900 million.
  • More than 40,000 full-time construction jobs each year for 25 years' worth of building track, tunnels, bridges and stations.
  • More than 120,000 permanent jobs benefit from "improved economic productivity" along the corridor
  • $4.7 billion investment each year over 25 years, or $117.5 billion in total.

It's clear that faster -- in overall time, not just top speed, mind you -- and more frequent high-speed service would benefit the BosWash corridor (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington) in a major way, and encourage intercity transportation like never before.

An excerpt from the report:

Projected growth in the Northeast will substantially increase intercity travel demand, straining an already congested transportation network. The ability to expand the region’s heavily congested highway and air service networks is severely constrained. The improvements outlined in the recentlyreleased Northeast Corridor (NEC) Infrastructure Master Plan would bring the current system to a state-of-good repair, ensure reliable service for all users, including intercity, commuter and freight, and provide sufficient capacity to meet estimated ridership demand through 2030. It would not, however, provide the improvements in travel time or service levels needed to attract or handle significant numbers of new passengers or help alleviate congestion on the region’s heavily constrained highway and air networks.

As a reminder, Amtrak's Acela remains the only high-speed service currently operating in the United States, and its service isn't nearly as fast as overseas systems like France's TGV or Japan's Shinkansen, thanks to an immense tangle of geographic, regulatory and historical hurdles.

Why more development on the Northeast Corridor and not elsewhere? Demand. Despite the growth of other areas of the country, the NEC is cranking out economic productivity: its 50 million residents produce 20 percent of the nation's total gross domestic product on just 2 percent of its land mass. Its per-capita GDP is 27 percent higher than the rest of the nation and its population density is 12 times the national average.

That said, the NEC's airports are among the most congested in the nation, despite Amtrak moving the majority of passengers traveling between its cities. That spells one thing: opportunity.

The positives:

  • Relieves anticipated congestion (rail, air, car) from increased intercity travel demand.
  • The NEC is economically and culturally (i.e. they're used to HSR) appropriate for the project.
  • Feasible, competitive and economically viable: it pays for itself once it gets going.

But the NEC's existing rail infrastructure is between 80 and 150 years old, and $52 billion -- the figure from Amtrak's 2010-2030 NEC Master Plan -- is needed just to keep system repair and upgrades to handle increasing ridership covered.

The challenges for HSR in the NEC:

  • Alignment constraints. HSR can handle steeper grades but can't maintain speed over sharper curves, and existing infrastructure is a mess of them.
  • Capital construction costs. Track connections, bridges, service facilities and more need to be paid for. Who will foot the initial bill?
  • Environmental impact. Studies have not yet been conducted.
  • Land use. Policies could quickly become a tangle of administrative red tape as agencies become involved.

Plus, there's also the energy-efficient angle to consider.

Again, from the report:

Intercity rail passenger operations accounts for 0.1% of the nation’s transportation energy consumption compared with 61% for light highway vehicles (cars, SUVs, small trucks). Domestic petroleum production roughly equaled transportation consumption in 1986, but by 2008 it could cover only half.2 There are compelling economic, environmental and national security arguments for reducing petroleum consumption, and the transportation sector (70% of domestic energy use), is a critical policy target. Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have a similar close tie to lowering transportation-related emissions.

But Amtrak admittedly doesn't spend much time tackling the negatives in the report, so Matt Yglesias at Think Progress takes up the task:

It also highlights the central problem with our current approach to rail. The Obama administration’s high-speed rail initiative is not only pretty stingy, it’s also spread incredibly thin because that’s what you get when you need to frame initiatives that can be approved by a congress based on representing distinct geographical areas. Any kind of national legislation that would raise $117 billion for northeast rail service would need to also spend a ton of money on rail service elsewhere in the country where the case for massive investment is much weaker. We’re essentially destined to be perennially under-investing in the northeast corridor and a handful of promising city pairs (Tampa-Orlando, Portland-Seattle) scattered around the country while sporadically over-investing elsewhere.

Big-picture infrastructure projects: without a national mandate, can America really get it together?

Share this

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure