The Northeast Corridor carries more rail passengers than anywhere else in the country. What could it look like in 2040?
The Federal Railroad Administration recently unveiled their draft plans to improve rail travel across the northeast, from Washington to Boston. The plan will help set the stage for a potential transformation of train service in the mega region.
Today, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are linked by a busy rail line known as the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The 457-mile line is the busiest passenger railway in the nation, carrying over 750,000 passengers each day on more than 2,200 trains.
But the corridor is desperately in need of investment just to bring it to a state of good repair. Several chokepoints mean that the line is currently operating near capacity, which means it can’t support expected growth in population, employment, or intercity travel.
The plan is what’s known as a “Tier 1 EIS.” That means that it is an environmental analysis that looks at the broader issues. Detailed study of specific elements will require “Tier 2” EIS studies and those will be conducted as projects work their way through the planning process.
The plan sets out three options
The analysis looks at three main scenarios for investment in the Northeast Corridor. Each of the options has the same core objectives: making rail more reliable, dependable, durable and environmentally sustainable, increasing both the number of passengers it can carry and the places it goes, and contributing to economic growth. But some of the plans are more ambitious than others.
Alternative 1 would make fixes to existing rail and other infrastructure, but would otherwise leave things alone. Its investments in the corridor would mainly involve fixing chokepoints, with limited areas of additional track. It allows for an increase in service which would keep pace with employment and population growth.
The second alternative would build more rail, allowing an expansion of capacity faster than population or employment growth. Work will involve getting rid of chokepoints, widening most of the corridor to four tracks, and building a few new segments outside the current alignment.
The third option would build a lot more rail, the goal being to “transform” rail into the dominant mode in the northeast. In addition to upgrading the existing corridor with new track and chokepoint relief, this alternative adds a new independent high-speed line parallel to the corridor. Between Washington and New York, it’s very close to the existing route. However, between New York and Boston, there are three possible routings, including one via Long Island and two through inland Connecticut.
There’s also a “no action” alternative, which assumes the corridor won’t be upgraded, in which case, capacity and travel times won’t be changed by 2040.
Each option has different ridership projections and capacity increases…
More people will certainly ride on the corridor by 2040, and taking no action would mean doing little to accommodate that growth. Even now, tunnels under the Hudson River are completely full during rush hour; the current 24 trains per hour in each direction is the maximum.
Alternative 1 would allow for a 75% increase over the no action alternative for inter-city trips and a 13% increase for commuter trains, to 33.7 million and 474.5 million trips, respectively. This scenario would add two new tunnels under the Hudson and allow for 37 trains per hour.
Alternative 2, which expands the role of rail, would allow for a 92% increase in inter-city and an 18% increase in commuter trips on the corridor, to 37.1 million and 495.4 million, respectively. The second alternative also adds two new Hudson tunnels, which, in conjunction with other projects, would allow for up to 52 trains per hour in each direction.
The third alternative, which transforms the role of rail, more than doubles intercity ridership to 39 million trips and increases commuter rail ridership to 545.5 million, a 30% increase. This option adds four tunnels under the Hudson, for a total of six. It would allow up to 70 trains per hour to cross under the river.
…as well as a different effect on travel time
Each of the alternatives would reduce travel time over the no action option. Without the proposed improvements, an express could cover the distance between Washington and New York in 2:47. It would be 6:33 to Boston.
Alternative 1 would reduce the Washington to New York express time to 2:43 and Washington to Boston to 5:45. Alternative 2 does even better, reducing the New York trip to 2:26 and the Boston trip to 5:07. But Alternative 3 is the fastest, with a completely new high-speed corridor reducing travel time to New York to 1:48 and to Boston in 3:57.
For corridor trains (roughly equivalent to today’s Northeast Regional), there are also time savings. The no action alternative would have Washington to New York trips in 3:23 and Washington to Boston in 8:02.
Alternative 1 would allow corridor trains to cover the distance to New York and Boston in 3:08 and 6:57, respectively. Under the second alternative, DC to New York would come in at 3:01 and to Boston in 6:22. The major investment alternative would bring times down to 2:51 to New York and 5:47 to Boston.
Details for each alternative
Even the no action alternative costs $19.9 billion. That’s because it includes the costs of funded projects, funded and unfunded mandates, and over $10 billion in projects that are necessary to keep the corridor operating but which are currently unfunded.
Alternative 1 is the cheapest alternative, with an estimated price tag of $64-66 billion.
There are a few notable projects included in this option. Locally, it calls for rebuilding New Carrollton station so that it has four tracks, each with access to a platform. It also includes a project to widen the corridor to four tracks from Odenton to Halethorpe, along with a new BWI station with four tracks.
Importantly, the plans call for replacing the B&P Tunnels in Baltimore, which are near the end of their useful life. The plan also includes two new tunnels under the Hudson, bringing the total to four.
One realigned section of track is part of this alternative, a 50-mile bypass of the shore line in Connecticut and Rhode Island, between Old Saybrook and Kenyon. Slower trains would continue to use the curvy line, but faster trains would run on the new line, which would avoid several drawbridges.
Alternative 2 comes in at around $131-136 billion.
Like the first alternative, it includes four tracks at New Carrollton and between Odenton and Halethorpe, along with a new BWI station. It also calls for a third track between Washington and New Carrollton.
The B&P Tunnel replacement in Baltimore and two new Hudson tunnels are included in this option as well. But the plan also adds two new tunnels under the East River (for a total of six), which was not part of the first alternative.
Several new segments are also part of this project, bypassing slower sections of the line with straighter bypasses. A new line between Aberdeen, Maryland and Newark, Delaware, a bypass of Wilmington, and a straightened section in north Philadelphia allow for faster trains. The plan also includes running a more direct route into Philadelphia 30th Street station via a station at Philadelphia Airport.
Alterative 3 is the most expensive, since it’s building two railway corridors. The estimate for that option ranges from $267 to $308 billion, depending on which route is chosen.
This option upgrades the existing corridor significantly, including many of the projects from the other alternatives. Under this plan, the existing corridor would be widened to four tracks for most of its length south of New York. This aspect would include four platform tracks at New Carrollton and BWI Airport.
Like the other proposals, this alternative replaces the B&P Tunnels. It also adds two new tubes under the Hudson for the corridor and two more Hudson Tunnels (for a total of six) for the high-speed line. The East River would also get two new tunnels (for a total of six).
The existing corridor wouldn’t get very many straightenings under this plan, since the second spine would be far more direct and faster. The high-speed line would include tunnels under downtown Baltimore and Philadelphia, with center city stations there.
North of New York, the second spine would be on a completely new route. There are a couple of options for the new routing.
Between New York and Hartford, the new line could either run east across Long Island to Ronkonkoma and turn north to cross the existing line at New Haven before continuing to Hartford or it could turn north via White Plains and Danbury before reaching Hartford.
From Hartford to Boston, the line could either run east to Providence and then along the existing line to Boston or northeast to Worcester and then east to Boston.
These new lines are expensive, but have the possibility of opening up new markets, especially on Long Island.
Each of the options outlined in the FRA study is expensive. But an upgrade to the corridor is necessary. The current infrastructure is aging and overburdened. Chokepoints like the Hudson tunnels severely constrain capacity, and will prevent Amtrak and commuter agencies from meeting growing demand.
And the cost of doing nothing is not zero. Without this investment, the northeastern mega region won’t be able to move efficiently or grow. And that will have dramatic economic consequences.
But not investing in rail will mean that we’ll have to spend even more enlarging highways and airports. And even with that, we’ll still have to spend money just keeping the existing Northeast Corridor infrastructure in a state of good repair.