Photo from jimkleeman on Flickr.

Yesterday, Amtrak announced plans to create a new, exclusive high-speed rail corridor in the Northeastern United States.

The proposal would cost upwards of $117 billion ($40 billion in 2010 dollars) and could be complete by 2040. Trips from Washington to Boston would take only 3 hours.

Amtrak rightly points out that there is almost no better candidate for true, “next-gen” HSR than the Northeast Corridor. But the density in the corridor would also make this easily the most expensive rail project ever undertaken in this country.

The benefits, though, could be phenomenal. In fact, Amtrak expects that the new line could generate an annual surplus of $1 billion (2010 dollars) and could more than triple Amtrak ridership in the NEC from today’s level.


Image from Amtrak’s report, via The Transport Politic.



Between Washington and New York, the new line would roughly parallel the existing NEC rail alignment. From New Rochelle and Boston, the line would take a new inland alignment, passing through Hartford, but missing Providence.

In the Washington area, Amtrak would need to find a flat, straight alignment connecting Union Station with BWI Airport. Yesterday’s report doesn’t lay out any specific alignments; those would be set out in engineering and environmental impact reports.

In Baltimore, on the other hand, the new alignment would include an underground station in the heart of downtown. Penn Station is relatively inconvenient to the central business district, and the curving, tunneled alignment into the station is unsuitable to fast trains.

A new six-mile tunnel under the city would include a

six

four-track station under the Charles Center area. It would allow trains to serve Baltimore (and pass through without stopping) at higher speeds. Trains in the current B&P Tunnels west of Penn Station are limited to 30 mph.

With all of the corridor improvements, Washingtonians could reach midtown Manhattan in slightly over 90 minutes and downtown Boston in 3 hours flat. For service to other major cities in the northeast, other expresses would follow different service patterns and make intermediate stops.

This new corridor — and improved service on the existing NEC due to reduced congestion — could open up new opportunities for transit-oriented development around rail stations, including new ones in city centers.

But, as The Transport Politic points out, there are plenty of reasons not to celebrate just yet.

The Obama Administration has been extremely receptive to rail, but Congress has only allocated $10 billion total to HSR in this country. That’s less than

10%

25% of what would be needed to build just this corridor alone, and there are several other HSR corridors in the United States which also deserve funding.

With conservatives gaining steam as the midterm elections approach, the likelihood of a major shift in resources toward HSR looks extremely unlikely.

And while this corridor certainly needs improvement, we already have faster trains than the rest of the country. To some extent, it might be more equitable to build high-speed rail in corridors where trains are much, much slower currently. Could we speed trains in the Northeast for less?

Regardless, this report shows that Amtrak is dedicated to moving America into the 21st century. This proposal is an excellent step to bettering rail service. But it’s only one step.

Without dedicated funding for projects like this one, America is destined to have, at best, a piecemeal high-speed rail system.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Capitol Hill. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.