October 8, 2010

High speed rail

What the cancellation of New Jersey's $8.7 billion rail tunnel to New York should mean for Maryland and everyone in between

New Jersey is on the same train as Maryland. New Jersey was willing to spend many billions on new commuter rail service, but not enough to pay for their ambitious plan. Their proposed $8.7 billion new tunnel under the Hudson River and a new commuter terminal next to Amtrak's Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan was cancelled yesterday because of fears of many more billions in cost overruns. Cost overruns are nothing to scoff at. Just ask about Boston's big dig.

This clearly points out the interrelatedness of local, state and national rail service needs and ambitions in the Northeast Corridor.

The new tunnel would have freed much needed capacity in Amtrak's own rail tunnel under the Hudson, just as Amtrak's tunnels under Baltimore are similarly inadequate to handle their growing needs along with those of local MARC commuter rail service.

While New Jersey Transit has much greater financial wherewithal than Amtrak to pay for the expansion, it was still not enough. Meanwhile, Amtrak recently announced its own grand $120 billion plan for high speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, but with no money to pay for it, not even a relatively piddly $8.7 billion. Unless the federal government suddenly writes a magic blank check for a project that is not exactly "shovel ready", labor intensive or responsive to middle American voters, it will most likely fall to the bottom of the priority pile. This is not your ordinary federal pork barrel.

Maryland's own plan for high speed rail was quietly scuttled a few years ago because it was perceived as catering to fat-cat expense account travelers, just as Amtrak's own Acela is essentially seen as just another train with comfier seats and higher fares which skips the minor whistle stop stations. Attention has since zeroed-in on the immediate needs of MARC and Amtrak commuters, beleaguered by "hell trains" and strained infrastructure.

The bottom line: Transit needs between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston are too great and too interrelated to be dealt with solely by the individual states or even Amtrak. All the grand multi-billion plans need to be tied together into a single unified framework that responds to all the needs from the most glamorous futuristic high speed rail to the bottom-feeding commuters.

New Jersey's $8.7 to $14 billion Hudson tunnel plan just did not fit into such an overarching vision. It would have lavished the greatest amount of money on creating a brand new rail network at the lowest level on the local-to-interregional hierarchy, rather than addressing the needs of the entire hierarchy. Yes, the new tunnel would have freed up much needed capacity on Amtrak's own line, but would do nothing to upgrade it physically or functionally.

Here is a more rational approach:

1. Systematically upgrade the existing Amtrak Northeast Corridor line to modern physical and functional standards -
Replacing the functionally obsolete West Baltimore rail tunnel is a perfect example. This should not be oversold by confusing it with high speed rail or any kind of quantum increase in speed or capacity. It is simply sorely needed to maintain what we already have, for Amtrak, for MARC and for freight service.

2. Conduct an intense technology analysis for high speed rail -
Technology assessment is conspicuously lacking in Amtrak's recent high speed rail report. It would be pathetic to use existing off-the-shelf 20th century technology borrowed from Europe for a new mid-21st century rail system. While it may be arguable that speed for speed's sake is not that important, and that there's not enough usable difference between 200 and 300 mph, there are many other critical factors such as operating cost, operating flexibility, capacity, and ability to negotiate grades. Here are a few crucial questions:

Can control be sufficiently automated to accommodate far greater train frequency?
Can the system support local off-line stations such as in Columbia, White Marsh or Towson?
Can the system support automated real-time dispatching so that non-stop service between any two stations can be arranged as soon as there are enough passengers who want to go there?
Can steep grades be supported to allow a bridge over the Hudson River instead of a far riskier and more expensive tunnel beneath it?
Would the system make small vehicles economically and operationally feasible, promoting very frequent headways, smaller platforms and less costly and disruptive alignments such as using the Howard Street tunnel under downtown Baltimore?

On the other hand, compatibility with high speed rail elsewhere has been overrated. The United States is too big and diverse to get hung up on compatibility with what might get done between Chicago and St. Louis.

3. Figure out how to pay for it - This was another gaping hole in the Amtrak report. New Jersey can't pay for this. Maryland can't be expected to pay for it. Amtrak can't pay for it. Maryland's Maglev study actually made the case for a strong private sector role. Another very promising source is highway tolls. The New Jersey project relied on a heavy infusion on toll revenue from the New York Port Authority. Delaware's portion of I-95 is a cash cow. Maryland has used a billion of its toll money on a highly dubious I-95 widening scheme that will simply push its bottlenecks to White Marsh. A far more rational plan would be to tailor tolls to manage Northeast Corridor traffic demand and finance transit. Tolls should be allowed to variably increase whenever congestion raises to the point where less traffic flow would take place with a lower toll. It's far preferable to divert traffic to transit in response to tolls, than due to congestion which essentially just makes the highways into parking lots and the local exit ramps into escape routes.

4. Create an authority that can do all this -
A Northeast U.S. Transportation Authority should be established that can manage both the interregional highway and rail systems between Boston and northern Virginia. It should include I-95, I-295, I-895, and most of the other major expressways, as well as VRE, MARC, SEPTA, NJT, NY MTA, MBTA and any other alphabet soup commuter rail systems, and also promote private sector involvement. They could run MARC trains from DC to Philly and SEPTA trains from Philly to New York, eliminating the arbitrary intervening terminals at Trenton, NJ and Newark, DE. All tolls and train fares would also be integrated into one system. The existing patchwork of state and regional transportation operations is clearly obsolete.

In sum, the problems of the proposed $120 billion Amtrak high speed rail line and the $8.7 billion New Jersey Transit tunnel under the Hudson is that they don't address transportation as a system. With all those billions at stake, the entire Northeast Corridor deserves better.


  1. What about the Camden line as a real alternative to the NEC here in Maryland? Electrify it, improve the track, gets speeds up to a reasonable number, and run Baltimore to DC "S-Bahn" style service with frequent trains. Not cheap, but alot of train for the money.

  2. The Camden Line is owned and operated by CSX. It is an important freight corridor, and the region cannot survived if freight is impacted. It will soon be double stacked as part of National Gateway. There might be options for adjacent ROW for commuter/passenger, but let's not forgot how important freight is to Maryland's economy and let's understand the importance of the freight network. Thank you.