January 3, 2017

New Amtrak plan: $128 Billion for routine repairs/fixes

The latest federal plan for the Amtrak corridor between Washington and Boston is staggeringly expensive, but would not really result in high speed rail nor is it really even much of a plan. But all that is OK. The unfunded $128 Billion (that's BILLION) plan is still useful as a collection of projects that shows what could and can be done to upgrade the vital rail line as may be necessary. Each specific project in the plan will still need to be justified based on its own merits and costs.

So don't get too excited by the plan's indefinite future best-case scenario which maybe could result in a 20 minute time savings between Baltimore and New York - the latest definition of a "New York Minute".

Amtrak line through Baltimore as depicted in the new plan, with a new Bayview station and two route deviations

The challenge now is to keep our focus straight. This vital public infrastructure must be kept running and in good repair and its passenger carrying capacity must be kept ahead of increasing demand. But there has been no timetable and little justification for actually doing the entire plan, now or even eventually.

That's because as gigantically expensive as it is, the eighth of a trillion dollar rail plan (in old pre-inflated 2014 dollars yet) is only a small piece of the whole transportation system puzzle.

Despite the plan's zillion pages, it hardly even addresses the northeast corridor's constantly shifting urban development patterns or the huge challenge of actually feeding the rail line from the urban areas it serves. And the plan is perhaps most conspicuously silent on transportation's rapidly advancing technology.

But thanks to the plan, there are plenty of issues which should now be coming into sharper focus so we can confront them intelligently and in coordinated ways.

Where Baltimore stands: Is it the new "flyover country"?

The plan finally confirms that existing Penn Station will be Baltimore's principal center city Amtrak station from now on. But unless the city adapts, this will threaten to reduce Baltimore's ability to benefit from the new billions which are to be invested in the Amtrak corridor.

Being an integral part of the burgeoning Northeast U.S. Corridor is one of Baltimore's most intrinsic and advantageous selling points as a city. It's what separates Baltimore from Cleveland, Detroit and other rust belt "flyover" cities.

But the new plan suggests that with the new wider four track tunnel through West Baltimore, there is potential for "express" trains to skip the stop in Baltimore. In the absence of true high speed rail (all trains will still need to crawl through the Penn Station area), the five or so minute time savings from not stopping in Baltimore will be just about the only high speed hype value they can get. Amtrak could end up treating Baltimore like Aberdeen or Metropark, New Jersey. The indignity of it all!

Among Amtrak stations, Baltimore's Penn Station has a unique relationship to the city it serves. It is not downtown. It's close, but not close enough. This is somewhat similar to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, but that Amtrak station has excellent light, heavy, light and commuter rail connections to the center city, while Baltimore does not.

Moreover, new downtown development in Philadelphia has been moving closer to the train station, while in Baltimore it has been moving in the opposite direction toward the waterfront. Yes, Station North has recently been a development success story - but as a neighborhood, not as a new downtown.

So Baltimore's light rail stub branch to Penn Station needs to be treated less like a stepchild / orphan. It needs better coordination with traffic signals on Howard Street, better integration with the rest of the rail system, and the counterbalance of a new southern branch that serves not only Port Covington (the "Plank Line"), but the underdeveloped Cherry Hill and Brooklyn waterfronts as well.

The new Amtrak plan also includes provisions for new "hub" station at Bayview - "hub" being their parlance for getting some kind of future Amtrak intercity service in addition to MARC commuter rail. (The report confusingly does not use the term "regional" the same way Amtrak does.) So making Bayview work well is critical - not just with a lame expensive Red Line that would slowly meander down to the waterfront without being much if any improvement over the current Penn Station light rail stub.

Baltimore needs a great heavy rail connection at Bayview, not the dead light rail Red Line. The city also needs to create the best possible transit with the planned replacement for the West Baltimore rail station.

The parallel role of new technology

The report totally sidesteps the rapidly evolving technological landscape. What they're recommending is essentially no significant advance whatsoever above the state-of-the-art in high speed rail from 50 years ago.

This dodge is understandable, but it must be fully recognized as a huge limitation. Technology is a profound "X Factor". With automated cars now being tested in the real world, technology is moving too fast to be dealt with. New technology is also the predominant domain of the private sector. In contrast, this report was prepared mostly by planners, civil engineers and other government types and their consultants.

Here is essentially the entirety of what the zillion page report says about the role of new technology (Section

"An advanced guideway system, such as magnetic levitation technology, could be used to develop a second spine or portions thereof. This system would require separate stations, and would not support run-through trains from connecting corridors nor offer proven integration efficiencies with today's NEC infrastructure and operators. Furthermore, these technologies remain under development, with few systems in operation internationally. For these reasons, the FRA did not incorporate advanced guideway or similar new technologies in the Action Alternatives. However, such technologies could be studied separately, and are not precluded as a future transformative investment in the regional transportation system. Other potential applications of new technology transportation systems could support the NEC passenger rail network by connecting off-corridor markets to the NEC, or a major market to the NEC."

Translation: A new technology like MagLev would be a separate entity to the NEC (Northeast Corridor), but it could support or feed into it. Fair enough. The FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) just didn't want to deal with it.

It's also just as likely that any new transit mode would create new access and connections to the existing rail corridor, as it would be to replace anything. The most certain thing that could be said is that something like MagLev would be built in an incremental way, just as would the proposed improvements to the existing Amtrak line.

Baltimore is probably likely to benefit more from a MagLev project than any other place, because it's Amtrak station is not located downtown. And if a big pot of billions in foreign or private sector investment came along, such as from the folks Governor Hogan visited in China, the money would do the talking. They would have much to say in where and what would be done.

Other technologies are also in play, like automation and multi-modal vehicles such as the dual powered diesel-electric locomotives which are now being used by New Jersey Transit to enable trains of one mode to use tracks of another.
Dual powered diesel-electric locomotive used by NJ Transit - Richard Layman's blog

Even the role of the old Interstate 95 between Washington and Boston will evolve. In the future, it could carry more buses, Zipcars, Google Cars, Ubers and Lyfts than conventional private cars, and all will pay for the privilege with steep demand-responsive dynamic pricing (that means expensive variable tolls).

So MagLev isn't going to replace or preclude improvements to the Amtrak corridor as a whole between Washington and Boston, but it could have a major impact. And when something "transformative" happens, we'll go from there.

We should be pro-active

The new Amtrak plan for the Northeast U.S. Corridor is really just $128 Billion worth of status-quo business-as-usual. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as New Yawk's Seinfeld used to say.

Amtrak is basically a "calling card" that allows Baltimore to hang out with the big boys in the Northeast Corridor - Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston - who are just as likely to treat us like one of their other little siblings like Wilmington, Trenton, New Haven and Providence.

So Baltimore and Maryland need to look out for themselves to fit in and stand out. That means projects like a high speed MagLev line for a 15 minute trip from downtown Baltimore to Washington should be as alive as ever. Maybe it starts with a "Mag-Leg" between the Greenbelt DC Metro Station and BWI Airport or the UMBC Research Park. Whatever.

Another interesting prospect would be to integrate Baltimore's underused heavy rail Metro line and the Amtrak system in a dual-mode type of arrangement. Dual mode trains could run in the Amtrak corridor from Aberdeen or White Marsh or Eastpoint, and enter the Metro line at the new Bayview Amtrak station to continue to Station East, Hopkins Hospital, and the Charles Center Station in the middle of downtown.

The trains could then continue to Owings Mills, or proceed back to the Amtrak corridor via the Franklin-Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere" corridor and end up at Washington, DC's Union Station.

Stay tuned. Now that we've gotten Amtrak's $128 Billion routine upgrade wish-list, we can start the real planning.


  1. There's no way Metro trains could run on the NEC tracks. There is enough room for them to run, next to the NEC tracks, to a Bayview station. Although the current Bayview station plan isn't very multimodal.

    1. It would certainly be a design and engineering challenge, so you very well may be right, but there are a lot of variables to work with. Note from the map above that this new plan includes an entirely new rail right-of-way eastward from Bayview (shown as a dotted line). Norfolk Southern could also be convinced to move their freight operation out of the Bayview Yard, providing room for a real urban Amtrak station which would essentially be an extension to the Hopkins Bayview Research Park. Who knows? We're talking LONG range planning here. And yes, the Bayview MARC Station design from the Red Line plan was pretty awful and needs to be completely rethought in any event.

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