Feds Lay Out Wide-Ranging Visions for the Future of the NE Corridor

A report released this week by the Federal Railroad Administration outlines 15 possible ways forward for the Northeast Corridor, ranging from building fully separate tracks to accommodate 220 mph bullet trains to simply maintaining the existing infrastructure in a state of good repair.

The Northeast Corridor, stretching roughly 457 miles between Boston and Washington, DC, is one of the world's most widely ridden rail corridors. The Federal Railroad Administration has put forward 15 investment proposals for the route looking toward 2040.

The “preliminary alternatives” were laid out in a report called “NEC Future,” which FRA is using to prompt discussions on the future of rail service along the corridor. Each alternative will be evaluated on its environmental and transportation impacts. FRA will then choose a “preferred alternative” to pursue.

The first several proposals laid out by FRA — the “resource-constrained” options — show trains maxing out at about 160 mph, like they do now. A state of good repair would be maintained. Investment would be limited to accommodating projected ridership increases through 2040. No new routes would be constructed.

Meanwhile, in the middle-range investment scenarios, “Alternative 4” calls for increasing capacity at all choke points, including the construction or acquisition of “express bypass tracks,” to allow overtaking of slower trains. This alternative would also tackle “cost effective” trip-time improvement on projects “that also increase capacity,” according to the report.

Among the less “resource constrained” proposals is where we see a call for transformative new investment. “Alternative 15” calls for a new right-of-way along the 457 miles from Boston to Washington, which would allow for a “major increase in capacity.” This proposal would include new routes off the main spine of the corridor, serving outlying areas like Long Island. This proposal also calls for a “super express” line running all the way from Portland, Maine to Washington, DC, along with two additional local routes along the length of the corridor, for shorter regional and inter-city trips.

None of the proposals has a cost estimate attached, though cost is the major sticking point in any Congressional conversation about Amtrak or high-speed rail.

Amtrak laid out an NEC proposal in 2010 that would have cost $117 billion over 25 years. Two years later, they came up with a new plan, ringing in at $151 billion. These price tags have been the object of scorn from Republican lawmakers, notably former House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica, who say Amtrak already swallows up too many taxpayer dollars.

So without cost estimates, none of these 15 proposals are close to becoming reality. Still, they’re a useful exercise.

The plan is part of the Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan, which will guide Northeast Corridor investment through 2040. FRA is holding meetings in New Haven, Newark, and Washington, DC, to present the findings.

2 thoughts on Feds Lay Out Wide-Ranging Visions for the Future of the NE Corridor

  1. Before Amtrak came to take over the nation’s passenger trains, average rail fares were a third less than average air fares. Today, thanks to four decades of government management, average rail
    fares are more than twice average air fares. Moreover, subsidies to
    passenger trains are nearly 10x more per passenger mile and more than 20x highways. When fares and subsidies are combined, Amtrak spends nearly four times as much moving one passenger one mile as the airlines. Even in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most important market, Amtrak is insignificant. Reforming Amtrak is pointless as long as politicians decide where the trains are routed instead of markets. Even if that were the case of privatization, they could operate as cruise trains on a weekly basis, not daily, it wouldn’t do much good; as an enthusiast I love trains, however as I don’t see much economic market for them especially it’s dubious $117 billion Northeast proposal, Amtrak has been losing ground to a rapidly growing form of travel, the bus. They’re growing fast, profitably and the accoutrements are virtually the same as Amtrak. Big seats, Wi-Fi, power plug in, scenic views out the window and in the future, more elaborate food compared to just snacks. As the economics of scale make buses more practical and convenient. Paint is cheaper than rail, give a bus a cool paint scheme and you’ll get a 30% bump in ridership.

  2. Certainly air fares have fallen in the past 30 years or so. Most observers say this was due to the deregulation of the airlines that began under Jimmy Carter, not to failures at Amtrak, which you say is “insignificant”.

    Air fares have come down due to open competition. An unfortunate aspect was that start-up airlines with all new hires could pay less than established airlines, where most employees had built up considerable seniority. Then the established lines went to bankruptcy court to get wages and benefits rolled back, or wiped out.

    I know the super rich and their apologists, and especially the Ayn Rand cultists, want to return to the Robber Baron days when it was all dog eat dog. But not everyone takes so much pleasure these days knowing that so many other Americans have suffered huge pay cuts in recent years.

    But you say, rail fares are up? Do you mean that Amtrak’s pay rates have gone up at least in nominal terms, if not so much in inflation-adjusted figures? Or do you mean costs have gone up, for diesel fuel? (Sort of like the price of gasoline, so the cost of driving has also gone up?)

    Or could it be that the value of Amtrak’s service has gone up?

    You want to compare with 40 years ago, let’s go back less than 20 years. A train rode electrified route from NYC to New Haven, then stopped for about 30 minutes while a diesel engine was hooked up for the rest of the way to Boston. Electrifying NYC-BOS gave riders better value, and I hope that Amtrak priced the tickets accordingly.

    Then along came Acelas. Despite FRA regulations that made the new trains like “tanks on wheels”, the new, faster, higher-priced service has gobbled up the market share from the shuttles out of La Guardia.

    Meanwhile corridor service Milwaukee-Chicago, St Louis-Chicago, Portland-Seattle, Oakland-Sacramento, and elsewhere has gone from one or two trains a day to frequent, almost hourly schedules. That’s worth more too.

    Now watch out. “Cruise trains” exist only in fevered imaginations and propaganda. Check the Fact Sheet info at NARP to see that less than 10% of the passengers go end-to-end on the long distance trains out west, that is, Chicago-Seattle/SF Bay Area/L.A., and New Orleans-L.A.. Over 90% of the passengers are using these trains like corridors, to go Fargo-Minot, Omaha-Denver, Flagstaff-Kingman, or New Orleans-Lafayette.

    And please do feel free to ride a bus anywhere your heart desires. I’ve done it and probably will again,because the price is right. But the buses I’ve taken between NYC and DC have been very cramped, walking in the aisles was verboten, and yes, one did break down en route. So when I hear others start to foam at the excitement of buses for me to take instead of trains, I always get the creepy feeling that the bus will deliver me to the loading dock of the Soylent Green factory.

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