On West and East Coasts, High-Speed Rail Is Moving Faster

By happy coincidence, the California legislature's approval on July 6 of bonds to definitively start construction of high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles came just days before more than 1,000 members of the same industry gathered in Philadelphia for the 8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail.

While savoring the news from California, the attendees could turn their attention to an updated proposal released by Amtrak at the conference to remake rail travel in the Northeast. The ultimate goal: high-speed rail service between Washington, D.C., New York and Boston.

Under Amtrak's framework, the Northeast rail corridor would be modernized in stages, beginning with steps to bring current tracks up to a state of good repair. Existing Acela service would be improved on the existing corridor, including purchasing 40 new rail cars to lengthen trains and add room for more passengers by 2015. And by 2025, two new tracks under the Hudson River into New York would expand capacity for not only Amtrak, but commuter rail traffic as well.

The most groundbreaking element of the plan comes in the final phase, when a dedicated high-speed rail line would be built from Boston to Washington. Once completed, travel time between New York and Washington and from New York to Boston will shrink to a mere 94 minutes.

The price tag for all this is a hefty $151 billion. But that sum represents investments made over three decades, bringing the annual outlay to a feasible level. Amtrak has made clear that the private sector will play a crucial role in the project. There is plenty of reason to believe that investors will be eager to participate. The market for rail travel in the region is already well-established. Ridership has grown steadily in the last decade since the Acela was introduced as people avoid crowded highways and the discomforts of air travel. And a range of international firms and investors have expressed interest in the corridor, including Central Japan Railway Co., operator of the Shinkansen high-speed train, which is working with a private company in Washington, D.C., to pursue opportunities in the Northeast Corridor.

One reason for the high cost is that Amtrak expects government funding to be allocated in relatively small slices. Funding constraints slow the project and increase the need for borrowing, raising the total price tag. Under one scenario, Amtrak's plan would secure a dedicated source of federal revenue that could be used to leverage private investments to design and build segments of the project. This public private partnership model is becoming more common in the U.S. in the absence of new federal sources of revenue for transportation. MAP-21, the national highway and transit bill signed into law last month, expands the popular Tifia program, a federal credit assistance program for nationally significant transportation projects such as the major transit expansions in Denver and Los Angeles, which also could be used in the Northeast Corridor.

What's important to remember is that the cost of not investing the Northeast Corridor is enormous. With its transportation network already near capacity, the region's ability to move people and goods efficiently is in jeopardy. As population grows, more productive hours will be lost to transportation delays and commerce will gravitate toward places where doing business is easier.

The experience of other cities and regions around the world shows the transformative effects of a modernized rail network. Just last summer, China opened its Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line, which moves 90 trains per day over the 819-mile journey. The eight-car train I rode on a weekday morning last August was more than 3/4 full and took about 4 hours 55 minutes. Other global cities, such as London, Paris, Tokyo, Seoul and Frankfurt, already are connected by high-speed rail and their countries are expanding the networks.

Amtrak's latest report offers the clearest prescription yet for building a truly modern rail network in the most densely populated region of the country. But the blueprint makes clear the enormous hurdles ahead — financial, political, and institutional. At the end of the day, whether the vision sketched by Amtrak becomes a reality or remains on paper will be a question of whether the Northeast and the country can generate the political will that other global cities have been able to muster.