Waiting for a Fast Train

Two hundred years ago, New York state and city leaped ahead of the rest of the country economically with the construction of a publicly financed, inter-city transportation project called the Erie Canal.

Today, the city and state are part of a megaregion called the Northeast, which competes with other megaregions in this country and the world. Is there an inter-city transportation project that would allow the Northeast today to gain advantage the way New York State did in 1817?

High-speed rail may be that project. If trains zipped between Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington at average speeds of 160 mph plus, with local service to smaller cities as well, the Northeast would have a leg up on Chicago, Seattle, or Los Angeles and help it keep pace with London, Shanghai, and other world cities that are proceeding with similar investments.

For the past two years, Amtrak, a dozen states, Washington DC, eight commuter railroads and three freight railroads, the Regional Plan Association, and The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, among others, have been preparing an initial Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan. It's an impressive document. The estimated $50 billion in improvements would upgrade infrastructure along the entire line and, for example, lower travel time from Washington DC to New York by 20 to 30 minutes. The coalition is asking the Federal Railroad Administration for $18 million for an Environmental Impact Statement.

But despite its merits, the report does not call for or even consider true high-speed rail.

Recently a graduate planning studio class at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Robert Yaro, RPA President, and Marilyn Taylor, Dean of the School of Design at Penn and an RPA board member, have come up with a plan for true high-speed rail in the Northeast. It includes new tunnels under Long Island Sound and taking over highway median right-of-way. It's a plan that, as Daniel Burnham said, thinks big and has the power to "stir men's blood."

Under this plan, two new dedicated high-speed rail tracks would be built from Washington DC to Boston. Trains traveling from DC to New York would take only 90 minutes versus the current top time of 2 hours and 45 minutes. New York to Boston would take 1 hour and 45 minutes instead of 3 1/2 hours. Capacity would exist for 10 to 12 high-speed inter-city trains to travel along the new line each hour allowing for an expanded mix of both high-speed, inter-city, and commuter rail trains in the corridor. The huge boost in capacity would free up track space for commuter railroads in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York to accomodate their expected growth in rider demand.

True high-speed rail service, the plan estimates, would revitalize center cities like Hartford by concentrating growth there and helping make possible an environmentally friendlier and more pleasant lifestyle. People could use cars less and bicycles and transit more. The plan paints a picture where the Northeast leverages its already extensive investment in mass transit and commuter rail to create a true high-speed system that both enhances local connections and improves on them. The estimated cost — $98 billion — is conceivable.

The plan is appealing in its boldness and apparent feasibility. North of New York City, for example, rather than attempting to carve out new tracks through the existing highly congested Northeast Corridor along the Connecticut shore, the high-speed line would travel east by tunneling beneath Long Island and then travel under Long Island Sound through an imagination-capturing 20-mile, three-tube tunnel to New Haven. From there, it would travel along existing rail right-of-way to Hartford before diverting to Boston along the median of I-84, in one fell swoop obtaining much of the corridor for new dedicated tracks. South of New York, tracks would follow along a mix of existing passenger and freight right-of-ways, and new tunnels.

In preparing this report, Penn faculty and graduate students were aided by top transportation and economic development professionals. Scholars from both the United States and the United Kingdom participated in developing the studio's recommendations, giving its recommendations real credibility. The kind of true high-speed service envisioned in this report should be considered under the Environmental Impact Statement the Northeast coalition is about to undertake.

Virtually all of our competitors in the industrialized world have already built or are planning new high-speed rail systems. Even developing countries, including Brazil, India, Indonesia and Morocco, are moving ahead with projects. But there is an argument for moving incrementally toward high-speed rail, rather than leaping there. Former Amtrak and New York City Transit president David Gunn gave a convincing pitch in an interview six years ago with me that the nation would be better off upgrading its current train service to merely fast speeds, before attempting true high speed rail.

But we should at least consider it.

There is no question in my mind that there is a need and demand for true high-speed rail in the Northeast. Maybe it's time for another great leap forward. Or maybe a combination of hops, skips, and jumps will do the trick.