The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


HSR could get you to Boston in 3 hours, but it's pricey

Yesterday, Amtrak announced plans to create a new, exclusive high-speed rail corridor in the Northeastern United States.

Photo from jimkleeman on Flickr.

The proposal would cost upwards of $117 billion ($40 billion in 2010 dollars) and could be complete by 2040. Trips from Washington to Boston would take only 3 hours.

Amtrak rightly points out that there is almost no better candidate for true, "next-gen" HSR than the Northeast Corridor. But the density in the corridor would also make this easily the most expensive rail project ever undertaken in this country.

The benefits, though, could be phenomenal. In fact, Amtrak expects that the new line could generate an annual surplus of $1 billion (2010 dollars) and could more than triple Amtrak ridership in the NEC from today's level.

Image from Amtrak's report, via The Transport Politic.

Between Washington and New York, the new line would roughly parallel the existing NEC rail alignment. From New Rochelle and Boston, the line would take a new inland alignment, passing through Hartford, but missing Providence.

In the Washington area, Amtrak would need to find a flat, straight alignment connecting Union Station with BWI Airport. Yesterday's report doesn't lay out any specific alignments; those would be set out in engineering and environmental impact reports.

In Baltimore, on the other hand, the new alignment would include an underground station in the heart of downtown. Penn Station is relatively inconvenient to the central business district, and the curving, tunneled alignment into the station is unsuitable to fast trains.

A new six-mile tunnel under the city would include a six four-track station under the Charles Center area. It would allow trains to serve Baltimore (and pass through without stopping) at higher speeds. Trains in the current B&P Tunnels west of Penn Station are limited to 30 mph.

With all of the corridor improvements, Washingtonians could reach midtown Manhattan in slightly over 90 minutes and downtown Boston in 3 hours flat. For service to other major cities in the northeast, other expresses would follow different service patterns and make intermediate stops.

This new corridor—and improved service on the existing NEC due to reduced congestion—could open up new opportunities for transit-oriented development around rail stations, including new ones in city centers.

But, as The Transport Politic points out, there are plenty of reasons not to celebrate just yet.

The Obama Administration has been extremely receptive to rail, but Congress has only allocated $10 billion total to HSR in this country. That's less than 10% 25% of what would be needed to build just this corridor alone, and there are several other HSR corridors in the United States which also deserve funding.

With conservatives gaining steam as the midterm elections approach, the likelihood of a major shift in resources toward HSR looks extremely unlikely.

And while this corridor certainly needs improvement, we already have faster trains than the rest of the country. To some extent, it might be more equitable to build high-speed rail in corridors where trains are much, much slower currently. Could we speed trains in the Northeast for less?

Regardless, this report shows that Amtrak is dedicated to moving America into the 21st century. This proposal is an excellent step to bettering rail service. But it's only one step.

Without dedicated funding for projects like this one, America is destined to have, at best, a piecemeal high-speed rail system.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Would be nice, but as with most things infrastructure, I don't see it happening for two reasons: money, and politics.

by Froggie on Sep 29, 2010 10:58 am • linkreport

The flight from DCA to BOS is just over one hour in the air. A train will never beat that. Instead of spending money on rail, why not take the money and:

-improve transit access from each airport in the NE Corridor to their cities

-use technology to improve airport security and check-in procedures to minimize time spent at the airport

-improve the air traffic control system to allow for better utilization of airspace in the NE Corridor

-build out the airports at Trenton and White Plains, which will then provide access to job corridors in Central NJ and Westchester County, NY

by urbaner on Sep 29, 2010 11:16 am • linkreport

Here in one proposal for finding the money:

Personally not a fan; the summary is a bit sparse but I suspect they take the money AUTOMATICALLY allocated to states and give it to rail.

To keep up my snarky reputation I'll just point about that commercial airplane exports in the US were our largest export -- 75 billion -- and part of keeping Boeing healthy is keeping a strong domestic industry. There was a good article in the FN about how Chinese companies are stealing marketshare in HSR from the Japanese/Europeans.

If Amtrak is right, and they could generate a billion dollar yearly "Surplus" (how is that different than profit) why can't the private sector finance it? Yes, the infrastructure bank is half private money, but still. There is a reason we build a network of trains to begin with -- private money building off public land grants.

90 minutes vs. 160 minutes to NYC seems like a very marginal improvement. Given that Acela already has 1/3 of the market between NYC and DC, how much more do they want?

by charlie on Sep 29, 2010 11:19 am • linkreport

It's really not DC to Boston that this would serve. The main market would be DC to NYC. This train could get from Union Station to New York Penn Station in 90 minutes. That's way faster than you could travel downtown to downtown by air. Not to mention all the shorter range trips, like Baltimore to NYC or Hartford to Newark. Plus, Philadelphia would be within commuting distance of DC.

by David Alpert on Sep 29, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport


The travel time from DC to Boston is meant to show the overall improvement over the current infrastructure, not meant to show that people will take the train from DC to Boston instead of flying.

The advantage of rail over air travel in this regard is that rail offers intermediate stops at desirable locations - Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York - air travel can only offer point to point service. Ergo, DC to BOS isn't the travel market - it's DC to PHL, DC to NY, NY to BOS, etc.

I'd also point out that all of those air travel improvements you mention are already underway. Security check-in won't get much faster, however. Even if it did, you'd still have the raw logistics of boarding a flight - a process that just takes more time than getting on a train, no matter how you slice it.

by Alex B. on Sep 29, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

I don't have 30 years to wait for this to potentially be built. Build it last year.

by Redline SOS on Sep 29, 2010 11:24 am • linkreport

Sounds nice. Will it ever happen? Probably not, especially seeing the House is likely to change hands at midterms. I wonder how fast the trip between Union Station and Charles Center would be? I'd pay for it if it were under 30 minutes. Maybe they'd cut a special commuter deal.

by Mike on Sep 29, 2010 11:25 am • linkreport

With this new line, I could get from City Hall in Philadelphia to the Starbucks at Union Station in about the time it currently takes me to commute from Greenbelt to Silver Spring by transit.

I doubt I'd have even gotten my shoes back on at BWI by that point.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 29, 2010 11:25 am • linkreport

In my books, the united States is worse that a third world country in terms of public transportation infrastructure. I just cannot concieve why there's no HSR (affordable) here, while almost all developed countries, even China and Russia are expanding their HSR networks. In Japan, if you live 100 miles away from a destination, you are guaranteed to be there on time in less than 30 minutes, US population could only dream about that kind of commute. With all these politics, ignorance and stupid stubbornness, the country is going back to medieval times.

by AndersSvensson on Sep 29, 2010 11:32 am • linkreport

I'm sorry Matt. Did you say would be complete by 2040?

by Jazzy on Sep 29, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

Rome didn't get built in a day.

In fact, the existing Northeast Corridor took from the 1830s until 1917 to reach its current form.

And electrification wasn't even complete until 2000. Only ten years ago!

by Matt Johnson on Sep 29, 2010 11:41 am • linkreport

The advantage of rail over air travel in this regard is that rail offers intermediate stops

That's not an "advantage" it's a detriment. Amtrak desperately needs a non-stop between DC and NY.

by Juanita de Talmas on Sep 29, 2010 11:43 am • linkreport

Reading the presser, some more interpretations:

1. The bulk of the benefit is from NYC-BOS
2. The increase in users would be mainly from highway, not air
3. claims 3-4 trains hourly, instead of 1

Having MORE trains would seem to be the big win here. What is the limiting factor now?

by charlie on Sep 29, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

I would totally buy a house in Philly and work in DC or NYC if this line were to be built out.

by Paul C on Sep 29, 2010 11:53 am • linkreport

Ok, Matt. Thanks. How long did Japan's take to get built I wonder. Wait, I can look it up.

by Jazzy on Sep 29, 2010 11:53 am • linkreport


Spare us the hyperbole, please. HSR is not exactly affordable in Europe/China/Russia, nor is it as extensive as its supporters claim. Some countries may have new systems, but don't let a glitzy HSR PR campaign distract you from the fact that lots people living in those countries are doing so on less than a dollar a day.

There is no question the US is behind the times in rail, but we've sort of been burdened with other commitments. Namely, providing security for things like international waters and shipping routes. Our defense spending enables global commerce to flourish and has subsidized standards of living all over the world, even if the most visible face of it are the boondoggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If the EU and other monolithic economies shouldered more of the security burden at the expense of their domestic priorities, I am of the opinion that we'd be having a different conversation today.

by JTS on Sep 29, 2010 11:53 am • linkreport


Limiting factor for Acela trains, or all trains?

The tracks are already congested around NY, particularly through Connecticut.

For Acela in particular, they don't have enough rolling stock to run trains more frequently.

by Alex B. on Sep 29, 2010 11:53 am • linkreport

The Tokaido Shinkansen was first conceived in 1940. After 5 years of construction, the line opened in 1964. That was a period of 24 years, just six years shorter than the 30 proposed for this project.

The proposed Amtrak HSR line in the Northeast would be 426 miles long. That's a third longer than the 320 mile long Tokaido line between Tokyo and Shimonoseki.

And speeds would be higher on the Amtrak line, as well. The Tokaido line operates at a top speed of 170 miles per hour, only 20 miles per hour faster than the top speed of the existing Acela Express service. The proposed Amtrak HSR line would have an average speed of 140 mph with a top speed of 220 mph.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 29, 2010 12:03 pm • linkreport

I would totally buy a house in Philly and work in DC or NYC if this line were to be built out.
Great, just great. Instead of just Virginia and Maryland eating our lunch we could have Pennsylvania too.

by Steve S on Sep 29, 2010 12:07 pm • linkreport

I'd just like to point out that this project is not really as expensive as the headline number makes it seem. In 2010 dollars, it's around $40bn. Not much different than CalHSR.

Fund it at $8-10bn a year for the next 5 years, and get this thing built!

by petrograd on Sep 29, 2010 12:23 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the clarification. I've updated the article to reflect your point.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 29, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport


So you spend absolutely no time in security and you just show up 15 minutes before the plane takes off? Please tell me your secret.

Because when you count at least one hour for checking bags and getting through security, to say nothing of boarding the plane, plus at least a half hour for getting off the plane and another half-hour (at least) to get into downtown Boston, train and air would be the same amount of time -- and a whole lot less stress going by train. No taking off shoes, sitting with someone's head in your lap, worrying about packing 3 ounce bags of shaving cream, etc.

I just took the bullet train from Rome to Florence and now would like to travel no other way. Sigh.

by lou on Sep 29, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

The Shinkansen was designed in 1940? Hmm, why do I think high speed rail wasn't around until a bit later -- when electric trains had taken over.

Again, if the funding requirement aren't so onerous, and the projections for future use so rosy, why can't private money fund this? Or at least 75%

Here's an idea. Have the feds give Amtrak enough trains so they go fully acela (nicer cars). Break it off Amtrak, privatize it is 5 years, let the Chinese buy it and then deal with the continuing losses.

Or demand vendor financing for Chinese made trains.

by charlie on Sep 29, 2010 12:33 pm • linkreport

30 years? The US needs to learn how construction is done in China. Just for a rough comparison (I won't go into their economics), they built the 600 mile Wuhan-Guangzhou high speed line in just 4 years! Plus the travel time is about 3 hours nonstop with ticket prices (plus insurance) based on distance (about $115 USD for the whole length).

by Scott on Sep 29, 2010 12:39 pm • linkreport

To some extent, it might be more equitable to build high-speed rail in corridors where trains are much, much slower currently.
Then again, one could argue that the Northeast corridor, one of the most densely populated coasts in the world, by sheer number of residents served, merits more attention than, say, Milwaukee and Madison.

That aside, it's also important to note that HSR can complement and enhance our air network by providing connecting travel for airports in the region. Flying to Philadelphia and then riding the train to Washington can relieve pressure on Washington's airports. That would obviate costly airport expansions in the area (For that to work, the airports would have to be connected to the rail network.)

by Eric Fidler on Sep 29, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

So, for an investment of $117 billion we could, possibly, in 30 years have a train that gets from DC to Boston in just over twice as long as it takes to fly the same route today, likely (if current Acela fares are any indication) at a significantly higher cost. This is a good idea,why exactly?

by Jacob on Sep 29, 2010 12:43 pm • linkreport

Concieved does not mean able to survive outside the womb.

It was at the stage where this project is now 24 years before it opened.

The first electrified mainline railroad was only 40 miles from here. A 4-mile portion of the Baltimore Belt Line was electrified in 1895.

February 12, 1933 the Pennsylvania Railroad electrified their mainline between Trenton and Washington, DC. Amtrak, MARC, SEPTA, and NJ Transit trains all still use the exact same electrification system today between Washington-Union and New York-Penn.

Trust me, electrified railroads existed in 1940.

The original concept for the Tokaido Shinkansen (concieved of in 1940) was for a line allowing a top speed of 93 mph. While electrification made the most sense, it was possible to travel above 93 mph without electrification.

LNER's Class A4 4-6-2 steam locomotives were capable of traveling over 100 mph, and were built beginning in 1935.

The locomotive "Mallard" of that class still holds the world speed record for a steam locomotive. On July 3, 1938 the locomotive reached 125.88 mph on the East Coast Main Line near Grantham.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 29, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

@Matt; if the line was "conceived" as a 93 MPH line, and then turned into a 120MPH bullet train, might I suggest that perhaps we are dealing with two different children?

Was the Suez Canal "conceived' when the Pharaohs wanted to dig through the desert?

Larger point: the window you are drawing for the build-out is much shorter. Amtrak as usual is dragging their feet. Perhaps right -- the money issue isn't there -- but no need to spin for them. 20 years to build a new HSR rail is pathetic.

by charlie on Sep 29, 2010 12:55 pm • linkreport

While the train would speed up, the TSA and DHS would require you to arrive 2 hours prior to departure for a virtual strip search by their imaging machines before boarding these trains, thus negating any time savings.

by Jan4 on Sep 29, 2010 1:01 pm • linkreport

This whole comment thread reminds me of why our national politicians get nothing done - too much arguing, not enough doing.
Yes, I realize this thread cannot build a high speed rail corridor, but - really - what freaking difference does it make what China / Russia / Japan / France / Timbuktu has or doesn't have? I could see maybe why you'd want to identify an exemplary HSR system elsewhere and then maybe send folks to study it and figure out why and how it became exemplary and see if we can duplicate it here. But to deride domestic proposals as being supposedly not up to some foreign standard is just obstructionist and wasting hot air.

By the way, I'd say pick Japan since their trains are supposedly so timely and efficient. But I wonder if that's partly a cultural thing - individuals here are depressingly unwilling to subordinate their own needs / wants to the greater needs of the group. (Just note Redline SOS's generic comments at this site - "it doesn't work for ME so it sucks!")

by Josh S on Sep 29, 2010 1:25 pm • linkreport

I wish Amtrak the best of luck in finding the funding and land to make this happen. In the meantime, we need to focus our limited resources on achievable, short-term improvements to our intercity rail network (in the Northeast Corridor and elsewhere in the country) that will deliver significantly faster and more reliable trips in a 5 to 10-year time frame using existing infrastructure.

If you support the idea of investing in incremental improvement to existing railroads and providing more, higher-speed trains all across America as a step on the path towards a true high-speed future, join the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

by Malcolm Kenton on Sep 29, 2010 1:28 pm • linkreport

I understand why they would cut out the CT Metro North segment, but it would be a shame. Stamford is a great multimodal center. You have local and express trains going up and down the coast and two separate branch lines (the Danbury branch has a portion of its trains go down to Stamford). Most importantly, Stamford has become a pretty decent sized city with a lot of commercial office space.

Danbury, on the other hand, is a tiny train station at the end of a very slow branch line. The city itself has little commercial office space. I'm not sure you could even justify a stop there if it weren't for the fact that it's the only feasible location for Faifield County passengers, a not insignificant group of passengers.

In short, I hope they figure out a way to stay on the New Haven line and still maintain speed.

by TM on Sep 29, 2010 1:45 pm • linkreport

I was enthusiastic about Acela but I've never once been on it, because I don't travel on reimbursed business trips. Assuming this new HSR ever goes in, it will be priced as a business class service. Like the Acela. I'm not much interested.

by mark on Sep 29, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

Josh: I think the problem is that many American citizens and politicians seem to think that America lives in some sort of vacuum, or that the US exists under some set of special conditions that make any foreign experience or comparisons immediately invalid.

If you need any proof of this, look at the healthcare debate.

by andrew on Sep 29, 2010 2:13 pm • linkreport

@ JTS: we've sort of been burdened with other commitments

You voted for the politicians that implemented that policy. The US is a democracy. Do not blame others for your own choices.

by Jasper on Sep 29, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport


Yes, I think your point is especially true when it comes to domestic issues like healthcare reform and the like, but we most certainly are a different beast when it comes to transportation. Although the DC-Boston corridor is denser than most of Europe, it is certainly the exception in the United States. Most countries are very small. Even the big ones like China have small clusters of activity that dwarf the output of the hinterlands.

It makes sense to me to look at America's transportation challenges as unique. It is never going to make sense to have a European style HSR linking every economic center in America with other centers. We need a suite of solutions, only some of which can be drawn from examples in Japan and Europe and elsewhere.


1. As someone who was not of voting age immediately after World War II, I most certainly did not. 2. Who am I blaming? Was I blaming someone?

Also, your point does not take away from mine, which was that other countries get to spend more money on domestic projects because we are effectively doing a lot of expensive things for them, like securing shipping routes for goods, oil and other vital commodities. There are pros and cons to this. One con is that we have less room to undertake huge national projects, which is why I didn't appreciate AnderSvensson's snide remark about Americans.

by JTS on Sep 29, 2010 2:39 pm • linkreport

let's invest eleventy billion dollars in a toy train that will go from DC to Boston, when you fly there now for $99 on JetBlue

still, I'd ride the thing just for the thrill of doing 220mph on land

by David on Sep 29, 2010 2:42 pm • linkreport

One of the reasons the trains are slow NYC-BOS is because every Congressman wants the train to stop in his district. Why would this not also happen with HSR?

As for comparisons to China: I do admire the better "can do" spirit in China that seems to have been lost in the USA. At the same time, the Chinese govt didnt have to worry about things like land use, zoning or the rights of others. They appropriated everything they needed (screwing a lot of people) and went ahead.

by SJE on Sep 29, 2010 3:04 pm • linkreport

I'll go ahead and add this project to the list of "things I wish we'd done instead of spending $1T in Iraq". And I'll add the european train snobbery to the list of "reasons to cut our defense budget and force other rich nations to quit freeloading off us". They built cool trains while we spent trillions to keep western europe out of the Warsaw Pact. Ignorance and stupid stubbornness, indeed.

by jcm on Sep 29, 2010 3:09 pm • linkreport

Let's invest eleventy billion dollars in a toy train that will go from DC to Boston, when you fly there now for $99 on JetBlue.

Or drive there for like $20 bucks. Why *does* train infrastructure cost so much, anyway, when the infrastructure for commercial jet travel and personal auto travel costs nothing?

It's crazy!

by oboe on Sep 29, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

From Wikipedia:
China. . .17,000 kilometres (11,000 mi) of high-speed lines are now under construction. The entire HSR network will reach 13,000 kilometres (8,100 mi) by 2012 and 16,000 kilometres (9,900 mi) by 2020.

2012 is two years from now.

And we might have 400 miles by 2040. Way to go America!!!

by Steve O on Sep 29, 2010 3:45 pm • linkreport

Let's invest eleventy billion dollars in a toy train that will go from DC to Boston, when you fly there now for $99 on JetBlue

Why come we have to spend some ridiculous amount on getting people from DC to Boston by train, when astronauts can ride to the International Space Station for free???

(Yes, it's a slow work day. And yes, with that, I'll stop.)

by oboe on Sep 29, 2010 3:46 pm • linkreport

As noted earlier, Steve O, you can do these types of things when you don't have to account for zoning, land use, or human rights. Silly democratic process always slowing down rail construction! How quaint!

Sidenote: Imagine how difficult it would be if every bus company and trucking firm (and POV owner, for that matter) had to pay for, build, and maintain his/her own roads. At its simplest this is what Amtrak has to do.

by smax on Sep 29, 2010 3:51 pm • linkreport

@Steve O:
There are quite a few reasons that China can do things that we can't. Even if it takes a little longer, I think I prefer our process.

In China, the government doesn't have to worry about dissension. They just pick a policy direction and go.

In China, they don't care what the environmental impacts are. So they don't have to bother with those pesky studies.

In China, they don't care what property owners have to say. They just build.

Also, keep in mind, you're comparing China's entire HSR construction program to one line in the United States. There are also HSR programs going on in Florida, California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

And the Southeastern states, Texas, and other states are flirting pretty strongly with HSR ideas. We'll see what happens there.

But even if you add all of those together, China is going to come out on top. That's fine. If you'd rather live in a country where the political process is whatever the politburo decides, move.

Of course, that's not to say that we can't do better. We should be doing better. But we're never going to be able to keep up with a country that does not have a public participation process.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 29, 2010 3:52 pm • linkreport

They built cool trains while we spent trillions to keep western europe out of the Warsaw Pact.

How about we spent that money to keep the Warsaw Pact out of Western Europe.

Please don't pretend that was a trivial thing to do either; let those who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, or in Prague in 1968, or in Budapest in 1956 serve as a reminder.

by MPC on Sep 29, 2010 3:56 pm • linkreport

Because we did so much to help in 1956?

With China's HSR plan I posted a link a few days back on it. Fascinating stuff. There was a sidebar discussion by two experts. Both agreed it would never make money. One thought it was a good idea b/c it would free up capacity for freight rail, and the other thought the money was needed for commuter rail. I think it's clear China is using HSR buildout to create a HSR industry. They are financing the $100 billion cost themselves via debt.

by charlie on Sep 29, 2010 4:05 pm • linkreport

China broke the high speed train speed record today with 416 kmh = 258 mph. At that speed DC-Boston is a bit more than an hour and a half. Just sayin'.

by Jasper on Sep 29, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

It'll be ready in 2010? WOn't we all have flying cars by then? I was promised a flying car!!

by dcd on Sep 29, 2010 4:32 pm • linkreport

Sorry, meant 2040.

by dcd on Sep 29, 2010 4:32 pm • linkreport

The 2010 cost is 40 billion, not 120 billion.

by JJJ on Sep 29, 2010 4:41 pm • linkreport

Hard to get excited about this when I'll be 60 by the time I can purchase a ticket. Also. Who cares about Boston. Focus on getting high speed rail to and from DC and NYC. Just focus on that small chunk instead of scaring people with the price tag and timeline for the the whole of the NE. Set the DC to NY goal and try and get it done in under 10 years. I think the wow factor of going from DC to NYC in an hour and a half will greatly boost support for high speed rail when you consider the type of people who would pay the price to ride it to and from NY and DC on a regular basis. Politicians, policy makers? Also wouldn't the NYC to Boston tracks be plagued with more rain and snow on the tracks? not sure how that effects things? I'm just thinking of the above ground metro rail closings we had this past winter. Either way I'm dismayed by the pace of things. We built the entire DC Metro system in 30 years. Why would this take so long. Ill be flying Virgin Galactic to the moon for vacation by the time they are cutting the ribbon on HSR

by Anon on Sep 29, 2010 4:55 pm • linkreport

I don't need to get to Boston in 3 hours.
Improve the existing line, get me to NYC in 2, Boston in 5, and call it a day...for a tenth of the cost.

Spend the balance of that $$ on TOD tax incentives, sidewalk encouragement, local dedicated BRT/Light Rail lines. Don't put all our eggs in one basket (eggs in basket...I made that up).

by stevek_fairfax on Sep 29, 2010 7:58 pm • linkreport

to put it another way...
How much light rail, dedicated BRT (in all the major cities on the east coast) could $120 billion buy?

at 20 million a mile...
6000 miles.

by stevek_fairfax on Sep 29, 2010 8:03 pm • linkreport

@stevek_fairfax and others:
The $117 Billion number is in Year of Expenditure dollars (2040 dollars). The cost in 2010 dollars would be about $40 Billion.

The article was corrected earlier in the day, but somehow the changes got undone. I apologize for that.

It's still a lot of money, and I tend to agree with Steve. But it's not as much money as it sounds like.

by Matt Johnson on Sep 29, 2010 11:52 pm • linkreport

I have ridden the Moscow metro and trains in Russia. Its not the speed that makes them useful its how close they get you to your destination. They however have built their apartments close to the metro. They also built their train stations connection to the metro station. so,one can walk off the train into the metro station. They have not built their airports close to metro stations. They like us need to improve connections to local mass transit resources from the airports. I like the JFK air train for example. although it is expensive.

by Brent from Idaho on Sep 30, 2010 2:31 am • linkreport

Love the train. With a little advance booking I can travel from DC to northern Connecticut for less than $80. Verizon link all the way. Electric outlets. Coffee. No show-up-two-hours early.

The new train sounds great. Hopefully, I'll still be around.

by kob on Sep 30, 2010 9:28 am • linkreport

While Amtrak's plan is laudable, constructing one line along one corridor (albeit a very economically important one) in 30 years won't solve the fundamental problem that is the lack of viable alternatives to air and car travel for most Americans. This is something I've written about quite a bit at my blog:

by Lewis on Sep 30, 2010 10:31 am • linkreport

There are a few dumb things about the current plans for HSR in the US.

Regarding the NE corridor it does not make any sense to not extend this line beyond the current corridor. In the south it should be extended to both Richmond and Raleigh and in the north to Manchester. As has been pointed out the goal of the system is not to connect the ends but to create better options between closer cities on the interior of the line - eg Richmond to Baltimore or Manchester to Hartford.

But what makes the least sense is how the Federal Government is trying to spread the HSR rail money around all over the country to please as many congressmen/constituents as possible. While I think it would be nice to build HSR everywhere I am skeptical about its initial financial viability in any part of the US except the Northeast.

The density of the regions and how and where both residents and businesses are located where you build HSR rail matter - a lot. It also matters that secondary feed exists to the rail lines - eg commuter rail, public transit etc. It matters whether users of a HSR line will have an easy and inexpensive way to get from the rail station to their destination - eg can they get a cab or public transit (or walk) and get to their destination in 10 minutes as opposed to needing to rent a car at the station and drive 30 minutes to a suburban office park. All of which factors into whether it makes sense to fly, drive or take the train between destinations that are short to medium distances apart.

I realize you can find corridors in California, the Pacific Northwest, Texas and maybe the midwest where it would appear you could string together population densities to support HSR. But for the most part you cannot string together a series of cities where it would necessarily make sense for business and leisure travelers to use high speed rail when the secondary infrastructure to move them does not exist and when most of these parts of the countries also are not suffering from the same level of road and airport congestion that the Northeast is.

I realize it will never happen but the smart thing to do in this case is to put all of the HSR eggs in one basket and build a single world class HSR rail corridor in the northeast. Assuming that corridor is a success it will help create the political pressure in the other parts of the country for additional HSR. You also get the greatest relief for the money on other transit infrastructure in the Northeast - eg less road and airport congestion.

And a secondary benefit of concentrating all of the rail infrastructure money in the northeast would be that the entire rail corridor could be upgraded which could greatly benefit commuter rail - eg imagine electrified VRE service between DC and Richmond running on parallel tracks and upgraded commuter rail tunnels in Baltimore and NY.

by TomQ on Sep 30, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

I like the people who dismiss HSR competition from China by saying that their people live on less than $1 a day. Keep telling yourself that while their middle class eclipses ours. It's Europe and Japan we need to look to for a model, which benefits not only public infrastructure projects but public health services as well, for the middle class as well as the rich and the poor.

What happened to the can-do American spirit? Or did it only ever apply to war?

@JTS What exactly is unique about the challenges America's transportation network is facing? We're a bigger country with less dense development, but that doesn't mean we can't encourage denser development in already dense areas with projects like these.

@David @oboe It's called the tragedy of the public commons. Airlines don't have to pay for the pollution they're causing in the skies (yet), and they don't have to build infrastructure. Roads are also incredibly subsidized compared to rails, but we don't complain about that. Rails are a traffic-free alternative to move more people at a time and provide redundancy in the system so that if one is overcrowded you have a backup. And some people prefer the city-center-to-city-center convenience you get from a train rather than the supposed time savings of flying, which does not always include check-in and security lines.

@Matt Johnson If it took a quarter-century to build a high-speed rail line a half-century ago, with advances in technology since then it should take half that time now.

by Anonymous on Sep 30, 2010 1:06 pm • linkreport

This is exactly the sort of project that calls for a national infrastructure bank... though in the absence of political will for that, going the California route and appealing directly to Japan and China for foreign aid seems more likely. :p

by J.D. Hammond on Sep 30, 2010 2:09 pm • linkreport

Population Density:
Spain: 231 people/sq mile
France: 276 people/sq mile
California: 213 people/sq mile
DC-NY Corridor States (DC,MD,PA,NJ,NY): 427 people/sq mile

Why is the US so behind? Obviously there are corridors where HSR is a viable and potentially profitable option.

The reason is the Republicans, who consider those countries "socialist". Their dream is to do away with Government and public infrastructure. Republicans' ideal states are Somalia, Haiti. No Government, no regulations.

WooHooo! Way to go America. Republicans will be back soon. Let's get our boats ready. Somalia is here. We'll all be pirates.

by Al-Fakh Yugoudh on Sep 30, 2010 9:21 pm • linkreport

The project is a good idea, but the $40 billion figure is totally bogus. Converting $117 billion over 30 years into "$40 billion in 2010 dollars" only happens if you use a discount rate of 7%. This is basically just "lying". The $117 billion is based on an economic model where inflation is much less than 7%, yet they discount the future expenditures at a much higher discount rate. That isn't an honest way of converting to current-year dollars.

I don't think they can even do it for $117 billion, but $40 billion is a pure myth.

by David desJardins on Oct 2, 2010 5:36 pm • linkreport

P.S. The report;filename=Amtrak_NECHSRReport92810LR.pdf

contains a more honest price of $72.8 billion in 2010 dollars using a 3% discount rate.

Note the project is very worthwhile at this cost and the figures in the report do explain why.

by David desJardins on Oct 2, 2010 5:41 pm • linkreport

A few things:

1) Anyone riding the NEC today could tell you, the schedule is so padded for construction and commuter-line delays, if they just ran a better railroad, they could shave off another half hour between NYC and Washington and 45 minutes or more for Boston (just fine-tuning the New Rochelle-New Haven section to allow moderately high speeds would shave at least 25 minutes). It would cost more to run a better railroad (maintaining excellent infrastructure, upgrading line-crossovers, straightening a curve here and there), but it would be a tiny fraction of this project. Getting HSR away from the twisty and NIMBY-ridden Connecticut coast would be a coup, but the cost of building a line from scratch between New Rochelle and Boston, via Danbury & Hartford, would be prohibitive and politically impossible - it's not even worth dreaming about. A dozen or so far cheaper, incremental improvements along the existing corridor could improve travel time dramatically (because it is _ridiculously_ slow right now).

2) NEC Acela service is running at capacity now during peak times, simply due to lack of train equipment. There's not even political will to increase capacity by buying more trains now - does anyone seriously think there would be political will to spend $73 billion on a project that only benefits a handful of cities in the Northeast?

3) If Amtrak planners had any sense, they would present a few alternatives: this grandiose plan, a plan for improving only the NYC-Washington leg to this standard and just make incremental improvements to the NYC-Boston leg, a plan for incremental improvements on the entire existing line, and a "do nothing" plan. The do nothing plan would be well worth looking at, because, as there is not enough money now even to maintain the existing NEC infrastructure/trains to current speed levels, gradually the line will decay and slow down, and THAT would be politically unpalatable even to Republicans.

by Resnyc on Oct 5, 2010 2:39 pm • linkreport

When you compare a proper high speed rail network to air travel, the average travel is indifferent somewhere between 300-500 miles (distance between DC and Boston). Therefore, HSR is clearly intended to replace short-distance flights along high density corridors and to argue that no one wants to ride a train 500 miles between DC and Boston is a red herring.

Furthermore, every dollar we spend today to maximise speed today also maximises throughput for a future where ridership will be much greater.

That being said, there is no shortage of logic explanations as to why the US should build this network but its survival of course boils down to politics. I wouldn't hold my breath.

by Gregory on Nov 11, 2010 6:05 pm • linkreport

"Or drive there for like $20 bucks. Why *does* train infrastructure cost so much, anyway, when the infrastructure for commercial jet travel and personal auto travel costs nothing??"

Train infrastructure seems costs a lot because its cost is passed on to the consumer. The price of roads is often not linked to gasoline or tolls but to property and income taxes. Thus you can drive there for an artificially low rate. Airports also are usually partially paid for by federal and state sources rather than by the airline tickets.

Where trains excel is they are the most fuel efficient if their load factor is high. (empty trains and empty planes are bad) The price of energy, particularly gasoline is likely to go up....

by Richard Bourne on Dec 7, 2010 1:52 pm • linkreport

Or drive there for like $20 bucks.

Huh? I missed this the first time. The actual cost of driving from DC to Boston in a single-passenger vehicle is about $220 (440 miles at the average US cost-per-mile of $0.50/mile). Actually, you should add a bit more for tolls, on this route.

by David desJardins on Dec 9, 2010 3:34 am • linkreport

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