Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Redundancy, the Northeast Corridor and high-speed rail

An interesting discussion sprouted in the comments to one of Yonah's posts about high-speed rail, concerning how to reproduce the success of the initial Paris-Lyon TGV line. Chris G observed, "The thing with comparing anywhere to Paris Lyon is that that line was build as TGV only after it was already at capacity. Its not that we must have TGV speeds immediately."

The only line in the US that is anywhere near close to capacity is the Northeast Corridor, and Alon Levy wrote, "Everyone, don’t sell the NEC short. The line was operationally profitable until this year, when the recession killed ridership. If it were rebuilt at HSR speeds, it would make Amtrak as a whole profitable, creating a ready source of funding for further HSR construction."

Avi raised two concerns:
Alon, the NEC obviously has the greatest potential for ridership and profit. The problem is the cost to build a true HSR line would be astronomical. You’re talking about buying land and building a new right of way in the densest most expensive region in the country.

The other issue between NY and DC(especially NY and PHL) is there is too much traffic on the tracks. There is Amtrak Acela, Amtrak Regionals, Amtrak Keystones, random other Amtrak trains, NJ Transit express, NJ Transit Local, and Septa.

Avi clearly didn't read my earlier posts about redundancy, or he would know that there are parallel rights-of-way to the Northeast Corridor the entire way from New York to Boston. Some of them have commuter service, some run a few freight trains, but most of them are railbanked.

Eminent domain would only be necessary in cases where curves need to be straightened. The main expenses would be grade crossing elimination, electrification and rebuilding bridges. This is another way that redundancy can be useful: to run high-speed trains, you need dedicated express track. The Northeast Corridor has too many slower trains on it, but fortunately we have the right-of-way for another line.

So where could the Northeast High-Speed 2.0 Train run? From Boston south to New Haven, the best bet would probably be the Air Line, so named because it was almost as straight as an airplane route. The line is intact except for a bridge or two, and currently used as a rail-trail. From New Haven or Middletown the line could continue west on the former New York and New England line to Brewster and south on the Old Putnam line. It's not clear the best way to get it into Penn Station, but this is one of the many reasons why it's frustrating that the new Hudson River tunnel will not connect to Grand Central.

Between Newark and Philadelphia, the train can use the ex-Reading West Trenton Line. From Philadelphia to Baltimore I was a little worried at first, but looking more closely the CSX Philadelphia Division (ex-B&O) is single-track most of the way, and the NEC is only three tracks. There's plenty of room to add capacity. In any case, all of the alternatives are indirect, going through Lancaster, Harrisburg, York or Reading, PA, but some of the freight traffic could be shifted to those routes if necessary.

Going through Baltimore would probably be a headache, but that could potentially be done on the NEC. Between Baltimore and Washington we have three options, as I wrote before: the former Pennsylvania mainline currently used by the Northeast Corridor, the CSX Capitol subdivision used by MARC commuter trains, and the CSX Old Main and Metropolitan subdivisions, partly used by MARC.

The nice thing about these is that since we're serving the same cities, the alternatives could be phased in. I get the impression that the Shore Line is the most saturated section of the Northeast Corridor, but it's also the fastest, and the alternative Air Line is one of the most expensive to reconstruct. The most promising demonstration project would probably be the West Trenton Line. The right-of-way is already there, there is at least one set of tracks, there is some freight traffic but there are parallel routes for it to be diverted to. It also goes between New York and Philadelphia, where there are plenty of people ready to try it out.


CityLights said...

Just recently I took an Amtrak Regional from New York to Philadelphia for the first time. Somewhere after Trenton I fell asleep in my seat, and I usually have a hard time falling asleep in transit, even on airplanes.

At double the speed, but same comfort level and price, and I'll take this train once a month instead of once a year. Start such service to five cities I sometimes need to visit- Boston, Philly, Scranton, Binghamton, and Allentown- and I'll sell my car immediately. (Yes, I know, I can always take the bus, but it's just not the same).

Richard Stowe said...

The number one investment on the Northeast Corridor should be to build high-level bridges on the Shore Line East corridor in Connecticut to eliminate the restriction on the number of trains allowed to run between Old Saybrook and Rhode Island. We need commuter rail on this section of the corridor, too. RIght now there is just one SLE train in each direction M-F.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for the comments. However, CityLights, let me point out that doubling the speed usually leads to a decrease in comfort level.

Richard, I've discussed the Shore Line problem before. If we could get either the Inland Route or the Air Line up to a comparable level of convenience, we wouldn't have to run so many express trains on the Shore Lines and free up some time for local trains. But which bridges besides the Niantic are left?

Alon Levy said...

What's the point of using the West Trenton line when the existing NEC has exactly one bad curve between New York and Philly? And what's the point of using the curve-ridden Air Line, when a combination of existing track and I-95 can achieve the same goal with little eminent domain and no need to skip Providence?

Cap'n Transit said...

Well, Alon, the main point is being able to replace a bridge (or deal with a stuck drawbridge or downed catenary wire) and still get people to Boston.

Sixty years ago, if something happened to the New Haven mainline or the PW&B, you could still get from DC to Boston by train. Now, one bent rail can disable the entire corridor for hours. A bridge replacement planned months in advance can knock it out for days. How do your alternatives address this issue?

James said...

The Old Putnam ROW is used by the North and South County trailways in Westchester County these days, and as the only multi-use path that runs the full length of the county, ripping up the pavement to reinstall a rail line would never fly. Otherwise, I'm with you.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thank you, James, for illustrating my point about the failure of the railbanking sector.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Cap'n the Putnam line was built so the Erie could get freight to the Bronx. Passenger service was a byproduct. I can't find schedules now but it was slow, twice as long to get to Brewster as the Harlem line took. It made sense in 1920 when no one had a car. It wouldn't today, the Hudson or Harlem line trains are much faster.

The Blue Royal made it from Jersey City to DC in four hours which at the time was competitive with the Pennsylvania's running time. Unfortunately they went and built the Hudson Bergen Light Rail over the right of way in Bayonne and Jersey City. The bridge between Bayonne and Elizabeth was torn down decades ago. Passenger trains haven't been on the ROW in Elizabeth and Roselle Park since. It's still there, there's some talk of a light rail line on it...

The Reading went to what now is Market East in Philadelphia. You'd have to find a Philly foamer to tell you if the ROW is still in place south of there.

There might be demand for through trains on that line. Northern suburbs of Philadelphia to NY and NJ suburbs of NY to Philadelphia. The B&O lines and PRR lines are much closer together south of Philadelphia. I don't know if there would be much demand for service unless they spent lots and lots of money making the line faster. The money would be better spent making the existing line more reliable - replacing the antique catenary for one. Reviving the bypass of Wilmington comes to mind too.

Alon Levy said...

Now, one bent rail can disable the entire corridor for hours. A bridge replacement planned months in advance can knock it out for days. How do your alternatives address this issue?

Sorry I didn't see this before... the way to address this issue is to maintain the tracks better, as all existing high-speed rail systems do. In 45 years of operation, the Tokaido Shinkansen has been out of service for maintenance on only one day, and the outcry was so big it has never happened again.