Now that the California state legislature’s dragging its feet on releasing the state’s money for high-speed rail, there’s talk about a Plan B. The official Plan B, supported by the chair of the State Senate’s transportation committee, is to redistribute most of the money from the Central Valley toward the train stations of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Since the federal money was conditioned on sending everything to the Central Valley, and a last-ditch Plan B is unlikely to get USDOT to change the rules, most likely the actual Plan B is to kill California HSR and redistribute the $3.3 billion in federal elsewhere within the US. Illinois and North Carolina both want money for their medium-speed projects, and Amtrak wants money for Northeast Corridor improvements.
Because the Northeast Corridor improvements Amtrak wants are not necessarily the most cost-effective, I think it’s most paramount to look for projects that are in the intersection: part of the Master Plan, ideally as ready as possible (e.g. ones that are considered state of good repair), but also compatible with future upgrades to full HSR standards. In particular, this means no investment in parts of the mainline that should be bypassed in the future, but high investment in parts that shouldn’t.
Although the cost projected by Amtrak for these upgrades is in all cases higher than it should be, the high value of investment in the Northeast Corridor is such that they are still cost-effective. This is similar to Second Avenue Subway, which despite the immense cost has such a high projected ridership that its cost per rider is fine, if higher than it should be.
Projects that are to my knowledge still in progress, such as Portal Bridge, are excluded. The same is true of projects that are too big or too cost-ineffective at present construction costs.
Constant Tension Catenary
Cost: $1 billion for “high-speed territory,” which appears to be a small subset of the New York-Washington mainline; including related upgrades, just the 40 km between New Brunswick and Morrisville that are already funded are $450 million. For the full line, figure $2-3 billion. The non-US cost should be about $1 billion, but because of benefits, paying the premium is worth it.
Benefit: higher reliability in summer. No limit to top speed except for the curves; although present-day rolling stock can only do 150 or 160 mph (240-255 km/h), up from 135 mph (215 km/h) allowed by the existing catenary, the time savings for future rolling stock capable of higher speed are substantial. The more curves are fixed along the line, the greater the benefit.
New Haven Line Bridge Replacement
Two bridges (Devon, over the Housatonic River, and Cos Cob, over Mianus) require replacement; two more (Saga, in Westport, and Walk, in Norwalk) require rehabilitation. Except for the Walk Bridge, which can be bypassed on I-95, those bridges should carry high-speed traffic in the future.
Cost: unclear – the plan says $4.4 billion for many projects on the New Haven Line, and a separate breakdown only says that replacing both the Saga and Walk Bridges costs $600 million. For what it’s worth, replacing the (two-track) movable Connecticut River Bridge with a high-level fixed bridge is pegged at $500 million, over a wider river.
Benefit: higher reliability and capacity. No speed limit on unpowered bridges, versus the 40 mph (65 km/h) limit today. More subtly, on both sides of the Cos Cob Bridge there are short, sharp curves; rebuilding the bridge as a high-level bridge with a single very gentle curve imposing no speed limit could be done more or less within right-of-way, though the Cos Cob station platforms might have to be moved slightly. Even more subtly, more reliability means less padding on both Metro-North and Amtrak’s part, and with federal funding obtained by Amtrak this can potentially allow intercity trains to go at a higher speed elsewhere on the New Haven Line than Metro-North currently permits.
The segment between the NY/CT state line and Stamford is in my experience the slowest on the Northeast Corridor outside immediate major-station areas, and when I timed the trains on it, the northbound trains did it in about 11 minutes, for an average speed of 60 km/h. The curves immediately west of Stamford are actually fairly gentle, and letting the trains run on this segment at speed could nearly halve this travel time. While this would require higher cant and cant deficiency than the low values currently used on the New Haven Line, there’s little point in raising them while speeds are so limited on the Cos Cob Bridge.
B&P Tunnel Replacement
The tunnels immediately west of Baltimore were poorly engineered and impose a tight speed limit, slowing down trains by about 1.5-2 minutes even though they are adjacent to a station. While this is a relatively straightforward project, it may not be sufficiently advanced in the design and environmental clearance phase, making it a candidate for future funding but not for stimulus funding.
Cost: Amtrak’s Master Plan says $1 billion. The FRA’s study on the matter says $770 million. Both figures are within the normal non-US range for urban tunneling of this length, though the Amtrak figure is toward the upper end of it.
Benefit: reliability, and on the margins some extra space for intercity trains to pass commuter trains (on the margins, because for the next two stations south of the tunnels there are four tracks already). Some trip time improvement, and even more trip time improvement if there is new high-acceleration rolling stock, for which speed limits in station throats add more to trip times. Reduction in maintenance costs – curves as sharp as those in the existing tunnels (about 250-meter radius) begin to wear the wheels of trains, and the best available future rolling stock, Shinkansen trains, has the highest minimum curve radius, though it is well below 250 meters (I believe it is 190).
Pelham Bay Bridge Replacement
Cost: $500 million together with curve modifications between New York and New Rochelle. Just repairing the bridge more, which is not the same as replacement, is $100 million.
Benefit: like Cos Cob, Pelham Bay is flanked by two sharp, short curves. Replacing it even without doing anything else would eliminate a speed restriction in a zone that for a few km could support 200 km/h.
There are additional projects that can be undertaken, in relatively small chunks. Some have been hinted at; some haven’t been studied at all that I know of, but have tantalizing benefits for future high-speed service. Because there’s no design yet, except possibly for Elizabeth, it’s unlikely anything can be done by any deadline, but design should begin promptly to make the next round of funding. At any rate, the above shorter-term projects are more than enough to soak up all funding that could become available if California fails to appropriate money for its own HSR project and returns the federal funds.
New Rolling Stock
The Acelas are heavy, low-capacity, low-performance, and high-maintenance. New trains can’t be FRA-compliant, and in practice some time (measured in years, not decades) can pass before the best rolling stock is legal on US track. But Amtrak and all involved in HSR on existing track should be at the forefront of asking for an overhaul. High-acceleration trains, capable of about the same cant deficiency as the Acela (for example the E5 Series Shinkansen and the high-speed Talgos), can achieve much faster trip times than possible today, with trivial changes to right-of-way geometry. Of course the tracks would have to be maintained to higher standards, but that’s much cheaper than moving a viaduct or carving a new right-of-way through a residential suburb.
Elizabeth S-Curve Modification
Cost: ??? The project would entail stretching the present reverse-curve, and probably demolishing all or parts of Union County College’s Elizabeth Kellogg building, a new medium-sized building that cost $48 million to build, as well as a parking garage between the college and the train station. The chief difficulty is easing a curve that’s on a viaduct.
Benefit: current speed limit on the curve is 55 mph (90 km/h), and because the limiting factor is not radius but how fast one can reverse a curve, there’s not much that can be done by raising superelevation. If only the above two buildings are removed, and some parking lots are taken, the curve appears to be modifiable to a radius of about 1,500 meters, which with cutting-edge superelevation (200 mm) and the E5 or Talgo 350’s cant deficiency (about 175 mm) corresponds to 220 km/h. This effectively extends the high-speed zone in New Jersey farther north, closer to Newark.
An express New Jersey Transit train taking a curve with radius 1,500 meters and superelevation 200 mm at its top speed of 160 km/h would have perfectly balanced cant to within a millimeter, and so there is no need to reduce cant to accommodate it.
Metuchen S-Curve Modification
Metuchen is Elizabeth’s shy, ignored sister. Amtrak’s Vision travel time simulation does not fix the curve at all. Update: as Jim notes in comments, the Master Plan does talk about some fix, calling it the Lincoln Interlocking. The total cost of this, Elizabeth, constant tension catenary, additional curve realignments in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and other projects Amtrak identifies as immediate trip time improvements is $4 billion, of which a portion has already been allocated.
Cost: ??? The project entails straightening two reverse curves, an easier one between Metropark and Metuchen and a harder one on both sides of I-287. Some residential takings may be required, especially for the former; the latter may require partial takings at a strip mall and an industrial building. Since the railroad is not on viaduct here, structure costs should be far lower than in Elizabeth.
Benefit: current speed limit is 100 mph (160 km/h). The S-curve is not as tight as at Elizabeth and this means there’s more potential for an increase in speed, but not too much. With minor takings, the curves in the area can all be straightened to 2,500 meters (280 km/h) except the I-287 curve, whose maximum feasible radius depends on how many takings are allowed; with very superficial takings, 1,800 meters (240 km/h) is possible, and with completely taking the strip mall and industrial site there’s practically no limit. Although the existing speed is much higher than at Elizabeth, this is smack in the middle of an otherwise full-speed zone, and so the benefits of speed boost are higher.
Second update: I forgot to say – with the same assumptions as for Elizabeth, a 160 km/h NJT express would have 17 mm of cant excess on an 1,800-meter curve and 80 mm on a 2,500-meter curve, both lower than the cant excess of stopping trains on some of the curvy stations in southeastern Connecticut.
Port Chester-Greenwich Bypass
Most of the slowness of the segment between the NY/CT state line and Stamford comes from Cos Cob, but part of it comes from a sharp curve in Port Chester that can’t be modified without too many takings. As an alternative, trains should leave the existing line just south of Rye, travel along I-95 and its gentler curves, bypass Port Chester and Greenwich, and rejoin in the vicinity of the newly-raised Cos Cob Bridge. Curve radius without significant residential takings would be about 1,300 meters through the I-95 S-curve in Rye and Port Chester, and 2,000 meters elsewhere.
Cost: ??? This is about 7 km of new line, with significant portions on viaduct. Parts of the Greenwich station house may need to be knocked down or moved.
Benefit: the direct benefit is bypassing two curves in the middle of what would be, in the presence of a fixed Cos Cob Bridge, a relatively high-speed segment. The indirect benefit is that it gives intercity trains several fast kilometers to overtake express commuter trains. Not only does this boost reliability, but also, like the Cos Cob fix, it makes it possible for intercity trains to travel faster elsewhere on the line without mucking up commuter trains’ schedule. Currently permitted top speed in Metro-North territory is 90 mph (145 km/h) in New York State and 75 (120) in Connecticut, but those curve fixes would allow much higher speed on a long continuous segment. With higher superelevation, current curvature would permit a continuous 200 km/h south to Harrison and north to Stamford, 170 km/h through Harrison south to New Rochelle, and 160 km/h through Stamford.
New Rochelle Interlocking Grade-Separation
Cost: ??? Harold Interlocking, a more complex project, is about $300 million. But this project conversely would require minor curve modification between New Rochelle and Pelham Bay for full benefit, and also some takings through New Rochelle to straighten the existing S-curve. Ultimate cost depends on how much straightening is involved.
Benefit: current speed through the interlocking is 30 mph (50 km/h). The flat junction also leads to capacity constraints at rush hour, limiting intercity train movements and forcing them into slots that may be suboptimal in other parts of the line. Depending on how many takings one is willing to engage in, an S-curve with enough space to fully reverse the curve could have a radius anywhere from 700 meters (150 km/h) and up. 700 meters represents minimal takings; the point of diminishing returns is about 1,800 meters (about as much as other curves farther north can be eased to, permitting 240 km/h), which would require taking a row or two of buildings east of the tracks.
Eastern CT I-95 Bypass
Not a small project at all, but it can be broken into segments, some of which allow postponing or canceling projects on the existing Shore Line. In addition, Connecticut wants to widen I-95 in this area from 4 to 6 lanes, and since the capacity of HSR is much higher, the money can be reprogrammed without net loss of auto capacity.
This project would start right at New Haven Union Station, cross the Quinnipiac River at a new bridge near US 1 and the new I-95 bridge, follow I-95 to the state line, and then cut across barely-populated territory to the Shore Line at Kingston, where it straightens.
Cost: this is 121 km of tunnel-free route, and based on similar costs in Europe, it should be $2.5 billion. Carefully tracing through the unit costs implied by the Penn Design group, following California HSR costs, produces a figure of $2 billion. But this assumes much lower costs for the bridges over the rivers than Amtrak has produced so far; Amtrak costs are likely much higher, though not by orders of magnitude.
Benefit: New Haven-Providence in about 40 minutes, New Haven-Boston in about an hour. Current travel time can be improved using better rolling stock, but there’s a point of diminishing returns, and reliability with present-day movable bridges, especially over the Connecticut River, is low, requiring extra schedule padding.
The three basic segments of this are New Haven-East Haven (i.e. the Quinnipiac bridge), East Haven-Old Saybrook, and Old Saybrook-Kingston; the Old Saybrook point comes from the fact that I-95 and the Shore Line are close there and there’s room for a track connection. The eastern segment bypasses the curviest segment with the worst bridges, but requires difficult bridges of its own; that said, the Penn Design methodology, under which a single bridge over a river is not as expensive as multiple grade separations, makes this segment look cheaper than it probably is. The western segment offers new capacity for commuter rail in the New Haven area, because it completely removes Boston-bound trains from State Street and points north.
Commuter Rail-HSR Compatibility
Cost: ??? This involves strategic four-track overtake segments; see example for the MBTA here and here, and for Metro-North to Penn Station here. For comparison, 17 km of four-tracking the three-track gap between the Devon Bridge and New Haven is $15 million, and 8 km of three-tracking the two-track Readville-Canton segment is $80 million. The much higher cost of the latter project presumably comes from the fact that this is new track rather than what appears to be restoring a fourth track that used to exist. But since those four-tracking segments are quite short, not much longer than a station and approaches, the cost of each should be in the low tens of millions.
In addition, MARC and especially the MBTA would need to obtain more modern rolling stock, to minimize infrastructure costs. An 8-car EMU is $20 million at Metro-North/LIRR/SEPTA costs (as well as the costs of European countries; American EMU orders are hardly more expensive than European ones, in contrast with the situation for infrastructure). That said, operating costs would be reduced due to lower energy consumption and a lower breakdown rate.
Benefit: de jure only capacity, but de facto those are busy commuter lines and intercity traffic should not take absolute precedence. As a result, those overtakes are crucial for letting HSR run at the full speed allowed by right-of-way geometry, rather than at reduced speed to avoid interfering with regional traffic. The new rolling stock and more rigorous operating schedule would also speed up regional trains significantly; MBTA trains could run from Boston to Providence in 51 minutes, down from 1:10 today, even while being overtaken by HSR twice during each run and making 3 additional stops.