Plan B for HSR

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.

Medium-Term Future

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.


  1. Aaron M. Renn (@urbanophile)

    Somewhat off topic, but what do you think of the idea of breaking off the Northeast Corridor segments of Amtrak and giving them to a Port Authority like structure run by the states that had some sort of fundraising authority? It seems like we’re never going to get the inter-city and commuter upgrades we need relying on the feds.

    • Alon Levy

      I think it would actually make things worse, at least as far as intercity service goes, because the states have even less interest in intercity rail than the feds. States push to use high-quality high-speed track for commuter rail; it’s understandable if we’re talking about New York-New Haven or Providence-Boston, but who asked for Providence-Kingston?

      The only HSR services the Northeastern states promulgate are the ones that connect cities in-state – thus Pennsylvania studies Keystone HSR, and New York studies Empire HSR. On the other hand, it’s a little better elsewhere – Georgia is seriously studying HSR from Atlanta to Birmingham and Jacksonville, among others; Nevada is interested in HSR to California; the Midwest is kind of sort of cooperating on this. On the third hand, Illinois is still heavily invested in the HSR line that crosses the entire state, which isn’t necessarily the best one to build, and even before Kasich Ohio cared mainly about in-state service and service to neighboring states that would reinforce Ohio’s central position.

      • Beta Magellan

        According to the Siemens-MHSRA report, Chicago-St. Louis is actually the least cost effective, at about $2645/rider. The most cost-effective is Chicago-Minneapolis, but it’s also the most expensive: it’s ~$2285/rider, but costs ~$28.6 billion to build in contrast to Chicago-St. Louis’s ~$15.9 billion (the least expensive line would be Chicago-Indy-Cincinnati at ~$14.2 billion—it’s also the second-most cost-effective at ~$2485/rider). I can’t say whether there’s enough uncertainty in these estimates to make them overlap in terms of cost-effectiveness, but there’s a good chance they probably do.

        • Eric

          All the cost/rider estimates are within about 20% of each other. Surely the uncertainty in the estimates is larger than that. And the Chicago-St. Louis route has the advantage of being fully within one state, which should decrease bureaucratic hassles. So I think it’s a reasonable first choice.

        • Nathanael

          The Chicago-Minneapolis line has been completely tangled in tri-state (or occasionally quad-state, when Iowa routing is suggested) politics. The fact that it could be sabotaged by a single criminal governor, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, shows the problems with interstate cooperation.

          Really, we need to redraw the state lines to make some sort of sense, but that isn’t going to happen short of a really serious politcal upheaval.

      • Alan Robinson

        I agree that it will be worse. There is plenty of evidence of capital starved local transit agencies delaying or slowing implementation of needed improvements to make existing commuter rail as speedy and reliable as needed. For example look at the upgrade of the Wayme Junction electrical system by SEPTA or read annual reports of the MTA in New York or METRA in Chicago

  2. jim

    Back to the 2010 Master Plan: Part III, pp.35-6 (pages 175-6 of the pdf).

    There are listed there a bunch of HSR Improvements/Other Corridor Wide. One task is New York-Washington Constant Tension Catenary. Among the other tasks are capacity expansions of the three frequency converters, additional substations, turnout upgrades and new high-speed turnouts, signaling upgrades (and backup power to the signaling system!), “ballast cleaning, subgrade stabilization and drainage”, and six curve realignments: Elizabeth, Metuchen (listed as the Lincoln Interlocking Area) and four covering the twenty miles north of 30th St Station.

    The total cost of the lot (here are 25 individual tasks bundled together) is given as $4,041M. Assuming that some of this is included in the Morrisville to New Brunswick work already funded, there’s a good case for giving Amtrak the $3.3B, telling it to find the remaining half-billion or so from the Acela surplus (this would be the required matching funds for the FY2010 money included in the $3.3B) and get this pile of work done.

    The cost of the Baltimore Tunnel replacement, which Amtrak these days is referring to as the West Baltimore Project, is already up to $1.25B. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but I’d lower its priority until someone other than Amtrak and Maryland takes a look.

    Yes, new rolling stock needs to be a priority. Personally I’d like to see Talgos because of their acceleration. But floor height might rule them out. Does anyone know if they’re working on a high-floor version?

    • Adirondacker12800

      West Baltimore Project, is already up to $1.25B. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but I’d lower its priority until someone other than Amtrak and Maryland takes a look.

      The tunnel has been in service since 1873. It’s going to have a problem someday that is going to stop traffic on the NEC.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I just updated it. (By the way, the page reference is 173-4, not 175-6.)

      I’m probably behind the curve on this, but where did you see that the B&P replacement cost had gone up?

      I want to say that the AVRIL can probably be modified to be high-platform, but this may be at the expense of the Talgo tilt system. In general it’s easier to raise floor height than to lower it, but Talgo’s axles are unique enough they might be the exception. But yes, the AVRIL has very good acceleration at medium speeds, precisely what is needed on a line with plenty of slow orders to 160 and 200 km/h, and can also have reasonable capacity for a loco-hauled train (about 480 seats for a 200-meter train in 2+2 configuration). I’m still enamored with the E5/N700-I because of higher capacity and also better initial acceleration, but the Talgo AVRIL is lighter and doesn’t need to graft one train’s active suspension system onto another’s motors.

      • jim

        Amtrak FY12 Comprehensive Business Plan, p.26:

        The proposed Amtrak West Baltimore Realignment & Tunnel…
        This four phase, approximately 12 year, $1.26B effort

        I’m not sure the Shinkansen can ever get a waiver, while the individual Talgo cars are (can be) FRA compliant, which gives FRA a figleaf in granting a waiver for the trainset. The 380 would be awesome on the NEC.

        • Alon Levy

          I don’t think the individual coaches for the US market are capable of being towed at high speed, though.

          Though, if they are, I suppose a mongrel with TGV power cars towing Talgos may pass muster, since the TGV power cars are built with higher buff strength (500 metric tons, i.e. more than Tier 1 and less than Tier 2).

        • Adirondacker12800

          I suspect that in 12 years the project(s) to make everything between New York and DC ACSES compliant will be complete. They can then think about running trains that never ever never leave the NEC and aren’t compliant with current FRA regulations.

          • Alon Levy

            Kind of weird that it’s taking 12 years when the Master Plan says corridor-wide PTC is $264 million and will be done by 2015. Then again, there are schedule slip-ups with these things. (More precisely, occasionally there aren’t schedule slip-ups.)

          • Adirondacker12800

            …. If they finish it in 2014 it will still be finished in 2024.

        • orulz

          I wonder what they mean by a “four phase … effort.” What are these four phases?

          Does the “West Baltimore Project” include just construction of the B&P replacement tunnel, somehow constituting four phases and 12 years, or also the closure, rehabilitation, and reopening of the 1873 B&P tunnel? That is what I think of when I read “four-phase” and “12 year”.

          The fact that the tunnel was opened in 1873 does not mean it can no longer be used, but it needs some serious work and can’t be effectively overhauled while remaining in service without blocking NEC traffic for too long. The curves are also too sharp for high speed rail anyway.

          After the replacement tunnel is built, Maryland MTA wants to use it for commuter rail, with a transfer to the metro subway at Upton.

          • jim

            If I had to make a guess, it’d be that you’re right. This is how scope creep happens. What started out as “build a new tunnel and decommission the old one” at three quarters of a billion is now “end up with two tunnels” at a billion and a quarter. Half a billion increase before a spade of dirt is turned. Purely for MARC.

            The MARC requirement and the Amtrak requirement are now bundled. Maryland hopes to get their own tunnel paid for from NEC HSR money. It’s like the Harold Interlocking scam. Or Gateway.

          • Nathanael

            Last I checked, the plan involves the replacement of *both* the B&P tunnel (access from Baltimore station southbound) and the Union tunnel (access from Baltimore station northbound). The Union tunnel was originally lower priority but it was found that it promptly became the next bottleneck if the B&P was replaced. There’s your scope creep.

          • Alon Levy

            Replacing the Union tunnel, if it is indeed the extra half billion, is not all that bad. It, too, imposes a speed restriction entering Baltimore, though not as onerous as the B&P tunnel; the approach also has sharper curves than we’d all like, though that may not be addressable by a tunnel of reasonable length.

          • Nathanael

            I found the most recent plans as a .pdf at some point and read through them all; I can’t remember where I found them though. Replacing the Union Tunnel is definitely part of the plan. There’s also a new set of bridges across some gully….

            I can’t remember what the limiting design speed was, but I think it ended up being 45 mph? Maybe? I could have that wrong. But that was right next to the station, the rest of the route was faster. The worst curves were going to be eased, but they couldn’t ease them by very much.

  3. Ryan

    With regards to the MBTA Commuter Rail situation, would it be at all possible to yank the Northeast Regional off of its final approach on the Providence-Stoughton Line through Back Bay, where it must stop and then spend several minutes contending with the BOS-BBY curve, and have it enter the city through Readville and the Fairmount Line instead?

    I’m not sure where the MBTA and the city stand on just what is happening to that line and any upgrades that are being made to it, but from my (untrained) look at that ROW there should be enough room to 3-track or 4-track it, the Fairmount Line is theoretically destined for electrification anyway, and running trains up that way allows a bypass of Back Bay Station entirely which serves the double benefit of eliminating an extraneous stop and possibly allowing the trains to start accelerating earlier and hit their top speeds faster. (Route 128 station might still be an obstacle to better acceleration, but I’m positive that a bypass of RTE is somewhere in the plan even if I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head where exactly it is.)

    • Matthew

      BBY seems to be used fairly heavily, and also allows a relatively easy transfer to the Orange Line to/from North Station.

      • Ryan

        BBY also represents an extra five to ten minutes on the travel time for a service that has a vital and vested interest in keeping its travel times down wherever it can. There isn’t that much of a difference between having to transfer once and having to do it twice, and four separate commuter rail lines pass through Back Bay en route to South Station. (Plus the Red-to-Orange route from South Station to North Station that exists already.)

        As far as I’m aware, you already can’t ride Amtrak from BOS to BBY or BBY to BOS – outbound trains only receive passengers and inbound trains only discharge passengers at Back Bay. (Of course it goes without saying that unless you are a monthly pass holder, you’d never WANT to take that ride anyway…)

        Though, if it wasn’t going to be insanely cost-prohibitive to blast ANOTHER tunnel through downtown Boston and reconfigure both stations to utilize it, I’d place a much higher value on the North-South Rail Link then I currently do, and assuming that ever gets built I’d predict the ridership numbers at BBY plummeting accordingly.

        • Alon Levy

          It’s far, far less than 5-10 minutes – given adequate rolling stock, it’d be less than 2, owing to the low speed through the South Station throat and the curve right after Back Bay. The initial acceleration rate I’ve timed the Regional at (no Acela, sorry) is about 0.2 m/s^2, which is less than one half that of most HSR trainsets today, and less than one quarter that of JR Central’s export Shinkansen model.

          That said, even 2 minutes can make a city’s secondary station worth skipping. Honestly, if they have that kind of time, Sunnyside is probably a better place to stop. (Route 128, by the way, has a time cost of 2:23, coming from the fact that the Canton Viaduct imposes a slow restriction that reduces the time penalty of stopping nearby. And even 2:23 is enough to justify skipping, especially if there are express trains but possibly also if all trains make the same stops and the Providence Line is sped up instead. Providence has a time cost of 1:28 assuming the curve north of the station can be fully superelevated, and a few seconds less if due to stopping trains the innermost parts of the curve have to be flatter.)

        • Matthew

          I’m open to the idea, but I’m not really sure it’s a huge gain. For many people, trips do begin or end at BBY. For them, going to BOS is an increase in overall trip time. Besides the Orange Line, BBY is conveniently close to the Green Line, and the station itself sits in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of town.

          Improved off-peak commuter rail service could make it more feasible to shuttle between BOS and BBY and that may be an acceptable alternative. IIRC, only BBY->BOS is free right now.

          And yes, BBY is a nasty Brutalist abomination filled with diesel fumes and who knows what from the Pike. But that’s another story.

          • Alon Levy

            BOS -> BBY is de facto free; when I ride back to Providence, conductors only begin checking tickets after Back Bay and, if the train stops there, Ruggles.

            That said, even if it weren’t free, it’d be easy and also good for other reasons to make Amtrak tickets to BOS valid fare on inner-Boston transit.

          • Eric

            There’s no such thing as de facto free. 1) People don’t know that they can get away without paying 2) There is always the possibility that someday the conductors will begin checking earlier and you will get caught without a ticket 3) It’s better to accustom people not to break (moral) laws even when they can get away with it.

          • Alon Levy

            Because the US does buy-on-board instead of POP, the penalty for being caught without a ticket is low.

            But on less congested segments than BOS-BBY, they hold the train so that conductors can check tickets. Nearly every time I ride the Providence Line north, the train sits between Providence and South Attleboro to help conductors finish checking tickets before the train makes its first intermediate stop.

          • Ryan

            Also worth mentioning is that, regardless of whether or not the trip is ‘de facto’ free, it’s a Zone 1A Commuter Rail fare which is included in 1-day and 7-day passes and should be included in a monthly pass (except for there being no way to use a CharlieCard on the train yet.)

            Depending on how prevalent 1-day and 7-day pass use actually is, the actual number of people who haven’t essentially paid for that ticket already anyway is probably rather small.

          • anonymouse

            Alon, I’m pretty sure the stop between Providence and South Attleboro is for a crew change. Crews are based at the yard, and their shifts start and end there, so the train has to stop to drop off the crew finishing their shift and pick up the new crew, because the old crew has their cars parked at the yard from when they picked up the train at the start of the day, and new crew will be taking the train back to the yard at the end of the day, and thus need to have their cars there.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s possible, yes. It’s worth about 30 seconds of trip time assuming trains don’t stop at Back Bay either way. This assumes trains take the 90-degree turn out of South Station at 70 km/h and go through Back Bay at 100 km/h, which I believe pencil out to the correct maximum cant and cant deficiency; if cant needs to be lowered to accommodate stopping commuter trains, or the speeds have to be reduced because of squeal, the speed difference with Fairmount of course grows. By the way, 30 seconds is nothing to sneeze at; there are far more expensive ways to save 30 seconds of trip time. The B&P tunnel replacement is worth about 2 minutes.

      Fairmount also has the added advantage of not requiring intercity trains to share track with the same commuter trains for so long, and this leads to more schedule flexibility. It requires building a new grade-separated interlocking – current infrastructure separates Franklin-Fairmount and NEC trains but forces flat junctions with NEC-Fairmount or Franklin-NEC – but conversely makes it possible to only four-track tracks immediately south of the junction, albeit with an incredibly tight fit between Attleboro and Readville.

      But the problem is that Fairmount doesn’t have the third track of the NEC, and also has more local train service demand. Now that they’re adding stations, it’s going to be possible but tight to fit intercity and commuter trains on the same tracks. Four-tracking means widening an open cut or elevated grade separations at many places, and that’s also quite hard.

      I suspect the right way to do it is to start with using the existing line, then switch to Fairmount as traffic increases to about 4 tph, and then go back to the Providence Line (or even split trains – locals go on the Providence Line, expresses on Fairmount) once traffic builds up beyond that. Fairmount’s local demand and two-tracked ROW is a real pain for integration if either commuter or intercity traffic goes above 4 tph. The Providence Line can handle higher tph counts because it has fewer stations.

      • Ryan

        I have no way of confirming this, mind you, but I’m fairly certain that the trains are not being run at 70 km/h along that curve presently. I’m guessing it’s something closer to 40 km/h, and the current operating policy appears to be to always stop at Back Bay because the speed limit is restrictive enough that making the stop is an acceptable loss. In the future, I imagine that would hold true even if you could get 70 km/h around that curve and therefore the only real way to avoid making that stop is to not pass through it at all.

        I would put money on traffic being the cause of the slowdown, though. Again, four separate commuter rail lines are already servicing both stops and using that curve, and I’d argue Back Bay is far closer to its capacity than South Station is – and also in far more desperate need of improvements, given the hilariously poor air quality and ‘dirtiness’ factor in the Commuter Rail section of the station. (But that’s another story.)

        I would argue the cost/benefit analysis on three-tracking or four-tracking the Fairmount is worth doing, anyway, and that the Fairmount Line (which really should become a heavy rail rapid transit eventually…) actually stands to gain on having to share with Northeast Regional and HSR because those trains running that corridor forces it to become electric, preventing the MBTA from reneging on that in the future.

      • Adirondacker12800

        The B&P tunnel replacement is worth about 2 minutes.

        I vaguely remember a thread on where they began to gnaw on the prospect. I seem to remember that it’s worth two minutes at 110MPH. If the tracks south/west of the tunnel are upgraded and the tunnel is capable of at least 125 it means the train can blow out of the tunnel exit at 125… they came up with savings of 5 minutes between Baltimore and BWi, assuming West Baltimore to BWI is upgraded. Makes less sense to upgrade West Baltimore to BWI if the B&P tunnel is at it’s eastern end….
        2 minutes here, 2 minutes there and all of a sudden the trip is down to 2:15.
        Another thread on considered constant tension catenary and employee timetables. If constant tension catenary lets you run at 186MPH in the places where Acela goes 135 you save 15 minutes… 2 hours NY – DC is possible relatively cheaply and relatively quick. 2 hours is 112.5 MPH, a respectable average speed for 100 old ROW.

        • Alon Levy

          Well, constant tension catenary also interacts well with other curve fixes, particularly ones like Metuchen, which is in the middle of otherwise high-speed territory, and also 125 -> 135 mph upgrades elsewhere on the line. If everything else is in top form, including things that aren’t necessarily cost-effective, constant tension catenary makes the difference between 2:00 and 1:35.

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  5. L Goldsmith

    What are the plans for the much needed improvements to west coast Amtrak
    – Pacific Surfliner in particular! Very neglected!!

      • anonymouse

        There have actually been a fair number of Surfliner upgrades recently. It’s true, most of the political and news attention has been going to HSR, but all of the actual construction money thus far has been going to Surfliner, Metrolink, and Caltrain. In particular, they’ve been slowly and steadily double-tracking the route, particularly in San Diego County, and building grade separations on the BNSF Transcon. They just opened a section of double track in Carlsbad, and are now working on extending the siding at Sorrento Valley. In another five years, the line will be more a double track with some single-track sections, rather than a single track with sidings, and there will be faster and more frequent service on Amtrak, Metrolink, and Coaster, and some better integration between the three (allegedly they’re working on through Metrolink-Coaster trains right now). And there still won’t be any actual HSR trains anyone can take, and, quite likely, not any actual HSR tracks either.

      • Nathanael

        The Surfliner double tracking has all involved agonizingly slow EISes, and for once it’s for good reason: the route runs through lots and lots and lots of ecologically sensitive areas. For the same reason, construction is slow because they have to be careful to minimize disruption to the ecology. But they’re doing it; various replacements of bridges with double-track bridges, lots of fairly substantial projects.

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  7. Corey Best

    Amtrak wants to extend the 6 track section of the NEC from South Elizabeth to Hunter Interlocking to allow for NJT to expand and build up its future MOM Rail network without impacting Amtrak. With 6 tracks it could get away with this. The Viaduct will have to be replaced , along with the Station which is in bad shape and the parking garage is falling apart. As for the County College , Amtrak warned them not to build there , but they did it anyway… You would think common sense would be applied there. The good thing is space in Downtown Elizzy is abundant and they can build elsewhere… With the 6 track extension and straightening , Speeds limits could be increased from 90mph Max to 160mph Max from Newark to PA….

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    B&P Tunnel Replacement
    CSX needs a tunnel with higher clearance too, this would make a great public-private project, essentially creating a new tunnel [at least four tracks] for both freight, commuter and Amtrak.

    • Alon Levy

      The preferred alternative right now is to have two separate tunnels, one for passenger trains roughly paralleling the B&P and one for freight trains going around Baltimore. But CSX indicated to the FRA that it has no need for such a tunnel right now, so the FRA is only advancing the passenger tunnel.

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