It may seem improbable, but the odds that faster trains are coming to the Northeast Corridor have jumped recently. That’s because beginning in 2015, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is expected to finally permit modern European designs on tracks throughout the country, running side by side with heavy freight, at all times of day. This decision could cut the weight of U.S. passenger trains in half, meaning trains can go faster, accelerate more quickly, cause less wear on tracks, and get passengers to their destination in less time.
How much time? The decision by the FRA to finally shelve regulatory requirements from the 1920s means that lighter replacement train sets for the Acela could cut the trip from Boston to New York by 30 minutes (the trains can maneuver the curvy tracks of New England at higher speeds) and the faster acceleration and braking could shave 5 to 10 minutes off the trip from New York to Washington.
That doesn’t seem like a lot of time savings, particularly on the New York to Washington run, but for a small investment, you could shave off a lot more minutes.
For example, if you combine the purchase of the new lighter Acela train sets with some of the incremental improvements that Amtrak has proposed in its 2012 “Vision for the Northeast Corridor” report, passengers on trains could get from Boston to New York City in 2 hours and 51 minutes (versus 3 hours and 30 minutes currently) and travel between New York City and Washington in a mere 2 hours and 22 minutes (2 hours and 50 minutes now). And for the first time, the Acela will actually be able to reach speeds of 160 mph both north and south of New York, which was what it was supposed to do back when it was built in the 1990s.
The cost for these faster times? About $19.2 billion spread out over ten years. That’s a lot of money, especially in these tough fiscal times, but compared with the $150 billion price tag for Amtrak’s Next Generation High Speed Rail (which could include a new tunnel under the Long Island Sound that everyone knows will never be built), or the $69 billion being spent on the California’s high speed rail project, it's a bargain. Or to put it another way, we can spend $19 billion to shave 67 minutes between Boston and Washington or we can spend an additional $131 billion to cut another 149 minutes.
And because lighter trains mean less fuel consumption, the cost for a ticket on the Acela could be cut. That would help increase Amtrak’s share of the travel market from Boston to New York, possibly to as high as 70 percent from the current level of just above 50 percent, as well as increase its share of the Washington to New York market, which is already over 70 percent.
Of course, as long as the sequester is in place, any additional investment in high speed rail, no matter how modest and cost effective, is a non-starter. But if Congress and the Administration can finally reach a larger budget agreement, there is hope. Creating a true high speed rail corridor has long been a goal of Democrats and in particular the Obama Administration. And the new Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Bill Shuster, is from Pennsylvania, a state that would greatly benefit from this investment. In addition, if Democrats are willing to open the operation of the rail system to private firms (while maintaining ownership of the infrastructure with Amtrak and the Federal government), enough Republicans, might be swayed to make this smart, cost effective investment.
But even if none of that happens, the FRA’s decision alone will help speed up travel in the northeast, and that is long overdue.
Paul Weinstein Jr. is a PPI senior fellow and directs the MA in Public Management at Johns Hopkins University.