Maximizing the value of the Northeast Corridor

This started as a comment on the Municipal Arts Society’s New Penn Station blog regarding their post New DC/NY High Speed Rail Link? It seemed to make more sense to me to post this here, so please read their post first and then the following:

The central issue here is what is the goal of this effort? One statement suggests the answer is: “to achieve maximum economic utilization of the Northeast Corridor.” Economic utilization by what metric?

One hopeful starting point could be the idea that Rep. Mica is talking about moving the most people. Think for a moment and realize that private dollars don’t want to do that. That’s mass transit, and there’s no money to be made in mass transit. To the extent that anyone would do this (and anyone who might is going to seek government guarantees, which defeats the whole idea of privatization), they will want the premium segment – but premium prices will only serve part of the market and only ensure maximum economic utilization for the vendor. Meanwhile, a notional effort like this would starve Amtrak of the very revenues it uses to survive in its current state on the starvation rations it gets currently. (About one quarter of Amtrak’s revenues come from the Acela.)

Under a plan like this, where would this new high-speed train go? Any plan that served New York would presumably use New York’s Penn Station and its tunnels, unless someone had the gigabucks to dig their own tunnels which would open the project to billions more in costs and years of additional work. How would these tunnels, owned by Amtrak, built by the PRR, and over 100 years old, support more trains when they are near capacity today? NJT plans its own new tunnels, but they are years overdue and will cost billions. Clearly access to these assets could be negotiated, but I doubt a new entrant vendor would like paying “market rates” for slots in these tunnels. Moving south, even if you solve the tunnel issue, how does one imagine threading a new train down through NJ, PA, DE, MD, and into DC? Along the existing right of way Amtrak uses – the former PRR mainline? There is room, I guess, but imagine the disruption to Amtrak, NJT, SEPTA, and MARC as this new line was built. Presumably Amtrak would be compelled to permit access to this route? If so, would there be any compensation?

To achieve maximum benefits for the citizens of the country, what you need to do is offer a safe, convenient alternative to driving that delivers a better value to the consumer than using their car so that they get off of the roads, stop consuming so much gas, and take advantage of the rails’ many virtues. Years ago, the American Automobile Association published a fact sheet that calculated one track of well-signaled high-speed track could, in a given amount of time, carry the equivalent number of people as 18 interstate highway lanes. Since then, every time I look at the NEC’s four track right of way, I see 72 lanes of highways running from Washington to Boston. Think of the capacity that represents! Think of the money all of the states in the Northeast spend to maintain and occasionally expand their highway systems. Imagine how much money you could save if you gave the travelers a compelling reason to get off of the highway and onto the train?

How can this be accomplished? I do not see sufficient return on investment to ever get private dollars into high-speed rail in America. (Look at how much money the private sector is currently losing in airlines these days.) The upfront capital costs for the rights of way, the tracks and bridges and tunnels and signals and stations, the rolling stock, and the labor force to operate it all are prohibitive, especially if one adopts archaic work rules associated with organized labor. Rather than waste time and money flirting with private industry, a more sensible approach to me would be to form a multi-state agency, akin to a port authority, of the following states: NC, VA, DC, MD, DE, PA, NJ, NY, CT, RI, MA, NH, and ME. Have them pool their interests and accept a gradual and proportionate reduction in Federal highway funds over a 20 year period as they invest their own money in the NEC, which they would acquire from Amtrak. Initially, I imagine they would lease access to the NEC to their commuter agencies and to Amtrak, but one could imagine them absorbing those roles themselves. The greatest problem the NEC has had for the last 35 years is the fact that any political support of improvements there came with the quid pro quo of political support for long-distance trains all across America. This has forced Amtrak to underinvest in the NEC while it kept the rest of the country mollified. To free the NEC to achieve its maximum economic utilization, one does not need magic private enterprise fairy dust – one needs to be free to invest the necessary capital in the NEC without having to keep off-corridor constituencies happy.

I truly believe that the coastal states in such a compact would see substantial improvements in train service that would permit reductions in fares, vastly increased numbers of passenger miles, the adoption of newer equipment that would permit faster trips with more modern amenities and the most progressive safety standards. Highway congestion and its associated costs would go down, the cities along the corridor would see their competitiveness rise as reduced travel times expanded both business and leisure markets. This would have substantial environmental benefits, from decreased fuel consumption and pollution to improved quality of life.

Since the private railroads collapsed in the NEC over 35 years ago, Amtrak has held the line on service. It has not had the support necessary to make any changes beyond the basics. To enable a quantum improvement in service here, which could be a catalyst for transportation improvements along many other corridors in the country, the path forward is not paved with privatization, but with aligning the organizations which serve the public with the public interest.

Issues for another rant: the ridiculous nature of the Federal gas tax (Update: find that rant here) and the role of organized labor in modern American rail systems. Also, the reason the Federal 80/20 funding match ensures states pave over everything with roads even when what they really want are trains (covered a bit here).

Edit: Please see the followup to this post Train speed on the NEC.

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