Train speed on the NEC

As a follow up to my last post on Rep. Mica’s provocative proposal regarding privatization efforts on the Northeast Corridor, I wanted to discuss for a moment – in a vacuum that ignores politics – the simple practicality of what the Congressman is proposing when he suggests a two hour trip time from New York to Washington. This is a follow-up to two posts on the MAS site – yesterday’s and today’s are both worth a look.

I touched on the issue of Penn Station and the Hudson tunnels and capacity limitations yesterday, so I will ignore them here and simply imagine this plan would be from Penn Station, NY to Union Station, D.C. along the existing right of way. The mileage on that route is 226 miles. The Acela stop patterns vary, but to pick one as an example, let’s look at 2107, which runs from NYP to WAS every weekday in two hours and forty-seven minutes. In those 2:47, it stops at Newark, NJ, Metropark, NJ, Philadelphia, PA, Wilmington, DE, Baltimore, MD, and Washington, D.C. PHL and BAL are each scheduled two minutes for their stops, and the others are as long as they have to be – which is often pretty short, but still between detraining and boarding passengers, two minutes is about as good as it gets. That’s five en route stops costing about ten minutes of time, so the trip time is now 2:37. 226 miles in 2:37 provides an average speed of 86.37 mph. That’s in a train with two 6,250 horsepower power cars able to accelerate back up to speed very rapidly after each stop.

If we think of Mica’s two hour goal as a non-stop time, then he is proposing a 113 mph average speed between NYP and WAS. If his notional train made the same five stops costing it the same ten minutes, the average speed rises to 123 mph. Keep in mind we are not looking at top speed, but rather average speed. 123 mph is a 43% improvement over the Acela’s 86 mph – a substantial increase. I am assuming the notional train would make the same stops because NWK, MET, PHL, WIL, and BAL all offer a lot of riders. I suppose an operator could run express only, but that makes the train a lot less appealing overall.

Think about what would need to be spent by any entity wishing to shave 37 minutes off of the current trip time. Higher speeds would require improvements in bridges, tunnels, signals, fencing, sound abatement, and perhaps some realignment if you wished to shave that 226 down closer to the 205 miles it measures as the crow flies. (Again, ignoring such things as the facts that the crow flight route avoids existing stations and travels under the Chesapeake.) It would require new equipment – in a realm where each trainset would run $50mm+ in all likelihood. [Recall that American regulations and safety practices make it impossible to use foreign designs off the shelf, so forget the idea of simply buying German, French, or Swedish stuff and running it unmodified.] All of this would be incremental cost that the commuters would never agree to. They have no intention of traveling at these speeds (they too would need whole new fleets to do so), so why should they contribute to these expenses if they receive no benefit?

I continue to have a hard time imagining private capital being organized to this end. There are simply too many other endeavors with better return on their investments and far, far less risk. Unless government guarantees are on the table, but as I said yesterday, such a thing is presumably not an option.

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