Train speeds on the NEC, Part III

I have discussed the operational side of Northeast Corridor train speeds previously. These discussions were prompted by Florida Congressman Mica, who proposed a plan to reduce trip time between Washington and New York from less than three hours to a flat two hours. I wrote in general terms about how to evaluate such a proposal here, and then in more specific terms about some of the issues raised by this plan here. That last post emphasized the difference between top speed and average speed, and discussed how one would have to increase the current Amtrak Acela schedule from an average speed of 86 mph to 123 mph to meet the two hour goal. While 123 mph is a speed reached in revenue service in this country for decades, no one has a right of way where such speeds become the average. Finally, in a later post, I noted how the new French TGV Est line between Paris and Strasbourg, which hosted the world record speed run of a steel-on-steel train at 357 mph, serves a revenue schedule with an average speed of 80 mph. Clearly there is a world of difference between top speed and average speed.

I am drawn to this topic today after reading a trio of tweets earlier today. [To see other Amtrak twitters and read more about this odd form of voyeurism, click here.] I include them below:

1159506780 1159547102 1159517946

I would like to review the assumptions that underlie the above statements.

The current best Acela time from New York Penn Station to Boston South Station is three hours and thirty-one minutes. The trains that make that run stop at Stamford, New Haven, Providence, Route 128, and Back Bay. If one allots two minutes for each stop, then the train has 3:21 to be in motion. In those 201 minutes, it currently covers a time table mileage of 231 miles, for an average speed of 68.96 mph, despite its 150 mph top speed. For the sake of discussion here, I am going to begin by assuming a fast train would cover the same route and make the same stops; obviously both of those assumptions should be reviewed. To cover those same 231 miles in two hours, and accounting for the same five two-minute stops, one can then compute that the desired average speed would need to be 126 mph. Finally, to make it in one hour with the same five stops it would need to run at 277 mph on average. If you decided to run a non-stop express train in an hour, you could settle for a more leisurely average of 231 mph.

Update: Please see this later post for a valuable New York Times illustration of the Acela and its performance over this route.

I find the above calculations useful because they put a clearer light on just what would need to be accomplished to move a train from Boston to New York in one or two hours. Americans are accustomed to envying European and Asian rail systems, with their high-speeds and high frequencies, but they often forget how hard it is to incorporate the infrastructure associated with such service into their landscape. Many European and Japanese cities had their urban centers leveled in the course of the Allied bombing campaigns, and subsequent redevelopment efforts thus had a nearly blank canvas on which to design as they laid the foundations for today’s modern rail networks. New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have fortunately never had anyone perform this same favor or urban destruction, which makes modern routing a much harder exercise. The 231 miles includes 36 miles of meander over a straight route from NYP-STM-NHV-PVD-RTE-BBY-BOS, and NYP-BOS all by itself is 188 miles. One could argue that a train from New York to Boston could make the run in one hour operating at 188 mph, but to do so would require an entire new route that would need to ignore fundamentals of geography, the environment, population centers and existing facilities. Clearly, that makes no sense.

If one looks at the route from above, it appears like this:


A map makes clear how much of the 36 miles of meander occurs between New Haven and Providence. Any effort to address this will need political support from both of those states, as improvements will cost a fortune both economically, environmentally, and politically. Could it be done? Sure – America landed men on the moon, so clearly we could reroute the trains and then engineer a whole system to meet this goal. Doing so would cost billions of dollars, invested in a portion of the country that already has the best train service in America. Senators and Representatives from across the rest of the country would demand enormous investments elsewhere in exchange for the necessary support to accomplish this. Remember that the modest capital amounts earmarked for Amtrak in the current stimulus bill triggered an amendment by Jeff Flake (not coincidentally from Arizona) yesterday that would have zeroed out those funds. While it was defeated, 116 Congressmen supported it.

To summarize then, let me be clear that I admire the enthusiasm for rail evidenced in the tweets that triggered this post. From a limited, engineering perspective, they are right that one or two hour service is feasible. What makes me shake my head in frustration is how little thought many give these topics beyond the obvious one of engineering feasibility. To build such a system entails tremendous costs, and involves issues of local, city, state, and Federal planning for finance, zoning and eminent domain, and environmental reviews. The political horsetrading to do something like this in the Northeast would compel enormous balancing efforts in other parts of the country, which likely would double or treble the cost and vastly complicate the process by which something like this could ever proceed.

One last point while I am on this topic – after last year’s gas price increases, and with the election of our new president (and Amtrak Joe as Veep), and with the current plans for epic stimulus spending by the Federal government, now is the best alignment of the planets, a perfect storm if you will, for investments in America’s rail system. If those investments are not made now, I think it will be fair to say the United States will never make those investments. It is a hopeful time for rail advocates, but one of great peril for us as well. If not now, then when?


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