After years of false starts and unfulfilled promises, New Englanders have plenty of reason to be skeptical about grand plans for Japanese-style high-speed rail zipping through the region.
But the Federal Railroad Administration’s ongoing planning study for the Northeast could be the real deal. Earlier this month, the agency said it was exploring three possible blueprints for upgrading the Northeast Corridor, the 457-mile rail thoroughfare from Boston to Washington. There’s no funding for any of the plans now, but the choice is still crucial: Whatever proposal the agency approves will guide future investments in the corridor for decades to come, potentially revolutionizing rail travel in the region.
Although the logistical challenges and costs would be enormous, New England’s governors and congressional delegation ought to press the agency to embrace the boldest of the visions, which calls for a faster, more direct route from Boston to New York via Hartford. This proposal, the most ambitious of the plans, would cut travel times in half, bringing New York City to within two hours of South Station by building an entirely new route through southern New England. Faster connections would have major economic benefits; they would also relieve flight congestion at Logan and other East Coast airports, freeing them to focus on more distant destinations. Needless to say, it would also take cars off the highway.
The current Acela Express service can hit 160 miles per hour, but averages only 63 mph between Boston and New York, running on curvy, congested tracks. It would take massive upgrades like the new route to put it in the league of Japan’s Shinkansen trains, which average 132 miles per hour.
Getting Acela’s speeds up to international high-speed standards would open up economic opportunities, knitting together an increasingly regional economy. Speed isn’t the only benefit. The plan would also route trains through Hartford, and potentially Worcester, large cities that don’t have Acela service, while skipping the sparsely populated areas of Rhode Island and Connecticut that Amtrak now serves. The plan would also move tracks away from flood-prone areas, making the system more resilient in the face of rising sea levels due to climate change. The eight commuter rail services that also use the Northeast Corridor, including the MBTA, would see ripple effects because the new route would free up capacity on the existing lines.
Of course, rail travelers have heard some of these ideas before. In the 1990s, Amtrak promised to reduce travel times from New York to Boston to three hours, which didn’t happen. More recently, new planned tunnels in New York City, which would have relieved some congestion and improved reliability, were scuttled by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over cost concerns. And it seems like an “inland route” has been just one study away from reality for a few decades now.
Part of the problem has been that no single entity has been in charge of the Northeast Corridor. Ownership is split between Amtrak and the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York, all of which have their own priorities; a GAO study after Amtrak failed to reach the three-hour goal pointed to slow stretches on the Connecticut-owned portion of the line. Building new lines is also extremely difficult, thanks to geography and politics. Unlike in Japan or France, countries with strong high-speed rail networks, communities can also throw up roadblocks to trains running past their backyards.
Dividing up costs has also been difficult, but that may be changing. At the urging of the federal government, the eight states along the Northeast Corridor have been working on improved governance and hammering out a formula for sharing costs. In New York and New Jersey, talks about new tunnels under the Hudson have restarted. It’s important for states to lay that groundwork, because a high-speed route would likely require significant coordination and financial support from the eight states on the corridor; California is building a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles largely out of its own pocket.
And while improving rail is essential now, it shouldn’t preclude experimentation by private sector entrepreneurs who want to disrupt transportation altogether. For example, the first Hyperloop — Elon Musk’s vision for a nationwide network of transport that can travel at nearly sonic speeds in vacuum tubes — could break ground as soon as 2016. But such efforts shouldn’t be allowed to sap the political will to upgrade rail transit in the near term.
The cost of “Alternative 3” would potentially exceed $100 billion. It’s a huge number, and when states like Massachusetts are nickel-and-diming even tiny transit projects like art on the Green Line, it seems almost fanciful to entertain plans like the Federal Railroad Administration’s. But with interest rates at historic lows, now is the time to make long-term investments in the country’s infrastructure, and rail is a safe bet. Moreover, a high-speed rail line in New England would unlock huge economic growth, save money on highways and airports up and down the East Coast, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For the sake of the region’s competitiveness in the 21st century, planners need to think big. Reaching agreement on what that future should be is the first step.