As long as we’re talking about theoretical trains running at hypothetical speeds along postulated railways built with pretend dollars, it’s easy to overlook certain details. One of which is this: Eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut need different things from a high-speed rail system. But most of the work involved in upgrading train service into Boston would likely need to happen there, not here.
Federal railway regulators are contemplating large-scale improvements to the Northeast Corridor — improvements that might enable the kind of rapid intercity train service that Japan, China, and many European countries have enjoyed for years. But the 11- and 12-figure price tags involved aren’t the only obstacle. There’s also an underlying disagreement about what high-speed rail is for.
Is it primarily a way to increase speeds along proven travel routes? Or should it be planned more aspirationally — to spread economic-development glitter on smaller cities, such as Hartford and Springfield, that don’t generate much train traffic but someday might?
For many people in Greater Boston, a faster shot to and from New York would be the entire point of high-speed rail. There’s a demonstrated demand for train travel on the route; more people take Amtrak between the two cities than fly. Nonstop high-speed service would involve big costs up front but could likely operate at a profit.
Entrepreneurs in Kendall Square could zip down in a couple of hours, spend most of a day meeting prospective investors, and return before dinnertime, presumably with backpacks full of venture capital. Professionals with spouses in New York could pursue job and business opportunities in Boston, and vice versa. Faster rail speeds up and down the Northeast Corridor could draw Boston, New York, and Washington closer together, helping all three compete as global destinations for brainpower and private investment.
The congestion, curviness, and sheer age of the current corridor thwart that ambition. “Trains that connect our nation’s university hub to its financial center to its capital ride over bridges built before 1910 and through tunnels built after the Civil War,” Federal Railroad Administration chief Sarah Feinberg lamented earlier this month.
Of course, between that university hub and that financial center, there’s an entire state — one that would bear the brunt of construction hassles. Officials in Connecticut were apoplectic earlier this year, when Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, suggested a mere study of nonstop high-speed rail from New York to Boston and Washington. To Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, the idea was “a nonstarter.” “Dead on arrival,” declared Governor Dannel Malloy’s office.
On paper, there are good reasons to brush off those objections. New railways through unproven markets add costs that may never be defrayed by future operating revenues; every intermediate stop decreases overall speed. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to see why Connecticut would lean on individual cities and towns for the benefit of a rail system that mostly benefits people living somewhere else.
During the construction of the Interstate Highway System, Congress smoothed over such conflicts with gobs of money. “There have always been squabbles among the states,” notes Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the author of “Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead.” But the feds’ willingness to pay most of the bills helped enormously. “State officials were getting a popular amenity without spending much of their own money or political capital,” Kanter adds.
A comparable rail solution would involve billions of federal dollars to build out the Northeast Corridor ambitiously and then run lots of trains through it — some of them express between Boston and New York, and some with stops in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
When a lumbering, unsustainably funded Amtrak has to dun states for existing Northeast Corridor operations, it’s hard to imagine the federal government will spring for an all-of-the-above rail plan. Yet scaling back ambitions carries its own costs. Either we’ll default to patching up today’s rickety infrastructure forever, or we’ll settle on a compromise plan that still spends big sums without ever quite meeting anybody’s needs.