Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Amtrak rolls out ambitious, high-speed service plan

Gov. Rendell and Amtrak´s Joseph Boardman at 30th St. Station, where Boardman unveiled Amtrak´s high-speed service vision.
Gov. Rendell and Amtrak's Joseph Boardman at 30th St. Station, where Boardman unveiled Amtrak's high-speed service vision. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Amtrak officials Tuesday unveiled their vision for true high-speed service along the Northeast Corridor, with trains that could travel between Philadelphia and New York in 38 minutes.

The proposed new high-speed service between Washington and Boston, with trains that could travel at 220 miles per hour, would require its own dedicated tracks and a new route north of New York away from the congested seacoast, said Amtrak president Joseph Boardman.

The proposed high-speed system would cost about $117 billion and take up to 30 years to complete, according to Amtrak's proposal. No specific plans were included on how to pay for the high-speed system.

Amtrak officials hope to receive about $4.7 billion a year for 25 years to make their dream a reality.

Gov. Rendell, joining Amtrak and public transit officials at a news conference at 30th Street Station, said, "It sounds almost too good to be true, but it is true."

He cited high-speed rail travel in Europe and Asia, where trains reach speeds of more than 200 m.p.h. "The time has come for it to be done in America," Rendell said.

Building the new high-speed rail corridor, with bridges, tunnels, and stations, would create 40,000 full-time jobs per year over 25 years, Boardman said. Planners estimated that 120,000 new permanent jobs would result from improved economic productivity along the corridor.

The plan also would mean buying land for the new rights-of-way required for the high-speed corridor.

Amtrak's "concept plan" proposes a new underground station adjacent to SEPTA's Market East station to handle the high-speed train traffic. 30th Street Station would continue to be used for conventional trains.

The high-speed line would have four "hub" stops: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. "Super Express" trains would stop only in those cities and make the 426-mile trip between Boston and Washington in 3 hours and 23 minutes (compared to the current 8 hours on Amtrak's Northeast Regional trains or 6 hours and 37 minutes on Acela Express).

Additional stops would be made by "express" high-speed trains in Baltimore; Wilmington; Newark, N.J.; and Hartford, Conn., and other high-speed trains would make additional stops, including Philadelphia International Airport.

A new high-speed Keystone Express route between Harrisburg and New York would bypass Philadelphia, making the run in less than two hours.

Conventional speed trains, running on existing Amtrak lines, also would continue to operate.

The plan included no information about possible fares. Boardman said high-speed travel would not be cheap, "but it will be safe and reliable."

About 12 million riders a year use Amtrak along the Northeast Corridor now, and Amtrak predicted ridership would nearly triple, to about 33.7 million passengers, by 2040 with the advent of high-speed trains.

Amtrak's new high-speed vision is much more ambitious than the master plan, issued in May, for upgrading its existing Northeast Corridor.

That plan called for bringing the corridor to a "state of good repair" by spending $52 billion over 20 years to cut travel time by about 20 minutes between New York and Washington and between New York and Boston. It envisioned reducing travel time between New York and Philadelphia by only four minutes.

And that plan left Amtrak without enough capacity to carry its anticipated number of passengers by 2030.

The new plan will require lots of money and lots of political support, acknowledged Amtrak's newly hired vice president of high-speed rail, Al Engel.

"I know it's not going to be easy," Engel said Tuesday. "But what happens if you don't do it?

"We're at capacity on I-95. We have airspace problems. And the largest percentage of delays are right here in the Northeast."

By investing in a new high-speed corridor in the Northeast, Engel said, the United States could reap huge economic dividends by increasing mobility, reducing congestion and pollution, and creating new jobs.

Amtrak's plan envisions $900 million a year in operating surpluses from a Northeast high-speed corridor.

"That can repay a lot of debt for the system," Boardman said Tuesday.

Amtrak laid out its high-speed vision as Congress is preparing a new transportation-funding bill, and Amtrak officials hope money for high-speed trains in the Northeast will be part of that spending package.

Boardman and other officials were vague about the source of money, saying some could come from private companies interested in working with Amtrak to build or operate the line. Much will have to come from public sources.

"We have to find a way to take contributions from potential users," Engel said in an interview Tuesday. He said a "vehicle miles traveled" tax could replace or supplement a gas tax on motor vehicles, to be used for rail as well as highways.

"Money has to be drawn from users. We have to come to grips with it and find a funding source," Engel said.

Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, a New York-area research and policy group, said $117 billion "is a lot of money, and that money is not sitting on a shelf anywhere. But everybody who has looked at it has said this is something we have to do."

"This is the key to the long-term economic success of the Northeast Corridor," Yaro said. "We have to develop the political will. It's a heavy lift in this political and economic climate, but this is the time to do it."

Yaro is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, where graduate students this year developed a plan for high-speed rail in the Northeast that was mirrored in many ways by the Amtrak plan.

"This is a terrific development," Yaro said. "This is the first time Amtrak has proposed making this kind of investment and providing this level of service. This is a whole new approach for Amtrak."

Until now, the Northeast Corridor had been largely left out of plans for true high-speed rail in the United States.

The Obama administration early this year provided $8 billion for high-speed rail projects around the country, but little for the Northeast Corridor.

With Tuesday's unveiling of Amtrak's ambitious plan and the first meeting on Monday of a new Northeast Corridor Advisory Commission in Washington, the corridor is getting much more attention.

"I am pleased that the Obama administration may now be recognizing the critical need for true high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, (R., Fla.), the Republican leader of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"The process of finally bringing high-speed rail to the Northeast ought to be expedited to the greatest extent possible. We cannot afford to study the corridor to death," Mica said in a statement.

The advisory commission is made up of representatives of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the other five corridor states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Amtrak, and the freight railroads that operate in the corridor.

Its mandate is to recommend improvements to the corridor, funding sources, and solutions to conflicts among users.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) said Tuesday that he applauded the new Amtrak plan and pledged to "work with Amtrak to improve the Northeast Corridor and make America a leader in high-speed rail."

 


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

Paul Nussbaum Inquirer Staff Writer
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