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Penn students create ambitious plan for rail service

A class of graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania has created a plan to rebuild the Northeast Corridor as a true high-speed rail line that would transport passengers from Philadelphia to New York City in 37 minutes.

Amtrak's Acela Express train is seen against the Manhattan skyline as it heads to Boston. (AP Photo)
Amtrak's Acela Express train is seen against the Manhattan skyline as it heads to Boston. (AP Photo)Read more

Last of four parts.

A class of graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania has created a plan to rebuild the Northeast Corridor as a true high-speed rail line that would transport passengers from Philadelphia to New York City in 37 minutes.

Amtrak, on the other hand, has a less ambitious view of the future for the nation's busiest rail corridor. Its new master plan calls for spending $52 billion by 2030 to cut travel time by about 20 minutes between New York and Washington and between New York and Boston. It envisions reducing travel time between New York and Philadelphia by four minutes.

"Amtrak's new plan leaves you with a really good early-20th-century rail system," said Robert Yaro, one of two Penn professors who taught the students in the School of Design's department of city and regional planning. Yaro is also president of the Regional Plan Association, a New York-area research and policy group.

Amtrak's vision of the future, unlike the students', does not include true high-speed travel, with trains operating at least at 155 m.p.h. on dedicated tracks, free of conflicts with commuter or freight trains.

The Penn students aren't the only ones with higher hopes for fast trains in the Northeast Corridor.

Northeastern members of Congress, including Reps. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), Michael N. Castle (R., Del.), and Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.), introduced a bill in March to designate the Northeast Corridor a "high-speed corridor."

Ten other U.S. rail corridors have that designation (including the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), but not the Northeast Corridor, which has the nation's fastest trains.

"This lack of designation shuts states along the NEC out of competing for . . . grant money available to other rail lines, and has already resulted in the NEC missing out on adequate funding for badly needed infrastructure upgrades and rail-expansion projects," Castle, Sestak, Pascrell, and four other representatives said in a recent letter to House leaders. They asked for congressional hearings on high-speed rail development in the Northeast Corridor.

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo said last week that a new national rail plan to be issued Sept. 15 would make clear the importance of the Northeast Corridor for high-speed rail. He said current distinctions between the designated "high-speed" corridors and the Northeast Corridor would be erased.

"There's no question the Northeast will be an integral part of high-speed rail development in this country. . . . The demographics are just too perfect for it not to be," he said.

Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), top Republican on the Transportation Committee, criticized the administration for giving little of $8 billion in high-speed money to the Northeast.

"They practically ignored the region of the country where high-speed makes the most sense - the Northeast Corridor," he said. The corridor received $485 million, or 6 percent, of the stimulus funding.

And Mica, who wants to give private companies a chance to build and operate high-speed service in the Northeast, blamed Amtrak for doing too little to speed trains between Washington and Boston.

"If Amtrak hadn't screwed it up, they could go much faster," he said, blaming political intransigence and decade-old problems with the construction of Acela trains.

The trains are unable to fully use a built-in tilting mechanism because the car bodies were built four inches too wide. The tilting design was supposed to allow the trains to travel faster through curves, but with the extra width, if two Acela trains were going around a curve in opposite directions and the tilt system on one broke, the trains could hit each other. So Amtrak had to limit the tilt and reduce speeds.

Amtrak officials say the new master plan is the starting point - not the end - for designing a high-speed future for the Northeast Corridor.

A more visionary study is coming this summer, which will consider a true high-speed service on a realigned route, said Stephen J. Gardner, Amtrak's vice president for policy and development.

"This is the best shot we've had in decades to make the case and build the political consensus" for better, faster Northeast service, Gardner said.

One of the reasons the Northeast Corridor did not get more money from the $8 billion high-speed pot is a lack of a recent environmental-impact study of the corridor.

Amtrak and 11 Northeastern states in May asked the Federal Railroad Administration to do such an environmental study as part of a comprehensive examination of passenger rail's future in the corridor.

That could pave the way for more federal funding and more ambitious planning for high-speed service, Gardner said.

Amtrak calls its current Acela trains "high-speed," based on service that can reach 135 m.p.h. between New York and Washington and 150 m.p.h. for a brief stretch between New York and Boston. But the average speed for the Acela trains is considerably lower: 81 m.p.h. between New York and Washington and 65 m.p.h. between New York and Boston.

"The U.S. has a very unusual definition of 'high-speed rail,' " said Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of the Penn School of Design, who also was an instructor for the project. "Most nations use 160 miles an hour, and that was our benchmark."

The Penn students proposed a $98 billion project, with two dedicated high-speed tracks on a reconfigured route and a number of new stations, including a main Philadelphia stop at the Market East station in Center City.

"We wanted to be bold, to actually make an impact," said Lisa Jacobson, 28, one of the student authors of the plan. "Instead of 'let's straighten a curve here or replace a bridge there,' we wanted to think big."

The Penn plan would cut travel times in half. A trip between Philadelphia and New York would take 37 minutes instead of the Acela's current one hour, 12 minutes. A trip between Washington and New York would take 1 1/2 hours instead of the current two hours, 45 minutes, and a trip between New York and Boston would be one hour, 45 minutes, instead of the current 3 1/2 hours.

The Penn plan proposes an average of 12 trains per peak hour, instead of the current three to five.

The Penn students envisioned about 100 miles of tunnels, including beneath downtown Philadelphia and Baltimore to provide fast, direct routes to new downtown stations. And they suggested a new route from New York to Boston - beneath Long Island Sound and inland through Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Amtrak's existing Northeast Corridor main line between Washington and Boston is the busiest route in the nation, carrying about 11 million passengers a year. It features the Acela, the closest thing the United States has to a high-speed train.

But curving tracks, old tunnels, bridges, and equipment, and the need to share tracks with commuter and freight trains, have left Amtrak riders with service that is slow, unreliable, and expensive.

Penn's 18 School of Design students, after a trip to Britain to study plans for high-speed rail service between London and Scotland, drew up a plan for a remade Northeast Corridor based on new construction and railroading technology.

"We started with a different framework than Amtrak," said Bryan Rodda, 26, one of the student authors. "Amtrak said, 'What's the best we can do to make sure it doesn't fall apart?' and then, 'What is the best we can do with what we have to improve travel time?'

"We asked, 'What can we do if we rejected the way it is now and do actual, true high-speed rail and get travel time below two hours?' "

The students proposed a remade Market East station to accommodate the high-speed train stop in Philadelphia, with another stop at Philadelphia International Airport.

They suggested keeping 30th Street Station for other train traffic and visualized a revitalized Market Street corridor between University City and Old City.

The students proposed that federal and state governments pay for the new high-speed rail line for the Northeast, along with private investors. They suggested money could be raised from gas taxes, interstate tolls, user fees, value-added taxes, and station-area sales taxes.

The economic benefits, the students concluded, would outstrip the costs by $70 billion.

The official new plan for the corridor's future, created by Amtrak, state, and commuter and freight rail representatives in the Northeast Master Plan Working Group, is focused on incremental improvements to bring the 457-mile corridor into a state of good repair.

Although the plan invokes the exhortation of the Chicago architect and city planner Daniel Burnham to "make no little plans" and to "think big," it limits itself to relative baby steps into the future.

Amtrak's new master plan, with its proposal for spending $52 billion over 20 years, tackles "what needs to be done to meet minimum standards of reliability," said John M. Conlow Jr., a senior Amtrak planner who led the railroad's participation in the master plan. Before pursuing ambitious high-speed service, he said, "you have to build a consensus around what has to be done to the current network to provide good, reliable service."

Amtrak plans to replace its aging fleet of cars and locomotives over the next 10 years, but its new express trains are expected to have a maximum speed of only 160 m.p.h., up from the current 150 m.p.h. (which is reached on only a few miles of the 457-mile corridor, in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts).

By contrast, high-speed trains in Europe and Asia for years have operated at 186 m.p.h. over long stretches of dedicated track. Several routes in China have trains moving at 220 m.p.h., and French train-maker Alstom's new AGV trains are designed to operate at 224 m.p.h.

Amtrak, with capacity problems and curving tracks, won't be able to take full advantage of even the modest increase in top-speed capabilities: The goal for Acela service between Washington and New York by 2030 is set at 2:21 instead of the current 2:45 (with a two-stop express that could make the trip in 2:15), and the goal for New York to Boston is 3:08 instead of the current 3:31.

The goal for Amtrak "regional" trains that run from Philadelphia to New York is 1:16 by 2030 instead of the current 1:20.

Amtrak's trip-time goals for 2030 are about the same as the ones set by Congress back in 1976. At that time, Congress told Amtrak to run three-hour service between New York and Boston and 21/2-hour service from New York to Washington.

Since Amtrak never received most of the federal funding envisioned in those plans 34 years ago, the passenger railroad limped from annual budget to annual budget, forced to put off the improvements to infrastructure, equipment, and facilities that could produce faster travel.

"There is a general recognition that the corridor is at capacity and the capacity issues are only going to get worse," said Amtrak's Conlow. "If we don't solve the transportation issues in the Northeast, there is a real threat that we won't be able to move the economy forward as we'd like."

Despite the challenges Amtrak faces, its ridership in the Northeast has grown substantially. With the introduction of the Acela Express in 2000 and with increasingly onerous airport security measures after 9/11, Amtrak is taking more of the Northeast market from airlines.

Amtrak's share of the train/plane traffic between Washington and New York has grown from 37 percent in 2000 to 63 percent. On the New York-to-Boston route, Amtrak's share has grown from 20 percent to 49 percent.

To get a significant number of motorists off the Northeast's congested highways will require a much more robust passenger railroad. That will mean spending far more than the $52 billion proposed for bringing the existing service into good repair, said Amtrak's Gardner.

That creates a financial dilemma for Northeastern states, already strapped to balance their budgets.

"On the one hand, people desire to grow and invest in the transportation infrastructure," said Gardner. "Then there's the countervailing opinion that is urging the government to do less."

"I think it's clear that a major investment will reap huge benefits," he said.

In March, Amtrak announced a new high-speed rail department, to be led by a new vice president.

The new official may get an early visit from the Penn students.

"We'd hope to carry it forward," said student author Jacobson. "We'd like to talk to CONEG [the Coalition of Northeastern Governors] and to Gov. Rendell - he could be a champion for high-speed rail when he leaves office."

The students' plan has caught the attention of the Federal Railroad Administration, which is preparing a comprehensive National Rail Plan for release next month.

FRA deputy administrator Karen Rae called the Penn plan "a very dramatic vision . . . and the challenge it raises is how significant an investment are we willing to make?" She said states must share the costs.

"If the U.S. is, in fact, committed to building high-speed rail," said Rodda, "this is the best market and the most logical place to do it."

To see the Penn students' high-speed rail plan, go to