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Sunday Train: 1:36 NYC/Boston, 1:23 NYC/DC, $117b, 30yrs

by BruceMcF Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 12:22:02 AM EST

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Sunday Train is normally written flat chat and for a yank audiences at the Daily Kos, with all that entails

As The Transport Politic reported earlier this week: Amtrak Unveils Ambitious Northeast Corridor Plan, But It Would Take 30 Years to be Realized

After months of sitting on the sidelines as states and regional agencies promoted major new high-speed rail investments, Amtrak has finally announced what it hopes to achieve over the next thirty years: A brand-new, 426-mile, two-track corridor running from Boston to Washington, bringing true [Express] high-speed rail to the Northeast Corridor for the first time.

Some questions and answers, over the fold.

Why HSR for the Northeast?

The argument that the report (pdf) presents for doing this at all can be summarized in three pictures. The one to the right is "Emerging Megaregions" view of US social geography in the century ahead. Connecting together these megaregions is conceived of as a major task that will be facing intercity transport in the coming half century.

The report projects growth trends. Now, as shaky as any projection is, the alternative to doing them is to just wait until stuff happens and then start planning to fix it, and the risk there is what can be done as an emergency response is far inferior to what can be done if we plan ahead. And these projections lead to capacity projections for both Highway and Rail systems. And those two pictures (highway above, rail below) summarize the balance the of rationale:

On highways local trips crowd out intercity trips. So people will want an alternative. Nowhere is it more likely than the Northeast that much of this demand will spillover into demand for rail transport, but the existing Northeast Corridor is projected to have six main congested segments: north DC, Baltimore, North MD / Delaware, urban Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark/NYC/New Rochelle, and Providence/Boston.

When you need new rail capacity, and the existing corridor is approaching its capacity, a new corridor is one solution to that problem. Given the cost of roadbuilding in the Northeast, where most easy road capacity expansion projects have already been done, $117b is likely to be substantially cheaper than trying to provide the same transport capacity by road, even assuming a fantasy world of ongoing cheap oil.

After all, that was the impetus for the first two bullet train systems, in Japan and France: existing mainline passenger rail corridors reaching capacity. When faced with that problem, build an all new Express HSR corridor, pull existing longer distance intercity passengers into the new corridor, and that frees up capacity on the existing corridor.

Why does it take 30 years?

This also explains the "takes 30 years". It could be done in substantially less time, but the planning study looked to provide for two segments to be completed by 2030:

  • Baltimore through Wilmington, in red, and
  • North of Philadelphia through New Rochelle in yellow.

These initial segments are anchored on the existing NEC, so that on completion, they can be used immediately by Acela trains to accelerate Acela services will reducing congestion in these sections. Then the balance of the corridor is finished by 2040.

Indeed, the study assumed completion of the NEC Master Plan over the next ten years, which would lead to a baseline growth in ridership on the NEC from 11.8m in 2010 to 16m in 2020. It is in 2030 that the Master Plan projects to hit new capacity constraints at a ridership of 21.3m, and then grow at a slower rate from then on, reaching 25.3m by 2050. With the HSR corridor included, the baseline projection is 25m by 2030 and 37.5m by 2050.

So within the scope of the planning study, one can say that it is projected to take 30 years because that is when the full system is projected to be required to meet the transport needs of the Northeastern Mega-region. If a quicker completion date were required, it could be accommodated, but this can be seen as a three phase plan:

  • 2020 (or earlier): Complete Amtrak NEC Master Plan  
  • 2030: Complete two priority segments of the "Next Gen" HSR corridor
  • Complete the balance of the "Next Gen" HSR Corridor

On other other hand, in a Western Democracy, completing an all new alignment takes time. We might expect to complete a project of this magnitude fifteen to twenty years after we commit to starting, but it still does require substantial planning ahead. So if we were to adopt a "full speed ahead" approach, we might complete work on the NEC Master Plan over the next six years, by 2016, and then roll out a DC/Boston HSR corridor by 2025.

Of course, under the current political climate, we are not going to be doing any such thing.

Why introduce this plan under this political climate?

The way I put it in the comment thread at The Transport Politic is:

If the Master Plan is going to ease immediate capacity bottlenecks by 2017 and capacity is projected to be hit over far more of the corridor by 2030 even in the conservative projections that Amtrak makes, which ignores the effect of Peak Oil, then that would suggest that the Transport Authorization circa 2016/2018 would need to include provision for addressing that capacity constraint, since it takes a decade or more to build an all-new corridor.

That suggests that it would be useful to get a preliminary outline of the shape of that kind of system rolled out in advanced of the preceding Transport Authorization.

Which is now and this.

As shown above, for the section of the corridor that runs the furthest from the NEC, the NEC is an integral part of the transport system, and the Express HSR corridor provides an additional piece for that system.

And of course, I don't expect to get this in the next transport authorization. But I expect that by the time the next transport authorization has expired, if there is a proposal out there, and we have had some experience in various parts of the country with both Regional and Express HSR systems, then we could well see an effort go ahead.

And under that kind of time horizon, if there are is a brand of political propaganda being pushed at the present by an Australian smut merchant and a Saudi Oil Prince, well, so what? With two or more severe oil price shocks highly likely between now and then, the durability of the Texas Tea Party (oil, that is) political strategy is not something to take for granted: we got to keep on planning for the future even if a radical right wing 20% of our population wants to toss this old Republic on the garbage heap of history in service to oil industry interests.

What Can We Do To Help?

There are a number of things we can do to help pursue this. First, completion of any Emerging, Regional, or Express HSR corridor and the launching of services will undermine negative propaganda (being bankrolled in part by oil interests). Second, support for funding of the Amtrak Master Plan for the NEC is a critical element for making this plan possible, since if local rail and shorter-range intercity rail can be made into rivals to Express HSR, it undermines both. Third, go visit the newly established Northeast HSR blog and give it the activity and links that such a site needs to thrive. And, of course, join Transportation for America, to network with people pushing for progressive transportation solutions coast to coast.

Midnight Oil ~ Truganini

... may it grow discussion ... though of course by 2040, we're supposed to be living in a Ghost in the Shell world, coping with the Stand Alone Complex ...

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Oct 4th, 2010 at 12:36:20 AM EST
For the interested, the NEC Master Plan mentioned in the diary is here (pdf!). The largest sums in the rather long list of planned improvements are for bridge replacements and the improvement of the electric subsystem (pages 37-38).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Oct 5th, 2010 at 12:57:42 PM EST
... constant tension catenary between DC and NYC are two of the biggest speed bottlenecks. The constant tension catenary limits speed to 217km/hr, where the maximum speed of the Acela is 240km/hr, and some bridge speed limits are down to 50km/hr or less, which takes a massive slice out of your speed profile unless there is an adjoining station.

The travel time improvements for the Acela class "Regional HSR" would be from 85% ontime to a targeted 95%+ ontime, and NYC/Boston 3:31 today to 3:08 in 2030 and DC/NYC 2:45 today to 2:21 in 2030 on the current stops and 2:15 on the two stop Flyer.

That is the contrast to the new corridor preliminary planning times of under 1:40 NYC/Boston and under 1:30 DC/NYC.

The headline figure for the new capital works on the Master Plan is $43b (Year of Expenditure), which includes $2b for a freight tunnel and $8.7b for capital works backlog to bring the NEC to a state of good repair, and the list of projects includes NEC feeder lines as well as the main Northeast Corridor.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Oct 5th, 2010 at 02:22:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is it impertinent to ask: just who will benefit from this transportation project, and just who will end up paying for it?

by shergald on Wed Oct 6th, 2010 at 08:43:07 PM EST
In particular, the beneficiaries of oil-independent intercity transport capacity that is more capital-efficient than the available alternatives will be the people living in the Northeastern states. In general, since the US consumes ~1/4 of the world's oil production while only production ~1/10, and so it the world's largest oil importers, and the US transport sector accounts for ~7/10 of US oil consumption, any step that the US takes toward oil-independent transport benefits all oil consuming nations and, given Peak Oil, increases stability of the world economy.

As far as who pays, it would likely be funded on 20:80 local and federal matching funds, but of course since in the Northeast on average less new money is created by federal government spending than old money destroyed by federal taxes, we can conceive of the people of the Northeast paying for in general the most cost-effective means of increasing intercity transport capacity in their region ~ most other beneficiaries would seem to get a free ride.

I doubt that the plan is the most cost-effective specific alignment and strategy for transiting cities for achieving the target, but then, any plan at this preliminary phase where a serious effort was made to achieve a least cost plan would probably be a low-ball estimate.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Oct 7th, 2010 at 10:54:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would think that 30 years from now, the economic and energy situations will both be considerably different, making today's schedule and cost estimates likely to be inaccurate...
by asdf on Sun Oct 10th, 2010 at 12:46:25 AM EST
I think that 10 years from now it will be quite different, rendering the mode splits between driving and local rail transport completely obsolete. If the full economic cost and benefit calculation works out in this preliminary planning, which largely ignores Peak Oil, that implies that in the real world it is likely to be a massive win.

Though the preliminary planning does have a component that gives a modest pointer in that direction, in including a projection of demand for intercity rail transport in the case of serious anti-congestion policies in the Northeastern road grid.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Oct 12th, 2010 at 04:47:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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