A 220-mph NEC? A contrarian weighs in

December 5, 2013

by Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor, Railway Age, 3 December 2013

Conventional wisdom in passenger rail today is high speed trains. Amtrak, for example, has a 30-year, $117 billion (or more) plan to convert the 456-mile Northeast Corridor, linking Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, to a 220-mph speedway providing 96-minute trips between Washington and New York and 84-minute trips between New York and Boston. That equates to more than $250 million per mile, which, on the Washington D.C.-New York segment, would shave some 49 minutes from the current Acela Express trip that travels between 110 mph and 150 mph over 65% of the route and about 85 mph on average for the trip.

But as a contrarian points out, the infrastructure improvement costs of upping maximum Northeast Corridor speeds to 220 mph is equivalent to almost $1 billion per minute saved, and when one arrives a half-hour earlier at origin to await boarding, and then stands in a cab line at destination for 10 minutes, much of the train-time savings value evaporates. On intermediate trips, the time savings of 220-mph speeds is obviously less. The more stops, the more time at stations, plus time lost decelerating and accelerating.

For sure, today’s slower speeds—85 mph average for the Acela between Washington D.C. and New York, and slower for conventional trains—are not discouraging Amtrak riders. Over the Washington, D.C.-New York segment of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has captured almost 70% of the air/rail market share; and 52% of the air/rail market share on the much slower New York-Boston route.

What most intrigues the contrarian are the demographics of future Amtrak passengers. Already, the advent and improvement of video conferencing is reducing business travel, and the time value of business travelers is greatest among all travelers. Furthermore, as the contrarian observes, today’s teenagers and 20-somethings—who will be the business riders of the future—are so wedded to modern electronics, whose applications surely will improve in future years, that face-to-face meetings will be of far less importance to them than today’s business travelers.…

The contrarian’s major objection to Amtrak’s vision of 220-mph trains is the whopping $256 million-per-mile cost of reengineering and retracking the Northeast Corridor. With its $117 billion total price tag, and Amtrak struggling to wrest from Congress even $1 billion annually for its current operating subsidy, the prospect of such a huge new federal investment is most problematic.…

The contrarian suggests Amtrak scrap its $117 billion, 220-mph vision for the Northeast Corridor and redirect scarce dollars to eliminating corridor deferred maintenance, expanding its car and locomotive fleet to accommodate growing passenger demand, and rehabilitate and improve track and signaling for long-distance trains—such as in western Kansas.…

Read the rest of the story on Railway Age

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