The Northeast: Twenty Years of High Speed Rail

The Northeast has always been the most densely populated region of the nation. While the Northeast in the 1960's had more passenger rail service than other areas, even there rail was not widely used, except for Boston, New York, and Philadelphia commuter services.

In 1964, there were 26 weekday trains between New York and Washington, DC. (There are today by contrast, 60 weekday trains between these two cities.) In the Northeast in the 1960's, most intercity travel was by highway on the newly constructed, limited access expressways and toll roads. Time sensitive travelers chose the Eastern Airlines Shuttle, which offered hourly no-reservation service between Washington, New York La Guardia and Boston airports on turboprop Lockheed Electras.

Rail was seen as uncomfortable, unreliable and slow. Most of the equipment used in the Northeast Corridor was purchased in 1952 or earlier and the GG-1 locomotives dated to the late 1930's. While the Afternoon Congressional made the 226 mile run from the Potomac to Manhattan in three hours 35 minutes, most runs took four hours.

All this changed in 1965, when Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) introduced and Congress passed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act. In a Federal Government demonstration project with the Pennsylvania Railroad, $56 million was spent to make essential upgrades to the railroad right-of-way between New York and Washington, DC, as well as to purchase 50 MU electric Metroliner cars capable of 120 mph speeds. The newly built Metroliners went into service on January 16, 1969, making the run between New York and Washington, DC with five stops in two hours 59 minutes - shaving an hour off most previous schedules. The Metroliners proved enormously popular, carrying over two million passengers in their first two years and single handedly reversing declining rail patronage between New York and Washington, DC.

Two events helped shape rail passenger service in the Northeast in the 1970's. On May 1, 1971, Amtrak was created to provide rail passenger service. And, on February 5, 1976, the 4-R Act was signed into law creating the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project (NECIP) whose goals were to achieve New York- Washington running times of two hours forty minutes and Boston- New York running times of three hours forty minutes. Approximately $1.6 billion in federal funds was appropriated to achieve these goals, by installing continuously welded rail, replacing wooden ties with concrete ties, replacing or rebuilding bridges, reboring tunnels, realigning curves for high speed operation, and modernizing the electric supply system.

Work on NECIP improvements began in earnest in 1978 and it quickly became apparent the infrastructure improvement needs, especially between New Haven and Boston, were much greater than had been forecast. Congress appropriated another billion dollars to fund NECIP improvements. In 1982, in order to conserve funds, electrification of NEC east of New Haven was dropped from NECIP plans.

By 1991, the disparities between the New York- Washington section of the NEC, where hourly Metroliners sped along the Corridor at 125 mph, and the New York- Boston segment, which was traversed by 11 daily trains averaging 49 mph, were becoming unacceptable. South of New York, Amtrak carried 41 percent of all non-highway travelers between New York and Washington, and 70 percent of all non-highway travelers to and from intermediate points such as Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore. East of New York, Amtrak services captured only 11 percent of the New York- Boston market.

The Northeast Corridor High Speed Rail Program was therefore initiated to bring the New York- Boston segment of the NEC up to the same levels of performance as the New York- Washington section. When completed in late 1999, approximately $2.4 billion in federal funds will have been spent to extend electrification east of New Haven to Boston, rebuild interlockings and terminal trackage to permit higher speed running, upgrade bridges, modernize signal systems, and purchase 20 electric high speed Acela Express trainsets. These NEC infrastructure improvements and introduction of Acela Express service are expected to reduce Boston- New York times to three hours, with hourly service, and New York-Washington times to two hours forty-five minutes with twice hourly service. Maximum running speeds along certain stretches of the NEC will be 150 mph.

It has taken over 20 years of effort, and cost $4.6 billion in federal funds, but the Northeast Corridor is Amtrak's gem. It transports more passengers than any other rail corridor in the country and has become Amtrak's most cost-effective operation. Over 11 million intercity passengers, and tens of millions of commuters in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts use the Northeast Corridor annually for their trips. The NEC, once just a vision of certain foresighted legislators and Johnson Administration planners has become an invaluable and irreplaceable major component of the Northeast's transportation infrastructure.

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