Amtrak’s $117B Northeast Corridor revamp expected to benefit local cities

Amtrak’s $117B Northeast Corridor revamp expected to benefit local cities

Dive Brief:

  • The Northeast Corridor Commission plans a $117 billion, 15-year upgrade of Amtrak’s Washington, D.C.-New York-Boston route to increase capacity and reduce end-to-end travel time by up to an hour. Prior to the pandemic, the Corridor handled 260 million passenger trips on eight commuter railroads and Amtrak.
  • The Connect 2035 program includes 150 projects and will require the collaboration of Amtrak, state governments, commuter rail agencies and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Commission calls it “the most ambitious reinvestment program in the NEC’s history.”
  • Cities along the Northeast Corridor could benefit from improved connections and travel time, new stations and transit-oriented development (TOD). But the program does not include regional rail projects beyond the limits of the Corridor.

Dive Insight:

In 1873, the Pennsylvania Railroad completed the four-mile long Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel (B&P), still in use today just south of present-day Baltimore Penn Station. Its tight curves restrict train speeds to 30 mph, creating a bottleneck along the Northeast Corridor. The Federal Railroad Administration deemed it “functionally obsolete.”

Superstorm Sandy flooded the 1910 rail tunnels under the Hudson River in 2012, which serve both Amtrak and NJ Transit. Seven of the 12 moveable bridges along the Northeast Corridor are 100 years old. A catastrophic failure of any one of those major infrastructure elements could disrupt travel throughout the region. Amtrak estimates the economic impact of just one day without service on the NEC at $100 million in lost productivity and other transportation-related effects.

“We haven’t as a country invested in our rail system for decades, and in that vacuum we’re left with a system that was built to operate decades ago,” said Joe McAndrew, vice president of regional mobility and infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership. 

The Connect 2035 program will replace the B&P Tunnel with a new two-mile long tunnel, raising train speeds from 30 mph to 100 mph. Meanwhile, the 1911 station in Baltimore will be preserved and renovated, with an expansion that will include a high-speed rail platform, retail and restaurants.

Amtrak aims to remake Washington, D.C.’s Washington Union Station as the hub of a new transit-oriented development neighborhood, Burnham Place, to be built over the rail yard. The project is anticipated to triple passenger capacity and double train capacity. 

McAndrew said he sees “an opportunity to have a more inclusive, economically resilient region” as more and faster rail service will help provide better access to jobs and affordable housing. However, he also said that a more integrated, regional rail system is needed, as Northern Virginia and Maryland are served by two different commuter rail operators.

Elsewhere along the NEC, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station will undergo a major restoration and renovation. For the New York City region, the Connect 2035 program includes repair of the existing Hudson River tunnels, construction of a new two-track tunnel under the river, an expansion of Penn Station in Manhattan and replacement of the Portal Bridge in New Jersey. These are all part of the Gateway Program

In New England, a new station between Providence, Rhode Island, and Attleboro, Massachusetts, will relieve overcrowding at nearby stations, and a third track in Massachusetts between Readville and Canton Junction will eliminate a bottleneck for Amtrak and commuter rail operations. 

In Connecticut, the Northeast Corridor extends from the New York state line to Rhode Island, serving Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, New London and other cities for commuter and Amtrak operations. By 2035, four moveable bridges including the Connecticut River bridge will be replaced, rail yards will be expanded, signals will be modernized and curves will be realigned to allow faster speeds. 

The Connecticut Department of Transportation helps fund commuter service from New Haven to New York and east to New London. Richard Andreski is the department’s bureau chief of public transportation. “We got just about everything we were looking for” in the Connect 2035 plan, he said.

CDOT’s focus now is less on increasing train capacity and more on reducing time spent on the train, Andreski said. That means not only faster travel time, but less need for passengers to change trains or make other connections en route. Part of that will be running self-propelled electric trains from New London at least as far west as Stamford. He said he’s also excited about the Penn Station Access project, which will allow commuters from Connecticut to take trains to Penn Station, an area of Manhattan seeing growth spurred by the Hudson Yards development, instead of just Grand Central Terminal in Midtown

The Penn Station Access project adds four new stations in the Bronx, serving residential areas, hospitals and shopping. “There’s a great many jobs that are not available to Connecticut residents currently,” said Andreski. “But with the Penn Station Access program, it opens up lots of opportunity.”

Though Andreski said that while Connect 2035 “delivers very tangible benefits incrementally,” more needs to come. He said that along with Amtrak, the Northeast Corridor Commission, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, they’ll start a market evaluation to understand the potential for high-speed rail ridership. “With more certainty now with the federal funding for rail, that gives us room to think a little bit bigger about our strategy rather than break out projects in a piecemeal way,” said Andreski. “The end state, in my view, is a true high-speed rail system to move people regionally and get those travel times down to something much faster.”

Train riders and commuters won’t have to wait for high-speed rail to enjoy shorter travel times and better service, though. Connect 2035 will cut travel time on high-speed Amtrak Acela trains from D.C. to New York by 26 minutes and from New York to Boston by 28 minutes.

The bipartisan investment deal that passed Congress makes the largest investment in our rail system in the country in generations,” said McAndrew. “We’ve got a huge opportunity. We’ve got plans. We’ve got ambition, and I think now it is time to execute.”

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