Reuters

The federal government has prepared a short list that includes 220 mph trains.

Early last year, the Federal Railroad Administration launched NEC FUTURES — an effort to plan out the passenger rail investments needed in the Northeast Corridor through 2040. This week it released a short list of ideas [PDF] for improving the region. FRA is calling these 15 ideas "Preliminary Alternatives," whittled down from a larger basket of about a hundred. The next step is an even smaller set of "Reasonable Alternatives," and by early 2015 the administration is expect to arrive at what it may well call a "Single Alternative," but what the rest of us will probably just call a decision.

NEC FUTURES is the latest attempt to prepare for growth in the country's most important rail corridor, following the $151 billion "vision" [PDF] for the Northeast that Amtrak released last summer. The FRA has (rather wisely) chosen not to subject itself to the political ridicule that surrounded Amtrak's price tag, but as a result it's a bit tough to evaluate the options set forth by the administration. Generally speaking, they range from limited capacity upgrades to an enhanced high-speed service — as well as a "no build" option that more or less maintains the status quo.

The impetus for all these plans, of course, is that rail travel in the Northeast Corridor is both thriving and seemingly set to thrive even more. Amtrak ridership in the region is steadily growing, with trains now carrying a greater share of passengers than planes in the corridor, and yet there's plenty of room for improvement. NEC FUTURES makes the case that the Northeast is also deserving of great investment given its economic importance to the country — generating a fifth of the nation's G.D.P., according to an FRA chart.

The NEC FUTURES program divides the 15 "preliminary alternatives" into four classes, A through D, with A being very modest improvements and D being pretty wishful ones. The ambitious Class-D plans involve a new track alignment that parallels the Boston-to-Washington spine of the corridor, capacity upgrades, bottleneck relief, and a new right-of-way that permits trains to travel 220 m.p.h., which is roughly 70 m.p.h. faster than the current top speed. Planners also gave a great deal of consideration to new connections off the basic spine, and as a result three Class-D plans propose "second" spines:

  • Alternative 13 — From New York, the second spine goes through Danbury, Waterbury, and Hartford, eventually reaching Boston via Providence.
  • Alternative 14 — From New York, the second spine travels most of Long Island before crossing the Sound into New Haven then reaching Boston via Hartford and Worcester (bypassing Springfield).
  • Alternative 15 — A sort of hybrid, this option extends partway onto to Long Island from New York, crossing the Sound into Stamford, then hitting Danbury and Waterbury en route to Hartford, finally reaching Boston via Springfield and Worcester.
Alternative 15. (NEC FUTURES

)

These secondary routes are worth considering, but FRA should never lose sight of the fact that the primary NEC spine along the coast still leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps the most interesting figure in the new report is that only 9 percent of travel begins on one side of New York and ends on the other. This suggests that despite the popularity of Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor, a lot of people still prefer air travel to go from the mid-Atlantic to New England. Amtrak must know this too, since its recent vision worked toward a 188-minute trip from Washington to Boston by 2040.

With that in mind, a reasonable plan might focus on key improvements to the main line — track upgrades that permit faster speeds, for instance, and extensions to platforms at smaller stations to allow longer trains — and use this new revenue to incrementally upgrade feeder connections until a clear "second" spine emerges. Then again, all these ideas are sort of documented thought experiments in the absence of increased federal rail funding. It's hard to know what's reasonable unless you also know what's possible.

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