Amtrak's 220mph Vision for the Future

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(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) Amtrak released a plan for high speed rail travel along the North East corridor Tuesday. It's an aspirational vision designed to show Congress (and travelers) what's possible.

The vision: by 2040, up to four trains an hour would  zip off in both directions from downtown stations, reaching top speeds of 220 mph. You'd be able to travel from Boston to Washington DC in three hours, half the time it takes now.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says, if implemented,  this would change the way we use rail.   Right now, “the thought of being able to travel from lets say Philadelphia to New York and get there in the same lunch hour is something that doesn’t happen right now.” Shooting for speed is about more than a cheese steak power lunch though. The faster the trains travel, the more people the same rail corridor can carry.

This plan would almost triple the potential ridership by 2040. Right now the Northeast corridor is creeping toward capacity at about 12 million riders annually and 50 freight trains passing daily. Some areas around New York City are already at their limit. Magliari says, "right now there is every reason to believe that the primary network between Boston, New York, and Washington will be at saturation point, even if we make improvements on it, somewhere about 2030." So, he says, some major plan needs to be adopted.

Of, course, this comes at a cost, a hefty cost. The construction tab on this is estimated at $4.7 billion annually for a quarter century of construction. That's more than Amtrak's current yearly operating budget. So, for this to happen Congress will have to make a real commitment.

Robert Puentes, a Senior Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, says, "as far as I can tell there is not a revenue source attached to this, so it would have to come out of the general fund which is currently doing deficit spending." Still, he says it's worth the tab. "You could create a high speed rail network that is generating revenue and helping to pay itself back," he says. Amtrak's current express service for the Northeast corridor, Acela, already turns a profit at top speeds of over 150 mph.

Puentes agrees with Magiliari that demographic and mobility trends necessitate drastic action of some sort, be it trains, planes or automobiles. Why not trains? In many ways, its easier to carry more people along the same rail corridor by increasing the speed than it would be to expand airports or highways.

Either way, Puentes says, this plan should be carried out with those other modes of transport in mind as well. Its not a rail plan, its a mobility plan for a region growing bigger and moving faster with each passing trip.

LINK: PDF news release from Amtrak and PDF of the full report.