Digest: Amtrak Updates High-Speed Rail Vision, What's Changed

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Amtrak Acela Express High-Speed Train running on existing Northeast corridor tracks in Bristol, Penn. (photo by Gary Pancavage, Amtrak)

By 2017, the fastest train in America will zip through Central New Jersey at 160 m.p.h. Upgrades to make that happen will be paid for, in part, by money returned by Florida when Gov. Rick Scott rejected that state's high-speed rail. Those and other tidbits--combined with loads of futuristic renderings--paint a hopeful vision for high-speed rail in the Northeast as laid out in a new report by Amtrak (PDF).

In two decades: New York to Philadelphia in 37 minutes. To D.C. or Boston in 94 minutes.

Amtrak released an update to a 2010 "vision" for building high-speed rail from Boston to Washington, D.C. that scales back the total cost, drops planned stations, and devotes much more attention to realistic, phased implementation. What this vision lacks in grandiosity, it makes up for in marketing savvy with flashy renderings and optimistic fiscal projections.

“It does seem to be more cognizant of the environment in which it is presented,” said Robert Puentes Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. It is "perhaps less aspirational than the 2010 version and more rational in terms of roll out and execution." The document lays out a "stepped" approach to investments, starting small with things like more Acela rail cars.

Puentes called the approach, "iterative," a strategy en vogue in design circles -- just the type who clamor for a 220 m.p.h. transit option they can tote their bike on.

Compared to the 2010 document, this report has far more images, graphics and charts, and futuristic renderings of stations along with the spaceship-like new trains. The document talks a lot more about including stakeholders in decision making. New terminology is stressed. The new trains aren't just high-speed rail rolling stock, they are "NextGen HSR" trains. The roll out of the plan isn't just rolling out, or dropping from they sky, it's a "stair-step" approach, showing how Amtrak will procure what is needed when it's needed and deliver results along the way, not just in 2040 when everything is built.

Starting small makes practical sense in selling the idea. For instance, according to Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm, adding those extra cars on Acela trains will increase seating capacity by 40 percent. That will be done by 2015. The purchases are already in the works. Early, visible results will help sell the project.

So will cutting costs.

This updated vision is just as fast (220 m.p.h.) but it's cheaper: $151 billion, down from $169 billion. “A lot of it is pushing off some of the station development," explains Kulm. "We realized that some of the items we wanted to do, we should put off for the future."

This vision integrates two previous plans by the rail agency, the Master Plan and the high-speed rail Vision. “What we’ve done with this report today is combine the two, and integrate the two, and through the process find some cost savings."

Commuter rail is integrated far more significantly, and in the process, shifts some station construction costs and decision-making to local municipalities.

Likewise, the document takes into account the unlikelihood that states along the route will spend big to speed the process. Call that the legacy of N.J. Gov. Chris Christie's killing of the ARC tunnel.

The Gateway Tunnel (ARC's replacement), however, plays a big role in this new vision. One way Amtrak expects to lift top speeds from the current 130 m.p.h (let alone average speeds!) to 220 m.p.h. is by relieving congestion of commuter and freight trains that block the way.

There will be dedicated right-of-way added north of New York City, but to the south the bulk of the liberated corridor space will be from making New Jersey Transit commuter service more efficient through the Gateway program, which adds two tunnels under the Hudson River and four tracks between Newark, N.J. and an expanded New York Penn Station that will be connected to a new Moynihan Station (see slick rendering pics here).

N.J. Senator Frank Lautenberg issued a statement praising the inclusion of the Gateway Tunnel in this report, saying: "Amtrak will continue to have my full support as we move forward to revolutionize passenger rail travel in the Northeast." Amtrak funding reauthorization is looming in Congress and Lautenberg will be writing the legislation in the Senate. Expect generous funding proposals for infrastructure upgrades.

Amtrak's fiscal projections are more optimistic than in 2010, but it's not clear what formula was used to develop the new numbers. Amtrak has had record ridership in recent years, so that bodes well for a bolstered bottom line for future service.

All of it is aspirational anyway. There isn't a $151 billion pot of money to make this happen. The document is an argument for why there should be and it is a detailed plan for how it could come to be -- a transportation straw horse for political times hostile to megaprojects. But this is the megaproject of megaprojects -- with a mega reason to be completed according to Kulm, "This region is the economic powerhouse of the country, it’s where the political capital is, the financial capital is… we can’t afford to come to  standstill," he said.

"The transportation network, roads, air, even the rails, are operating at or near capacity," he said. "Simply building and rebuilding what is there today is not going to be enough." Speed on the tracks means more people moving each day, each hour. So, he argues, the solution is: go faster.