In 2011, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned that “If we settle for the status quo, our children and grandchildren will fight paralyzing congestion, remain dependent on foreign oil and suffer from an economy stuck in neutral.” Which was why he was announcing $2.2 billion for American rail projects, including $450 million to bring high speed rail to New Jersey.
The New Jersey project, dubbed the New Jersey High Speed Rail Improvement Program, planned to upgrade and improve 24 miles of track, wires, signals, and other infrastructure between Trenton and New Brunswick, accommodating speeds up to 160 mph, up from 135. It was supposed to take six years. It did not.
Just last week, Amtrak announced that 16 of the 24 miles are now ready for 150 mph Acela train travel, the “fast” train along the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston. When Amtrak gets a new Acela fleet next year, it expects to run 160 mph service on those 16 miles. The other eight miles are expected to be ready in 2024, a mere seven years late on a project expected to take six.
While 160 mph trains do indeed sound exciting, a little math reveals how this project is not the infrastructure triumph the Obama administration hoped it would be. Rather than helping us break America free of stagnation, projects like these are precisely the reason why this country’s infrastructure has stagnated and deteriorated. A basic rail upgrade that was supposed to take six years is seven years late, wildly expensive for what it is, and provides negligible time savings for riders that are entirely negated by other flashy but anti-functional projects by the very same agency.
“The $450 million upgraded this segment of track and provides benefits to Amtrak, NJ Transit, including faster speeds, improved reliability, and state-of-good-repair,” Amtrak spokesperson Jason Abrams told Motherboard.
The point of faster trains is to save people time, so how much time will this $450 million save Amtrak riders? Abrams said it is “too soon to say” how much time the project will save passengers, but “we can probably save a minute or two and reduce some amount of delay” on the trains passing through that stretch of track.
This modest saving accords with basic back-of-the-envelope calculations. Back when the project was announced 11 years ago, then-transportation blogger and current fellow for NYU Marron Institute Alon Levy wrote that going from 135 mph to 160 mph would save about 100 seconds, not including acceleration and deceleration time. To put it another way, a stretch of track that used to take 10 minutes and 30 seconds to travel will now take about nine minutes. The Acela takes 75 minutes to get from Philadelphia to New York, so this time savings amounts to approximately two percent shorter travel times between those two cities.
But as Levy pointed out, this time savings was directly negated by another project Amtrak was undertaking, the recently-finished and ill-conceived $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall in New York City, which has narrow escalators ascending from the far end of the platform on the west side, forcing people to double back overground to get to the subway or other important Manhattan destinations. And while people who pass through New York rather than getting on or off there would not have to deal with this roundabout station layout, they are also in the minority of riders. New York is by far the busiest Amtrak station along the Northeast Corridor, with 7.9 million arrivals and departures every year pre-COVID, more than Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia combined.
“From my perspective as a passenger, the minute or two I lose every time I need to change concourses at Penn Station is worse than a minute or two spent on a train,” Levy wrote. And Moynihan has, in practice, meant passengers need to spend an extra minute or two at least getting to the subway or points east in Manhattan—and since Moynihan is between 8th and 9th Avenues, with only the 7 train west of it, almost all points are east—than before. In other words, the $1.6 billion Amtrak station project negated the time savings of the $450 million Amtrak high speed rail project.
And that’s before even talking about the cost and delays of the project. Abrams told Motherboard the project includes more than just the high speed rail improvements, also addressing additional signal and capacity needs for New Jersey Transit commuter trains. Be that as it may, it was still fundamentally a repair-and-upgrade project that required no significant new construction. And it was woefully expensive for what it was.
As Eric Goldwyn, also a fellow at NYU Marron who works with Levy on analyzing rail infrastructure costs around the world, told Motherboard the cost of the New Jersey project compares unfavorably to entirely new high speed rail infrastructure constructed elsewhere, even ones that required digging new tunnels, building new bridges, or erecting extensive overpasses. Referring to their high speed rail costs dataset from about 20 different countries, Goldwyn told Motherboard via email, “You’ll see that there are full-on projects in Spain, France, Turkey, etc. with tunnels, viaducts, stations, maintenance yards, etc. that have been built at a similar cost or even less than this project.” So the U.S. spent more money per mile to upgrade existing rail infrastructure to high speed lines than other countries do to build new high speed lines.
It also took Amtrak longer to do these 16 miles than it takes other countries to build entirely new high speed rail lines stretching hundreds of miles. To pick just one example, in 2011, the same year the New Jersey project was awarded, France began construction on the Sud Europe Atlantique, a 210-mile high speed line with 188 miles of new construction between Tours and Bordeaux and a travel speed of 200 mph. It started running trains in 2017.
The profound failings here are not solely down to Amtrak. The 24-mile New Jersey project is part of a state-by-state plan to gradually upgrade chunks of the Northeast Corridor to true high speed rail, hopefully by 2035, while concurrently running legacy commuter rail and slower Amtrak trains on the same track. This is not the approach more successful countries with true high-speed networks have taken. Instead, they build brand new tracks and routes for high-speed trains one chunk at a time. Various proposals to create brand-new high-speed lines in the Northeast that would mimic that approach and shave hours, not minutes, off travel times have gone nowhere, thanks to huge cost estimates that reflect America’s inability to build infrastructure at internationally-competitive rates which results in federal and state opposition to building more of it.
This stagnation and high speed rail cosplay leaves us where we started. Biden’s touted infrastructure law has virtually nothing for high speed rail. Back in 2011, President Obama had a goal to connect 80 percent of U.S. residents to high-speed intercity rail by 2035. We’re halfway there, but nowhere closer.