Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Five Coolest Things in the FRA's Plan for the Northeast Corridor

Click here to read the report.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has released its vision for the Northeast Corridor (NEC) through the Environmental Impact Statement. This statement, which is required to determine the potential environmental impacts of large infrastructure projects, presents the agency's Preferred Alternative for improvements to make on the rail system in the Northeastern U.S. The FRA unveiled its recommendations on a new website, Anchoring the site is a brief electronic report, "Our Future on Track: Highlights of the Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement."

Particularly for someone like me, who rides the Northeast rails fairly regularly, there's a lot of interesting stuff in this report. The FRA writes that its recommendations would "grow the role of rail in the Northeast, providing the capacity to dramatically increase the number of trains and improve the railroad's performance." Here are the five coolest aspects of the FRA's recommendations for the NEC:

1. More trains

The FRA estimates that all of the improvements outlined in the Preferred Alternative would provide the capacity for up to five times as many intercity trains as today, including multiple trains per hour. Right now, it looks like Amtrak runs about one Acela Express and one Northeast Regional train each hour; I'm guessing these improvements would enable Amtrak to double that amount if it wanted to.

A map of FRA's Preferred Alternative (click to expand).
It would also double the capacity for regional rail trains during peak hours. They give the example that for the Hudson River Crossing, the current 21 trains per hour could double to 42 thanks to two new tunnel tracks being constructed. That's good news for New Jersey commuters: more trains means fewer passengers crowded into each train.

They would also build two new tracks in the tunnels that cross the East River, which would help relieve train congestion for commuters coming in from Long Island.

As someone who grew up in Connecticut riding Metro North into the city, I'm curious as to how Connecticut commuters will benefit from the Preferred Alternative. It looks like there are chokepoint relief projects in downstate New York and just West of New Haven, as well as a new track segment being constructed around the Stamford area.

2. More stations

More stations means more connectivity. That's important for a transportation system. It's why the DC metro has a stop at Union Station, and it's why the Acela stops at BWI and New York-Penn Station. Ideally, you want people to be able to get from the plane to the train, from the subway to the bus, or whatever their inter-modal connections are as quickly and easily as possible. These inter-modal connectors are what enable people to leave their cars behind: they can take the bus to the train station, the train to the airport, and then the airport to their destination.

With that in mind, FRA is recommending a new train station (presumably for Amtrak, which is the intercity rail for the Northeast) at Philadelphia International Airport. It also plans to integrate direct service on the proposed Hartford/Springfield Line into the NEC, so that passengers can travel seamlessly from Springfield to Washington, DC without having to transfer at New Haven.

3. Faster travel

This is the most important thing for many of us: we want our train trips to be faster. The Preferred Alternative would reduce travel times noticeably, allowing us to get from DC to NYC in as little as 2 hours and 10 minutes (35 minutes faster) and from NYC to Boston in as little as 2 hours and 45 minutes (45 minutes faster).

The FRA recommends a number of projects to allow for faster travel times. One of these projects is a replacement of the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel. The current tunnel, built in the 1870's, has a sharp curve that requires trains to drop speeds to 30 mph. Replacing it will keep trains moving faster, letting you get to your destination earlier.

The Preferred Alternative also calls for a new track segment to replace the sharp curve just outside of Philadelphia that was responsible for the fatal derailment in May 2015. This is a matter of safety, but it will also let trains maintain higher speeds without putting anyone in danger, again shortening travel times.

4. Greater convenience

In addition to all the construction, the Preferred Alternative would implement a number of logistical changes that would make it easier for people to ride the rails. I mentioned the importance of interconnectivity in our transportation system: it's also important that people be able to navigate those connections with ease.

The FRA calls for coordinated schedules and ticketing to allow for more seamless travel. Coordinated train arrivals will help people get to their final destination more quickly, since it prevents people from having to wait a long time at a transportation hub waiting for their next train. If you've ever traveled through the Stamford Transportation Center, you might have seen some trains standing at the station: those are trains from the New Canaan branch, and they're waiting for a train from Grand Central to arrive at Stamford so commuters can get off one train and onto another.

Coordinated ticketing will also be helpful, allowing travelers to buy a single ticket that takes them through their entire trip, rather than having to buy individual tickets for each line. MTA recently launched an eTix app that allows people to buy tickets through the app instead of at stations or on the train; this could serve as a model for the entire NEC.

5. Greater resiliency

This isn't on people's minds as often, but resiliency will continue to be important as severe weather events become more frequent. The Northeast was devastated by Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and these storms served to highlight the importance of investing in the resiliency of our infrastructure.

The FRA says it will use the opportunity to build new infrastructure to locate and design that infrastructure in ways that will minimize the potential impacts from floods or extreme heat. new infrastructure provides opportunity to locate and design infrastructure to minimize risks to impacts from floods and extreme heat. This includes adding redundant tracks to provide alternative routing during flooding or other track-closing situations, and upgrading existing tracks to make them more resilient. They also propose electrifying the new Hartford/Springfield line, thus reducing the system's dependence on fuel from foreign sources.

What's next

Now that the EIS has been released, we're in a mandated 30-day waiting period, after which FRA will identify a Selected Alternative in the Record of Decision: this essentially means the agency will settle on a final proposal, which might be exactly the same as the Preferred Alternative proposed in the EIS. It next turns it attention to preparing a Service Development Plan, which will spell out the process for implementing that Selected Alternative. This includes identifying a first phase of projects to address the NEC's most critical needs.

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