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High Speed Rail at 90 mph?! ARRA & the Northeast Corridor

A new series of posts on this blog will feature the state of US high speed rail, covering the condition and plans for realizing the new American passenger rail network. A good place to start is with the fastest passenger train currently in service – the Northeast Corridor.

Most of this line is serviced by Amtrak’s Acela express which has the potential to reach 150 mph, but rarely does due to technological limitations concerning the track and the overhead electrical system used to power the train. The average speed of the Acela is a mere 86 mph.

This line has America’s highest ridership and serves the densely populated area from Washington D.C. all the way up to Boston. Along the route lie Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York City, Providence and number of other urban areas. The Acela has been in service for nearly nine years and experienced increased ridership in 2008 when gas prices spiked.  Although the Acela train on the Northeast Corridor is Amtrak’s flagship passenger train, when compared to the high speed trains of other countries, it does not measure up to its European and Asian counterparts.

First and foremost, the Acela does not even qualify to be a high speed train under the definition by the International Union of Railways which states: “services which regularly operate at or above 250 km/h (155 mph) on new track, or 200 km/h (124 mph) on existing track. The Acela can obtain a speed of 150 mph, but only briefly. The majority of the seven hour trip from Washington D.C. to Boston is less than ninety miles per hour.

Amenities are very important to passengers, especially business travelers who need to utilize their time on the journey by working. While a German businessman has the capability to connect to high speed internet on a German high speed InterCity Express Train (ICE), an American does not have that business necessity on the Acela yet. Comfort and quality on the train need to be improved to attract more ridership, be it more comfortable seats that include more personal space or better food in the dining car. The Acela needs to improve both inside and out.

The solution is clear: investment. $8 billion allocated for high speed rail in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act was the first money ever allocated for high speed rail in the US. A good first step but well short of the amount needed to seriously make a difference in the state of American passenger rail.

Amtrak President/CEO Joseph Boardman has stated for Acela to match up with its international opposites, an investment of $5 billion is needed to shore up the line between Washington D.C. and New York City. In an interview with NBC news, railroad consultant Joseph Vranich stated that most of the stimulus money should be invested in the Northeast Corridor to prove to the American people that high speed rail can be successful.

The Northeast Corridor is the best the country has to offer, but it still has a lot of improvements to make and a long way to go to reach its full potential.

This is the 2nd of a 13-part series on high speed rail in the USA. Read previous articles: High Speed Rail – 12 Corridors to be Stimulated

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4 comments on “High Speed Rail at 90 mph?! ARRA & the Northeast Corridor


I remember reading a year ago about the speed limits imposed on the Acela by the aging tracks. There was one stretch in CT where the tracks were so close that passing trains had a mere 8 inches between them (assuming that they’re not rocking back and forth)

I think that that particular stretch has been fixed in the last year, but I know that there are still a number of trouble spots where tracks are either too close or in poor condition.

Interesting point about the electrical system, too – they run a single phase 25 Hz line. I’ve only seen reference to a 180MVA AC-AC converter but imagine there must be more transformers along the line. Then again, maybe not.

Its little wonder the system is as constrained as it is…

It’s politics as well as technological issues that slow the train. Connecticut has balked at upgrading it’s state owned line from New Rochelle NY to New Haven. Their priority is commuter trains.

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