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Published on April 5th, 2013 | by Joshua S Hill


Federal Railroad Administration Plan Upgrades To Northeast Corridor Rail Network

April 5th, 2013 by  

Mass transit, rail in particular, is likely to be incredibly beneficial as we move further into the 21st Century. Recent studies have shown that traffic congestion does in fact get worse in specific situations if mass transit is affected (by strikes or natural events). Furthermore, in a world striving to reach greener standards of living, minimising the number of cars on the road and innovating to create more environmentally-friendly forms of public transport are going to be high priorities.


The American Federal Railroad Administration released its NEC FUTURE Preliminary Alternatives Report detailing 15 Preliminary Alternatives for the Northeast Corridor (NEC), part of NEC FUTURE’s goal “to develop a long-term investment program for improving and growing the Washington, D.C., to Boston, Northeast Corridor rail service to accomodate projected year 2050 commuter and intercity rail ridership.”

15 Alternatives, Only 1 Will Survive

The report is a culled-down version of a much larger list of “Initial Alternatives” which have been pared down to these 15 Preliminary Alternatives, a group which will again be pared down to an even smaller set of “Reasonable Alternatives” which will lead to a specific “preferred investment program” for NEC FUTURE to move forward with.

The 15 alternatives will be critiqued according to an extensive list of goals and criteria derived from the NEC FUTURE’s Preliminary Purpose and Need statement. These include the following:

  • Provide for state-of-good-repair on the NEC.
  • Attempt to meet projected 2040 travel demand.
  • Improve service reliability and frequency to the primary markets of Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
  • Include some options for new or improved rail service to intermediate markets with significant ridership potential.
  • Support service to and from the connecting corridor markets in addition to the existing NEC Spine, including consideration of both run-through and transfer options.
  • Provide equitable and fair levels of service across the Study Area, treat connecting corridors with similar size and market potential in a consistent manner, provide comparable service strategies for the various commuter rail networks focused on Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston, and provide consistent treatment of rail freight along the NEC.
  • Support strong intermodal connections between intercity passenger rail modes and corridors, regional and local transit services, and other modes.
  • Accommodate freight rail growth by preserving windows for rail freight operations, access to freight customers, and access to rail freight main lines.
  • Support the Northeast region’s efforts to reduce environmental impacts and energy use resulting from projected growth in travel demand.

Furthermore, the critiquing process will include dropping alternatives that:

  • Are less efficient in serving specific markets (e.g., longer distance, longer travel time) or generate substantially more adverse environmental or transportation impacts compared to other similar service alternatives.
  • Provide similar investment levels and performance characteristics, but with a higher implementation risk, or greater impact or clearly higher cost (e.g., significantly longer mileage).

Will More Transit Help Traffic Congestion?

In 1962 transportation researcher Anthony Downs wrote that US cities suffered from what he described as a “fundamental law of highway congestion” — “This Law states that on urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.” Fast forward to a new research paper published in October 2012’s American Economic Review where two economists from the University of Toronto furthered the research, finding that the evidence supported a fundamental law of road congestion, expanding beyond the “expressways” and including a “broad class of major urban roads.”

The researchers found that no manner of increase to road capacity would ever minimise the urban congestion, despite claims from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (a biased group if ever you found one). The reality is, according to their research, there is such latent demand for road space that even increasing public transport services doesn’t really solve matters. According to their research, the moment one commuter decides to give up the car in favour of public transport, another is waiting to fill his spot on the packed expressway.

However, recent research conducted by University of California scholar Michael Anderson actually elaborates on the subject and provides some hope for public transport’s role in reducing road congestion. Anderson studied the effects of the 2003 strike by employees of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority which shut down city bus and train services.

The strike, which lasted 35 days, showed that during peak periods when many commuters would be relying on public transport to get to work, traffic on LA’s major freeways increased by 47%, which equates to 0.19 minutes per mile. Furthermore, the data showed that delays were more pronounced on freeways that paralleled major transit lines. This not only reaffirms the idea that mass transit is a real alternative to car travel, but it also showed that the benefit of mass transit in terms of traffic reduction for the Los Angeles area ranges from $1.2 billion to $4.1 billion each year.

(Note — Anderson’s working paper is available for download here (PDF).)

15 Alternatives — A Brief Summary

There is no great way to do justice to the full 15 alternatives as outlined in the NEC FUTURE report. If you are interested, the full report can be downloaded here (PDF) and concludes with full-page maps elucidating each of the 15 alternatives, including the 15th alternative, the most far-reaching of them all (seen below).

Alternative 15 - All or Nothing! Image Credit: NEC FUTURE

Alternative 15 – All or Nothing!
Image Credit: NEC FUTURE

The following table outlines the 15 alternatives in a simpler format, categorising them into their respective sections.

NEC FUTURE 15 Alternatives

The 15 Preliminary Alternatives
Image Credit: NEC FUTURE

As the levels increase — A through D — so too does the reach of the alternative proposed, concluding with the 15th alternative which proposes a fully separate, second NEC high-speed rail spine.

Population and Employment Growth

While, as we have seen, there are obvious benefits for traffic congestion — and the subsequent benefits that will have on the environment — there are immediate sociological reasons for increasing the reliability and extent of the Northeast Corridor transit network.

Northeast Travel Demand for All Modes Image Credit: National Transit Database

Northeast Travel Demand for All Modes
Image Credit: National Transit Database

There could be no alternatives without first understanding the demands on travel throughout the Northeast Corridor. NEC FUTURE looked at existing regional and state travel demand as well as population and employment growth, ridership projections made by Amtrak and commuter authorities, discussions with states and planning organisations, and public agency comments made during the initial Scoping, all in an effort to identify current travel patterns and potential new rail markets.

The resulting data underscores the impact the local four primary markets have on the existing NEC spine — Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. This plays out in the current pattern of intercity passenger rail service and data:

  • South End (Washington–New York)
      • 95 percent of all trips begin or end at Washington, Philadelphia or New York.
      • 57 percent of all trips begin and end at Washington, Philadelphia and/or New York.
  • North End (New York–Boston)
      • 85 percent of all trips begin or end at Boston or New York.
      • 27 percent of all trips begin and end at Boston and New York.
  • Through New York trips
      • Only 9 percent of all trips begin either north or south of New York and end on the other side of New York.

The data also showed that there were other strong Northeast travel markets on the spine — Baltimore, Wilmington, Newark, Stamford, and New Haven — and off the spine as well. In fact, while the data showed that offspine-markets were currently growing, it also showed that they would be potentially very important.

On top of that were the specific data relating to population and employment growth through to 2050, as shown in the maps below.

Population (left) and Employment (right) Growth 2010 - 2040 by County Image Credit: Moody's Analytics

Population (left) and Employment (right) Growth 2010 – 2040 by County
Image Credit: Moody’s Analytics

Environmental Impact

Stepping away from the NEC FUTURE report, the environmental impacts of increasing the public transport infrastructure of the US is undeniable. Putting aside for the moment the calls made recently by the American Public Transport Association (APTA), which called for serious investing in public transport infrastructure for the sake of “our economic future and essential for our mobility,” the renewable possibilities are almost endless.

More and more renewable energy is being installed, and its use for transport is evident. Indian scientists recently proposed installing solar panels over roadways, minimising the need for open spaces to be used, and installing renewable energy where transmission lines already run — alongside roadways. One need not stretch the imagination to see how similarly renewable energy could be used to boost the energy efficiency of railway lines. A future with high-speed rail being powered solely by renewable energy is not an unfathomable future in a day and age where the renewables industry is booming and renewable energy is greatly prized.

Furthermore, investing in mass transit infrastructure is the first step towards investing in mass transit innovation. High-speed rail is already a commonplace mode of transport throughout Asia and Europe. What further developments and innovations are possible in the next twenty to forty years? 


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About the Author

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.

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