Wes Vernon Commentary
March 2011

Super High-Speed for NEC: Vision or Mirage?

It was altogether fitting that the first House transportation committee hearing under the chairmanship of Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) would occur in the rarified atmosphere of the balcony overlooking New York City's Grand Central Terminal.

The beautiful ornate setting is the perfect symbol of everything that is backwards and upside down in America's transportation system. Let us count the ways.

Appropriately, we will count backwards.

4. The 1913 rail palace conveys a warm welcoming ambiance, especially to out-of-town visitors. Yes, indeed those out-of-town strangers arriving at Grand Central all the way from New Haven, Connecticut, can marvel that the big city folks have indeed created a true infrastructural "can do" miracle.

Except that your typical passenger from Hartford, Yonkers, or New Rochelle likely won't be entering the premises for the first time. Chances are he will be toting a laptop and making the usual five-days-a-week mad dash for a connecting subway directly to the workplace or walking to an office building in the neighborhood. He's seen it all before. No big deal.

Grand Central, you see, is a commuter train stop, serving only those who ride between the city and suburban New York/Connecticut jurisdictions served by Metro-North. Forget the famed red carpet that in better times provided the proper entrée at the gateway to the famed Chicago-bound Twentieth Century Limited. You can't even catch a mail train to Cleveland from GCT.

Oh, but you can in fact catch a long-distance train from New York City. It's just that you have to board it at Penn Station on the West Side of town. Penn Station looks like, well, a (not even glorified) commuter train stop. It does serve commuters from Long Island and New Jersey. But there is also Amtrak's Acela to Boston and Washington, as well as overnights heading for Chicago, Florida and many other destinations in the South and Midwest. And at Chicago, you can connect with trains heading westward.

But wait a minute: Didn't they used to have a grand and beautiful station here, easily in the same league as Grand Central? Yes, but that was the old original Penn Station, opening date: 1910, built to last a thousand years. It fell 947 years short of that, a victim of the "tear-everything-down" era of the late 20th century.

The out-of-towner might scratch his head and say "Let me make sure I have this straight: The nondescript basement-like place is where you can catch a long-distance train. But the attractive hugely more famous station is for commuters only, right?" Yep.

Oh, there are all kinds of plans in the works to provide a better place at Penn Station. I will believe it when I see it. And after the political gasbags have done their prerequisite bloviating at the opening ceremonies, I will keep the champagne corked until we can be certain that some other previously-overlooked flaw has not diminished its effectiveness. And since most of my dreams don't make sense, I will also want to make sure I'm not about to wake up.

Just the beginning (at the end)

3. America has built 46,876 miles of asphalt slabs called the Interstate Highway System, not counting secondary highways and local roads. Today, America's inter-city passenger service Amtrak operates on 21,000 miles (many of them hosting a grand total of one train a day in each direction), not counting commuter trains, light-rail, streetcars and subways.

What's wrong with that picture?

Well, at the end of World War II, we had inter-city passenger trains that could transport you virtually anywhere to anywhere, an infrastructure that, although having received early federal assistance in the Civil War era, was for the most part built and operated by private entrepreneurship.

Taxpayers subsidized the former and taxed the latter. Brain surgery is not required to conclude which side won the battle and which side was relegated to the margins. (No coaching from the audience, please.)

Ahem, back to the here and now

2. So now, after more than a half century, the mind-numbing uniformly unattractive slabs of concrete have been spread, and in the 21st century government, planners have noticed as how we don't have fast trains like they do in Europe and Asia. Here, let's put up a big map on a drawing board, and put super high speed trains in Florida and California and we'll announce we're playing catch-up.

Florida has fallen short (so far). Why? Well, doggone it, there you go again--full speed backwards. The logical procedure--again, not brain surgery--would have been to start with the very heavily traveled (100 million trips per year) Miami-Orlando corridor, and consider the less traveled (18 million trips per year) Orlando-Tampa corridor later, once the route that boasts more people than jack-rabbits proves its success.

But nooo-ooo-ooooooooooooo! Someone, possibly having spent 65 years in a library basement where everything is theoretical (or backwards?), decided to start with the Tampa-Orlando corridor which is not only less populated, but would dump the HSR passengers alongside highways where the only sign of local connections would be six-lane highways with automobiles whizzing by at 80 MPH. Then and only then would they think about Orlando-Miami, which is more transit-oriented because (Duh!) there are more people there.

So along comes a business-oriented governor with an open mind, and guess what he decides to do with that turkey. (No coaching from the audience please.)

Damn the torpedoes, full speed retreat!

1. So here we are in the palatial Grand Central Terminal in late January of 2011. A congressional hearing is underway concerning Super HSR on the Northeast Corridor.

The NEC is the most densely-populated sector of the nation and therefore the ideal laboratory for a train going at 200-300 MPH. But then of course, we are the gear-in-reverse transportation folks, so we pick Orlando-Tampa as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Well, to be fair, our own NEC has its problems too. (See below.)

Chairman Mica who has been known to berate Amtrak officials for not charging an extra dollar for a bottle of beer in an Amcafe, calls the committee to order as witnesses are lined up to testify regarding a $117 billion project to run super-trains from Washington to Boston in 3 hours and 15 minutes, half the time as the Acela. Mica likes that idea. But you would have to sell a lot of beers on Amtrak to pay that tab.

Of course, Mr. Mica is to be commended for "thinking big," on NEC HSR, as well as for the congressman's sense of humor in delicately describing our lack of super HSR Washington-New York-Boston trains as "Sitting on our Assets."

His fellow committee members and various experts have advised Chairman Mica that such a dream is theoretically possible, but fiscally or politically not doable.

Setting the table

The congressman, in his opening statement, cited the NEC's "437-miles" as "incredibly valuable real estate." Amtrak's own projection for completing the proposal is 2040. Mica wants to hurry that up, hopefully by getting private investors involved. He got support at the hearing from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.

But Ross Capon, President of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) told a roundtable discussion group following the formal testimony that "no one should underestimate the challenges of the Mica vision [for a "next gen" super-train]. The project will require condemnation of thousands of property parcels [NIMBYs - Not-in-my-Back Yard], the replacement of over a thousand bridges [sheer cost], and the occupation of miles of wetlands [environmental naysayers]."

Adding all this up, Capon summarized, "That will be a huge challenge for our democracy."

Several proponents of the NEC super-train cited China's ability to do ultra-HSR in a short time. The response from Capon was that China need not worry about NIMBYs. It's like "we're going to run a train through your living room, and your house goes down Monday."

Freshman Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) demurred that other countries with more respect for human rights than China have managed to build new HSR without having to wait 35 years to do so.

In an interview with this column, Capon posited that the 30-year-old Paris-Lyon line would have a harder time getting approval today. At the time, Paris-Lyon was mostly through countryside and fields, etc., in contrast to the more densely-populated NEC. (More NIMBYs there now.) Presumably, any population growth in the intervening years along that French line resulted at least in part from the emergence of a high-speed corridor, an ironic chicken vs. egg circumstance in La Belle France.

Again, the here and now

Petra Todorovich, Director America 2050, emphasized the importance of continuing progress to bring the Northeast Corridor to a state of Good Repair.

On that note, Capon cited the badly-needed replacement of the "elderly" Northeast Corridor Bridge over the Hackensack River. It was supposed to have been replaced in conjunction with the now-defunct ARC (tunnels) project terminated by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

The NARP boss added there would be "a huge problem if what is supposed to be a movable bridge stops moving." And he added, "The country will not be well served if the corridor falls apart while we are talking about building a whole new railroad." (Well, do tell! Yet another backward leap.)

Since that Grand Central testimony, an alternative, less expensive plan for tunneling between New York and New Jersey was proposed by the Garden State's two senators. That project, if it ever gets off the ground (so to speak) would also involve repairing the Hackensack River Bridge. (Stay tuned.)

Private Plan?

Former Governor Rendell said the feds could lease operational rights to a private company or "sell assets completely," as quoted by Crain's New York Business.

Crain's added that would give companies more incentive to invest in track maintenance, "but it would give the government little control over ticket prices, which normally do not cover half the price of operation and maintaining public transportation infrastructure."

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association has cited a plan in England whereby the British government auctioned off a 30-year concession for the right to own its first HSR line between London and the English Channel Tunnel which, according to Crain's, generated $3.4 billion from a consortium of two Canadian pension funds.


Alas, when applied to NEC problems here in the USA, all this is theoretical. Maybe it can happen--not in my time--rather by some time beyond the mid-point in this century at the earliest. I fervently wish that were not the likelihood.

There is another plan out there that would cut down on the Washington-Boston time by one hour--just one, but that's enough significantly to boost ridership. If you accept that we must walk before we can run, why don't we try that first, and then try to shoot for the rail equivalent of the moon?

Or must we try to accomplish things once again by walking backwards (e.g., shoot for the moon first, and then retreat back to reality)?