The Northeast Rail Corridor (NEC) between Washington, DC and Boston, MA, spans the nation's most densely populated land areas and is one of the most heavily traveled rail corridors in the world. The NEC accommodates over 2,100 passenger trains and 60 freight trains each day and moves more than 260 million passengers and 14 million car-miles of freight each year.

Amtrak operates multiple services through and connecting to the NEC, as shown in this interactive map. Amtrak trains share the corridor with eight commuter railroads. Amtrak provides an excellent Fact Sheet describing the intricate mix of rail operations on the NEC, its aging infrastructure and the efforts underway to meet the future demand of over half a billion passengers per year by 2040. 

 

Virginia Amtrak Service and the NEC   

The future of Virginia's passenger trains depends almost entirely upon the Northeast Corridor. Everything Virginia has done, is currently doing, and aspires to do in the future, relative to intercity passenger and commuter rail, is critically dependent upon Virginia's trains being accommodated in the NEC. Virginia Passenger Rail

All but two of Amtrak's long-distance trains serving Virginia, as well as all six of Virginia's state-supported Northeast Regional trains, travel to Washington, DC, and from there directly through the 457-mile NEC.

 

 

Left: Virginia Passenger Rail Map, Virginia  Department of Rail and Public  Transporation, 2013 Virginia Statewide Rail Plan, Chapter 3, pg. 16. 

 

 

 

Just as important, the Northeast Corridor depends upon Virginia rail infrastructure and the success of Virginia's Amtrak routes. Long-distance trains from the South, Southeast and Midwest converge in Virginia as the gateway to the NEC. Six of the twenty Amtrak Northeast Regional trains initiates or terminates in Virginia, and these are the most successful regional routes in the Amtrak system (VHSR, Regional Train Fact Sheet). Virginia is also the  link between the NEC and the future Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, which will connect Florida and the cities of the emerging Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion with the great population centers of the Northeast.

"None of these origins lies within the strict definition of the Northeast Corridor, which is the 457 miles between Boston and Washington. But in the scheme of things, places like Lynchburg are as much a part of the NEC as Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station."   

Fred W. Fraley, Corridor Conundrum, Trains, April 2014, p. 27

 

 Future of the Northeast Corridor  

"The NEC faces serious problems, with century-old infrastructure,outdated technology and insufficient capacity to reliably meet today’s travel demand or to expand travel options as the region grows."
FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo
 

Federal Railroad Administration Plan

Acknowledging that the Northeast Corridor is in serious need of repairs, replacements and updated technology, the Federal Railroad Administration launched a major planning effort on the Future of the Northeast Corridor to define, evaluate and prioritize future federal investments in the corridor. VRPI participated in the public scoping process for the FRA study, attending meetings in Washington, DC and taking part in lively discussions about the future of the NEC. However, as shown in the FRA Study Area Map, Virginia's mainline corridors are regarded as Connecting Corridors to the NEC and are therefore not included in the scope of the FRA's investment study. 
 
The FRA recently published a draft of three Action Alternatives, as well as a No Action Alternative, for future federal investments in the NEC, as part of its Tier I Environmental Impact Study . Each of these alternatives is evaluated for its impacts on transportation, the economy, the built environment, and natural resources. The FRA is soliciting public comments on the alternatives, which are due by February 15, 2016. VRPI will submit comments during this period.
 

Amtrak's Vision for the NEC

Amtrak has also undertaken long-term planning efforts for the NEC, including a 2010 Master Plan for modernizing the corridor and a visionary plan for the "Northeast Corridor Next Generation High Speed Rail." These two plans are integrated and updated in the 2012 Report, "The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor."

 

Amtrak Capital Investment Plan

The 2010 NEC modernization plan called for $52 billion in improvements to handle a projected 60% increase in intercity and commuter rail trips by 2030. The plan was the collaborative work of The NEC Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission, established by USDOT in 2010 under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) of 2008. The NEC Commission consists of twelve Northeastern states and the District of Columbia, Amtrak, the FRA, eight commuter and three freight railroads. In spite of the interdependency between Amtrak's Virginia services and NEC, Virginia is a non-voting member of the Commission, and as such has no formal say in the future of the corridor. In November, 2014, VRPI met in Washington with high-level Amtrak officials to discuss the NEC Master Plan and to stress the role Virginia rail will play in achieving Amtrak's vision for the the future of intercity and commuter rail in the corridor. 
 

Amtrak NextGen High Speed Rail Vision

Taking off from the solid success of its Acela high speed service between Washington, DC and Boston, Amtrak released a visionary plan for the next generation of high speed travel in the NEC in 2010. The vision, since updated, is to achieve greater capacity, reliability, frequencies and speeds (up to 220 mph), eventually reducing travel times to 54 minutes between Washington and Philadelphia, 94 minutes between Washington and New York, and 94 minutes between New York and Boston. The NexGen HSR plan outlines a series of phased improvements, implementations and funding that would achieve these milestones by 2040.
 

Watch the Amtrak video

"Accelerating the Future of High Speed Rail"

Amtrak's vision for next generation high speed rail in the NEC has been lavishly illustrated with conceptual renderings of sleek train sets and new or greatly modernized rail stations (click on video at right to view the vision).
 
 

Achieving the Vision for the NEC

This extraordinary vision for the NEC will only be achieved with significant federal investment, along with  partnerships with the NEC states and the stakeholder commuter and freight railroads. The total estimated cost of Amtrak's combined Capital Investment and Next Generation High Speed Rail plans is $151 billion, with implementation phased in over the 2012-2040 time period. Federal investment in intercity transportation modes
 
While the cost of each phase of the NEC plan may seem prohibitive, in fact it would be a small fraction of the total USDOT Transportation budget.  Historically, rail has accounted for less than 4% of federal transportation spending compared to other modalities, as shown in the chart below.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Achieving the vision for the NEC will require an adjustment of our funding priorities and a reliable year-to-year commitment, something Amtrak has yet to receive since its creation in 1971.    
 
 
Left: Federal Transportation Investment by Mode, 1949-2012. From Joe McHugh presentation, Slide 15.
 
 
 

 

 

Virginia's Stake in the NEC

“Virginia has a material interest in the future of the Northeast Corridor and should be better represented in matters relating to NEC. There are inherent inequities. Contrast Maryland, which directly pays nothing for NEC service because Amtrak operates all of its intercity trains, to Virginia that now is to assume full financial responsibility for Amtrak regional trains. Virginia governors, their administrations, and the state’s congressional delegation should address this inequity. “

Dick Beadles, The Virginia Newsletter, Vol. 89 No. 3 June 2013

 

VRPI Issues and Concerns about the NEC

VRPI recognizes the enormous stake Virginia has in the NEC. A major concern for Virginia is the absence of representation of the Urban Crescent between Hampton Roads/Richmond and Washington, DC in the scope of the FRA study. More generally, the segregation of Virginia from any of the federal planning and funding initiatives for the NEC is short-sighted, both from a market share and an operational standpoint. VRPI raised these and other issues and in a 2013 letter from VRPI to the FRA. The letter also dealt with two major chokepoints for trains entering the NEC from Virginia --  Washington Union station and the Long Bridge Across the Potomac.

 

Washington Union Station

Another concern is the limitations of Washington Union Station to handle the volume of rail and passenger traffic projected to converge at Washington Terminal from both north and south by 2030. To reduce the burdens on Union Station, VRPI suggests planning for the development of a new intercity rail terminal at Reagan National Airport, from which NEC electric-powered trains might originate and terminate in lieu of Washington Terminal. We believe there is sufficient undeveloped rail corridor land adjacent to Reagan National and the G.W. Parkway to add several tracks and platforms, and this would add an intermodal component to Reagan National similar to that at BWI.

 

Long Bridge Across the Potomac  Long Bridge Across the Potomac

Another  major congestion point is the Long Bridge crossing the Potomac River, a two-track railroad bridge that was constructed in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Long Bridge, owned by CSX Railroad, serves rail traffic for CSX, Amtrak and VRE and is the only railroad bridge connecting Virginia to Washington, DC and the NEC. In 2013 the District of Columbia began an FRA-financed study of replacing Long Bridge.

Right: View of VRE train crossing the Potomac southbound on Long Bridge.  

 

VRPI believes that, in addition to replacing Long Bridge, there will be need for an additional rail crossing of the Potomac to relieve rail congestion at either end and to provide an alternative crossing to maintain NEC passenger service during emergency or other shut-downs of Long Bridge.

 

Hudson River Tunnels 

Nothing would create more turmoil for intercity rail in Virginia than the closure of one of the two 105-year-old Hudson River tunnels between Newark, New Jersey and New York Penn Station. During peak hours, 24 trains an hour move through the tunnel -- the only direct rail link between New York Penn Station and points to the west, which includes Virginia.  

Hudson Tunnels shown in Vintage Postcard

Each Hudson River tunnel has only a single track, which offers no redundancy in the event that either tunnel should fail. When a train breaks down in one of the tunnels, the entire system grinds to a halt. A project to build parallel tunnels to double the capacity was scrapped in 2010 by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who cited budget constraints despite a $3 billion federal commitment to the project. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy inundated the North tunnel with seawater, and the residue of chemicals left behind is quickly eroding key system components within the tunnel.

 

Left: Hudson River tunnels shown in vintage postcard.

To repair and rehabilitate the tunnels, Amtrak will need to shut down each tunnel in turn. Without a backup tunnel, the closures will cause the NEC to lose 75% of its capacity because trains headed into New York would have to share the remaining track with trains headed west, leaving capacity for only six trains an hour. 

Amtrak has developed a plan called the Gateway Project to build a two-track parallel tunnel to be used to divert trains during the closures. Following the repairs, the additional tracks will double the capacity of the NEC and open slots for more frequent and reliable Amtrak service. Yet despite the urgency of making repairs and the inevitable need for additional capacity, the federal government has yet to fund the project. In the meantime, New Jersey and New York continue to wrangle over how much of the bill they will pay.

VRPI is convinced the Gateway Project must proceed with all deliberate speed. Virginia has too much at stake to allow these tunnels to close. We urge Governor McAuliffe and Virginia's Congressional Delegation to help solve this problem. Congress must act now to authorize the Gateway Project. Anything else risks the catastrophic failure of the NEC and with it, the loss of years of progress in state-supported intercity rail for Virginia.