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Dispersed investment is better

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NEC 25kV 60Hz ac electrified track between New Haven, CT and Providence, RI (Amtrak)

In volume and revenue terms, the Northeast Corridor (NEC) must be the most important passenger rail market on the American continent. The term ‘Northeast Corridor’ tends to be used to refer to one railroad, the 736 km mixed-traffic line linking Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. However, Amtrak, the nationalised operator of long distance passenger rail, has long-term ambitions to build a 705 km dedicated high speed line serving the cities of Northeast megalopolis (‘NextGenHSR’).

Amtrak is also planning to continue upgrading the existing railroad and trains (‘NEC-UP’), although this is complicated by the fact that ownership of infrastructure varies from one part of the line to the next. Earlier this month (July 2012) Amtrak updated its Vision for train service in the Corridor, which is now costed at $150.5 billion.

On the face of it there seems to be a much better case for very high speed rail in the Northeast Corridor, than there is for HS2 in Great Britain. Average express speeds on the NEC are much lower than on the West Coast Main Line, and Amtrak are only able to run one Acela high speed train per hour in each direction.

However, an article by Matthew Yglesias on Slate presented a different angle on the Amtrak vision.

[…] at today’s ultra-low interest rates it would genuinely be quite affordable to take out a 30-year loan and start building.

On the other hand, as an actual proposal for what to do with $151 billion in transportation money, this is borderline insane, mostly serving to solve a not-particularly-severe problem at exorbitant cost.

I strongly recommend this Alon Levy post about a set of drastically cheaper smaller-scale interventions that could get travel time from Boston to Washington down to about four hours for about a tenth the cost of what Amtrak is proposing. One key virtue of that alternative is that it would be cheaper. Another even more important virtue of that alternative is that it might actually get done! Projects of the scale Levy is talking about would be expensive, but genuinely within the fiscal capacity of the local jurisdictions to undertake whether or not trains happen to be in vogue in Congress next year.

But even if you spotted me the extra $135 billion to spend on transportation in the region, I still wouldn’t go for the Amtrak plan. Less-than-perfect intercity transportation connections are annoying when you experience them, but ultimately not the biggest deal in the world. Things that could transform people’s daily lives — incremental upgrades to commuter rail networks, an extra subway tunnel for the D.C. central business district, improved bus shelters and signage, removal of neighborhood-destroying freeway spurs — are much more important than shuffling people between big cities at best-in-the-world speed. Meanwhile, dreaming of the super-expensive plan is distracting Amtrak from actually investing time in scrounging up the money and interagency cooperation it would need to complete the almost-as-good upgrades Levy is talking about.

HS2 provides a similar instance of ‘solving’ a not-particularly-severe problem, at exorbitant cost. The time saving offered by HS2 to London is 33 minutes per journey (more likely 20 minutes, when the position of Curzon Street is taken into account). According to Network Rail, in 2009-2010 2.32 million West Coast journeys were made between Birmingham and London by rail. Assuming all of those were made by residents of Birmingham, the usage works out at one round trip, per citizen, per year.

On that analysis, HS2 would save the average Birmingham resident 40 to 60 minutes per year. But if it’s assumed that Londoners made half the journeys, the average Birmingham resident’s benefit would be around 20 to 30 minutes per year. If the evaluation is extended from Birmingham to the West Midlands county, the per-capita saving from HS2 falls below 10 minutes per year.

Even with the Y network in place, the low per capita volume of rail travel to London would mean that annual time savings for residents of northern cities could not be significant. People make more short journeys than long ones, so there are greater benefits from an investment policy that improves connectivity within metropolitan areas (such as Birmingham Crossrail).

Written by beleben

July 31, 2012 at 11:13 am

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