Since the Northeast Corridor’s (NEC) official birth almost two centuries ago, the route has become vital for passengers travelling to thriving commuter hubs across the US’s East Coast. The NEC plays host to more than 750,000 daily passengers along its 457-mile stretch from Boston to Washington DC.
As the majority owner of the NEC’s infrastructure, Amtrak has been embarking on a series of upgrades to infrastructure and services on the line to support growing passenger demand. In 2010, the US rail operator revealed its £151bn mega plan to implement high-speed services in the coming years.
“We just broke records for ridership and revenue and earnings, so I think that starts to tell the story there that there is an enormous demand for passenger rail in our country right now,” says Tanya Sheres, communications manager for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Initiative.
Nevertheless, in May 2017 the NEC Commission revealed that the route still requires £38bn of infrastructure investments just to reach what it called ‘a state of good repair’. In the wake of this staggering number, Amtrak launched its Ready to Build campaign, which provided public information about five key infrastructure projects that the company believes will bring substantial benefits in connectivity along the line.
Though the Ready to Build projects represent only a few of the developments taking place along the NEC, the campaign gives customers and route operators a glimpse into the vital work Amtrak is doing, according to Sheres.
“We felt that there was a strong need to raise awareness on why that system needs to be renewed and modernised,” she says. “We looked at these five projects as being the critical bottlenecks that are really going to have major impacts on customer service in the future if we don’t address them.”
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A bridge too far?
Amtrak has highlighted two bridges that are currently acting as major ‘bottlenecks’ for the NEC, the first of which is the Portal bridge in New Jersey. Every time the 960ft bridge opens to allow shipping traffic to pass below, trains are forced to stop and wait for it to turn back into place. However, its ageing mechanical components often malfunction while opening and closing, leaving trains stuck at either end.
The Portal North Bridge project aims to replace the ancient structure with a brand new fixed-span bridge that’s high enough for marine traffic to pass underneath. The upgraded bridge is expected to ensure higher track speeds, save millions in maintenance costs and increase capacity on this vital connection towards New York Penn Station.
A similar overhaul is proposed for the Susquehanna River Bridge in Maryland, which serves Amtrak, Norfolk Southern Railway and the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) railway. The number of tracks that can run along the 111-year old bridge has been constricted from four to just two. Like the Portal, the bridge suffers from a movable swing action that causes train delays, but at 4,000ft in length, it requires even larger crews to carry out repairs and inspections to minimise delays.
Amtrak aims to replace the structure with two bridges, allowing the total number of tracks to be brought back up to four and subsequently doubling capacity. Clearing the water by 60ft, the bridges will prevent delays to rail and marine traffic, and one of them will be built to support high-speed trains operating at speeds up to 160mph.
Carrying two tracks under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey, the North River Tunnel is crucial for rail connections into and out of New York. Around 450 trains carry 200,000 passengers through the tunnel every day.
In 2012, as Hurricane Sandy ravaged the US, the tunnel was filled with water, devastating the infrastructure. However, if one of the tracks in the tunnel is closed for repairs, the number of trains that can pass through is reduced by 75%, blitzing service speeds along the NEC.
To quash this problem, Amtrak is proposing to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. This would allow the existing tunnel to be brought back up to standard without affecting existing commuter traffic, while providing additional infrastructure to accommodate future growth.
In a similar fashion, the Baltimore and Potomac tunnel running underneath Baltimore City is well overdue for an overhaul. Built just after the Civil War of 1873, this two-track railroad tunnel features a tightly curved design that forces trains to trundle through at 30 miles per hour. The resulting congestion impacts heavily on commuters moving between Baltimore Penn Station and the West Baltimore MARC.
Although rehabilitation work was carried out in the 1980s, Amtrak claims this weren’t intended as a permanent fix and that more repairs are required to address water leakage and masonry issues. The company, therefore, is proposing to replace the two-track tunnel with a new tunnel featuring four tubes, which it hopes will allow for faster and more reliable services.
Making stations better
Alongside two tunnel and two bridge projects, Ready to Build highlights Amtrak’s proposed improvements to several of its railway stations on the NEC, many of which are stretched far beyond their intended capacities at peak times.
“Just like our other infrastructure, a lot of these stations are over a century old and they were never built to accommodate the amount of passengers going through them,” says Sheres. “While we’re trying to have a focus on customer service, the reality is that their experience is starting to be impacted by long waits in line to board trains or confusion getting to connections.”
The Ready to Build campaign focuses on projects at some of Amtrak’s busiest stations, which the company is aiming to upgrade alongside a series of public and private sector partners.
One of the campaign’s key projects is the expansion of Amtrak’s rail services into the upcoming Moynihan Station in New York. Scheduled for completion in 2021, the new station is expected to relieve existing station crowding caused by 10.5 million annual Amtrak passengers currently passing through Penn Station.
Meanwhile, at Washington Union Station, Amtrak is preparing to break ground on a project that will add additional concourses, a new train hall and rail improvements, doubling the capacity for trains and passengers.
Ready to Build also includes repair and development projects at Baltimore Penn, Chicago Union and Philadelphia 30th Street Station.
Amtrak’s projects are at various stages of development, at time of writing. On the one hand, the Federal Rail Administration and NEC operator NJ TRANSIT are preparing an environmental impact statement for the Hudson River project, while works at Washington Union Station are ready to commence in 2018.
Many schemes are still waiting for congressional funding, which could prove a sizeable obstacle. A $630m cut to Amtrak’s rail services across 23 states, announced by the Trump administration in July, was a serious blow to the company, and an additional financial gap for the NEC could be fatal to infrastructure improvements.
“Funding is always a big challenge and probably prioritising in terms of implementation,” says Sheres. “We are not the only users of the NEC – in fact we’re actually the minority – so we’re really coming up with where’s best with limited resources to put towards investment.”
Regardless of whether or not Amtrak is ready to build, the crux of its work will be in successful collaboration, be this through the pursuit of public-private partnerships or in work alongside larger organisational bodies.
“The NEC commission have done enormous work to help streamline the capital investment process, figuring out how costs can be better shared and spread amongst all of the users,” says Sheres.
The road to success is still a long one and the FRA’s NEC Future, the wider plans to enhance the NEC for passengers through 2040, is in its early stages. However, Amtrak’s Ready to Build campaign has helped show customers that renovations are on the way and that the drive for improvement along this pivotal rail route remains unabated.