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Amtrak aspires to a 2-hour D.C.-N.Y. trip, but it’s going to take a lot more than faster trains

An Amtrak Acela train stops at Newark Penn Station in June, on the way to Washington. (David Boe/AP)

Amtrak’s new nonstop Acela service between Washington and New York was billed as the start of an era of faster and more efficient passenger service in the Northeast.

The service, launched in September, connects the nation’s two most powerful cities in two hours and 35 minutes, saving passengers about 15 minutes’ travel time. In 2021, the railroad plans to debut more Acela train sets, and it is in the midst of other cosmetic changes and upgrades.

Amtrak appears to be on a roll, with record ridership, faster Acela service and improved amenities for its customers. But its ambitions for the busy Northeast Corridor, including higher speeds, fewer delays, more trains and an eventual two-hour Washington-to-New York trip rest largely on its ability to raise billions needed for costly improvements to its aging and inadequate infrastructure.

“We aspire to hit higher top speeds, and ultimately the goal is to shrink the trip time,” said Caroline N. Decker, Amtrak’s vice president for the Northeast Corridor line. “But we have to be very mindful of the infrastructure that we use that was really never designed for high-speed rail.”

Major choke points slow and disrupt train traffic along the corridor. Add to that work zones, aging track, bridges and tunnels, and long segments of curved terrain — all of which result in lower speeds.

Amtrak owns most of the track — 363 miles of the 457-mile corridor from Washington to Boston — and shares it with nine commuter and four freight rail systems. In all, more than 2,100 passenger trains and 60 freight trains use the Northeast Corridor daily.

The corridor, with 56.1 million people and $2.6 trillion of economic activity, is a booming epicenter for the United States, making rail travel key to addressing traffic congestion and facilitating growth in the region, experts and transportation leaders say.

The railroad estimates the corridor’s 260 million passenger trips a year, including Amtrak and commuter trains, will reach over a half-billion by 2040.

“The demand is growing. The biggest challenge is, how do we meet that demand given the current constraints on our network,” Decker said.

It’s not just a concern for Amtrak. Though Amtrak owns most of the track in the corridor, of all the trips made in the corridor each year, only 17.1 million, or about 7 percent, are on Amtrak. Any infrastructure improvements would benefit operations and growth of the commuter rail systems that ferry hundreds of thousands of workers daily, from those on Maryland MARC trains into the nation’s capital to those on NJTransit trains into Manhattan.

“We can talk about what the corridor ought to be and how we think it’s going to go and what can happen if it grows, but until we tackle the core infrastructure issue, we are only going to tinker around the edges,” said Jim Mathews, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Rail Passengers Association.

Making the investments to eliminate those bottlenecks, however, would open up the way for more reliable service, Mathews said.

“Trains will be able to go a little bit faster,” he said. “We can put more trains on the line.”

That’s what Amtrak is betting on, to within the next decade beat the new Acela time record and push the trip from Washington to New York to just two hours.

“Should be an achievable goal,” Decker said.

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An expensive endeavor

Each minute cut from a trip aboard an Amtrak train in the Northeast Corridor translates to millions of dollars.

Joseph Boardman explained it to Congress a decade ago when he was Amtrak’s chief executive: To cut 15 minutes off the travel time between New York and Washington would cost $625 million, or the cost of expensive track upgrades and modifications to equipment, to allow 130 mph speeds.

“If you take the next 15 minutes to get down to two hours and 15 minutes, the total cost is at $5 billion because every time you add to the reduction in time for us, we have huge costs,” said Boardman, who served from 2008 to 2016 and died this year.

Those figures have undoubtedly gone up, experts say, yet they provide an idea of how expensive it is to shorten travel times in the corridor. A regular Northeast Regional trip from Washington to New York takes up to three hours and 25 minutes; the regular Acela takes two hours and 50 minutes, compared with the two hours and 35 minutes for the new nonstop service.

The Acela runs at speeds up to 150 mph in a short stretch between Providence, R.I., and Boston and reaches up to 135 mph in some stretches between New York and Washington. More than half of Amtrak trains operate at top speeds of 100 mph despite capability to travel much faster.

The railroad’s trains could travel faster with track improvements, additional tracks and the elimination of critical choke points, officials say. For example, replacing the Civil War-era Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel could save eight to 10 minutes in travel time, Boardman said. But rebuilding the tunnel would cost $4.5 billion, according to recent estimates.

Other improvements and time savings could be achieved by replacing the North River Tunnels, a 109-year-old structure that carries about 200,000 daily passenger trips across the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York. Damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 made the tunnels less reliable. An $11.3 billion plan would build a separate tunnel and restore the old ones to double the capacity.

Although the required federal environmental studies have been completed, the project’s funding remains uncertain. In August, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey cut $1.4 billion of the project’s cost and asked the Trump administration for money to move the project forward, despite the administration having already said it had no intention of funding it.

Decades of neglect

When the federal government created Amtrak in 1970 to take over intercity passenger rail services previously operated by private companies, the rail infrastructure was already aging. Decades more of underinvestment and neglect created a system that is at capacity and doesn’t meet modern railroad standards. Amtrak and the federal government have identified dozens of projects to rebuild and expand tunnels, bridges and tracks that are near or at the end of their useful life.

Amtrak has a backlog of $33.3 billion in projects needed just to bring its assets to a state of good repair, and just over $28 billion of that is in the Northeast Corridor. The railroad said it needs $3.3 billion a year over the next 10 years to address the backlog; its capital spending plan shows it has a $17.6 billion shortfall.

“What we really need is massive investment in the physical infrastructure that the trains are going on,” Mathews said. “It is more than just some track work and some station work. We have really delayed important investment for decades and decades, and it’s starting to catch up to us.”

Railroad officials and some advocates point to progress on planning fixes for some of those critical assets, and to ongoing track and station projects. Some of the most critical and expensive bottlenecks, such as the Hudson and Baltimore tunnels, lack the funding to take them from planning to construction.

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Amtrak's mission

In recent years, Amtrak has been on a mission to improve service while reducing spending and to tackle some of it’s biggest infrastructure challenges. The nonstop Acela — D.C. bound in the morning and New York bound in the afternoon — is the latest initiative to attract more riders and remain relevant. Its speed is just one aspect.

The service that caters to the business traveler follows recent efforts to re-brand the railroad to make it more appealing to millennials and position itself as a more environmentally friendly travel option. It also precedes other investments in the corridor, chiefly the delivery of new Acela train sets starting in 2021 and of a new station in New York, also that year.

Amtrak invested $1.46 billion in capital projects in fiscal year 2018, the most in its recent history. The money was spent on projects aimed at increasing comfort on the corridor’s Acela and Northeast Regional services that carry nearly 40 percent of its 31.7 million passenger trips each year, including freshening up train interiors with new carpets, seat covers and cushions. The long-distance trains serving the Northeast are getting upgraded bedding, towels and linens.

The investment included an overhaul of WiFi systems aboard Northeast trains, modernized menus, improved cleanliness of bathrooms, and new facilities — including lactation suites — at several major stations. The railroad also expanded its social media team to respond to passenger inquiries more quickly.

These customer service features, Decker said, had “been somewhat neglected over the years.”

Amtrak has also beefed up sale promotions, adding more buy-one-get-one ticket sales, even on its premium fares, to boost ridership. This past fiscal year, it was on track to beat 2018 ridership of 31.7 million: the highest in history. Ridership was 22.5 million when Amtrak introduced the Acela Express two decades ago.

The nonstop Acela, officials say, was a natural progression. So far, it’s off to a good start, with a ridership of 8,000 in the first month, or about 320 passengers round trip daily, and has potential for growth.

The service and other recent improvements may just work, said Gabe Klein, a Washington-based transportation consultant and former head of the transportation departments in the District and Chicago.

“I will never take a plane to New York now,” said Klein, who travels frequently between Washington and New England. “Not only is it going to be that much easier to take Amtrak, it’s much faster.”

Think about it, said Klein: Flying may be faster once up in the air, but add travel time to and from the airport, the security checkpoint line and the air traffic delays, and that flight turns into a much longer trip than the Acela from downtown Washington to midtown Manhattan.

The Acela trains that will enter service in 2021 will travel at a top speed of 160 miles an hour, up from 150 miles per hour, according to Amtrak documents, and will accommodate up to 386 passengers, an increase of 25 percent. The trains will increase the Acela fleet to 28.

At the same time, a new $1.6 billion train hall next door to Penn Station will expand capacity for the nation’s busiest train station across Eighth Avenue into the historic James A. Farley Post Office.

In Washington, Amtrak is pursuing $250 million in investments that include the expansion and modernization of Union Station, as well as track and platform upgrades between Washington and Baltimore.

Sure, Amtrak’s service falls short of the 200 mph trains in Europe, Klein said. “But the fact that we have service that is that much faster and nonstop, I think it is moving in the right direction.”