The Case for a Unified Northeastern Rail Authority

This post is more of a thought experiment than an in-depth case study–so you won’t find my usual assortment of links, maps (though having Google Maps handy might be useful), etc. Something a little quicker, and a little different. It’s inspired by some musing I’ve been doing, and by this post from a while ago at Pedestrian Observations.

It seems to me that the Northeast US should have one, unified authority to govern and coordinate intercity rail transit. Obviously given funding deficits and general political and bureaucratic dysfunction, that’s a little bit in the world of dreamland, but let’s play it out a little. A lot of ink has been spilled about regionalization as a solution to the woes of the Northeast Corridor, but I’m going to concentrate here on less prominent lines and services, which perhaps could benefit even more from interstate cooperation.

The Northeast–which I’m defining as the New England states, plus New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and DC (given Virginia’s current friendliness to, and success with, passenger rail, we could throw them in there too, but I’m not for now)–is currently experiencing something of a slow, unsteady renaissance in intercity passenger rail service. The last twenty years have seen a lot of dreams, and even a few successes: the electrification of the NEC from New Haven to Boston, and the acquisition of the (problematic to say the least) Acela trainsets; the opening of what is in some ways Amtrak’s standard-bearing corridor service, the Boston-Portland Downeaster; the ongoing renewal of the NYC-Albany Empire Corridor, including the leasing of the line from Poughkeepsie to Hoffmans from CSX; reconstruction of the Philadelphia-Harrisburg PRR Main Line; and the ongoing renovation of several other lines, in particular the tracks used by the Vermonter in its terminal state (and, soon, Massachusetts). Certainly, this is halting progress; but it’s something, right?

Here’s where it could be better. The problem with the relatively compact geography of the Northeast is that political boundaries cripple the ability to think regionally. Many of the projects listed above–and many of those that are in some stage of the planning/dreaming process– need to involve crossing state lines to achieve their maximum potential and economic impact. In many cases, the destination for a passenger service is just over a state border–making it no one’s political constituency, since no state wants to pay an equal share for a project that is located 80% in the territory of another state, while the politicians in the first state doesn’t want to pay for a project that will bring benefit to an area that doesn’t vote for them. In no particular order, here are some of the projects I’m thinking of:

–New Haven/Hartford/Springfield (NHHS) “commuter” (it’s really a hybrid commuter-intercity service) rail. This one’s almost done–signal work is underway, tracklaying should begin this year or next, and the whole shebang should open in 2016. So why the issue? Clashes over funding have already sidelined plans for a second track that would cover the entire distance between Hartford and Springfield, with arguments playing along the exact lines I described above–Springfield is just five miles or so above the CT border, so CT doesn’t want to pay much to serve it, and MA is much more interested in spending money to restore service from Worcester to Springfield, which…eh. (more on that later)

–Springfield–Northampton–Greenfield–Brattleboro. I covered the southern portion of this route here, but the bigger political conflict is that Brattleboro would really like to see service along this route, while MA has zero incentive to pay for an expensive extension that would lengthen the line considerably and serves a city that’s not real big to begin with.  

–Concord–Manchester-Nashua–Boston. New Hampshire is famously anti-rail and won’t ante up anything for what should be a slam-dunk service; MA is tired of I-93 being clogged by NH residents driving in from what are now exurbs of Boston, taking their paychecks back to NH, and leaving MA with the road repair bills. 

–Providence–Woonsocket–Worcester. My understanding is that RIDOT is planning on moving ahead with the Providence-Woonsocket stage of this as part of an in-state commuter system, but it would make a lot of sense to continue of the Blackstone River valley to Worcester, especially since there’s no parallel freeway. Of course, that involves crossing a state boundary. 

–Boston–Worcester–Springfield–Albany. Central and western MA residents have been begging the state for better rail service for years; Pittsfield’s pleas come across as almost desperate at times. Of course, that state’s rail arm is chartered as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, its service area not reaching the underserved areas of the state. And it makes no sense to go from Boston to Pittsfield without going on to Albany (of course Pittsfield’s demand is mainly from NYC, not Boston, so transfers from the Empire Corridor are more realistic). Of course, I have a personal stake in this line; I live in Albany and many of my friends (virtually all who aren’t in NYC) are in Boston. 

–NYC–Albany–anywhere in Vermont. Of course, this route already has one train a day, Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express to Rutland; the issue is that Vermont LOVES passenger rail but doesn’t have the funds for pretty much any capital investments (and what few tax dollars the sparsely populated state does have are earmarked for its landmark single-payer healthcare campaign). Rutland is an OK terminus, but Burlington is the biggest city and metropolitan area in Vermont and makes a lot more sense as a terminus (Ok, the Vermonter serves Essex Junction from the other side of the state, but that takes forever). A restoration of the line between Rutland and Burlington would be more than feasible and the line is suitable for fairly high speeds; but there’s no way Vermont can come up with the money alone. Finally, in my opinion, NYC-Montreal high-speed rail, should that come down the pipes at some point, makes a lot more sense via Burlington than via the western shore of Lake Champlain or I-87.

–NYC–Delaware Water Gap–Scranton–Binghamton (I’d extend it to Cortland–a college town, and a connection to Ithaca–and Syracuse, but that’s just me). This one involves not two but three states. NJ Transit is starting the restoration of the first leg of the Lackawanna Cut-Off, and Chuck Schumer has been a major advocate for this service, but the political and investment issues (to say nothing of the route’s technical merits, though I think it would do well as far as Scranton at least) seem insurmountable. New Jersey has little incentive to participate because the trains would probably express through it.

–NYC–Bethlehem–Allentown. Same issues as the last route, but it’s a lot shorter, so it should be a much more successful service. I could see extending it to Reading and Harrisburg.

–Philly–Wilmington (OK, I’m cheating a little–this is more about existing service, and it’s essentially commuter/regional, not intercity). Wilmington and Philly-area transit advocates are campaigning for higher service frequencies to Wilmington, which should be a no-brainer. That advocates are asking the Delaware Department of Transportation to fund more trains run by the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority should tell us something, however. 

The projects I’ve listed are services that could be crucial to tying regions together (by something other than freeways, that is), but fall through the cracks because of jurisdictional lack of incentive and funding battles. Some of them are pure intercity services; others are being operated or built today as commuter rail and have the potential to be European-style regional rail services in the future. Many of them, really, are–or should be–hybrids, the kind of thing progressive (by US standards) experimentation that conservative state DOTs can be reluctant to invest in but a regionwide authority might have the horsepower to get done. 

What would a regional rail authority look like? I imagine it having some dedicated stream of funding derived from the tax revenues of all of the participating states. Presumably, governance would be by gubernatorial and DOT appointees from all of the participating states, plus mayoral appointees from all of the region’s major cities. I see a few open questions: 1) Would said authority take over the NEC from Amtrak? I’m fairly agnostic on this one, but given the dysfunction in Congress I’d lean towards thinking it probably should. 2) What relationship would the authority have with the commuter railroads that currently run on the NEC and several other intercity lines? Delays caused by commuter trains and commuter-favoring dispatching on tracks controlled by the commuter railroads are one of the major factors slowing down Amtrak trains today along the NEC in Massachusetts and Connecticut, along the Hudson Line, and elsewhere. Perhaps if the states felt like they had more control over the intercity operations, as opposed to dealing with nationally-chartered Amtrak, they’d be more interested in forcing cooperation. Maybe. 3) You’d have to figure out the place of intercity services that run entirely within in one state–think the Empire Corridor or Philly-Harrisburg–Pittsburgh– in the pecking order of projects. The idea that linking Buffalo and Utica and Rochester to NYC is beneficial to the regional economy as a whole is a hard sell to state governments. 

And, of course, the case against doing this at all is that the history of interstate compacts in the Northeast ain’t exactly rosy. The Port Authority (of NY & NJ) is, there’s a total consensus, a cesspool of corruption and patronage; the Delaware River Port Authority is almost as as bad. Meanwhile, within state government, New York can’t even get the constituent railroads of the MTA to cooperate with each other, much less Amtrak, on major infrastructure projects and operational improvements. So maybe the key improvement is political will and dedication to change, regardless of having an overarching regional structure. Or maybe not. Opinions invited. 


14 thoughts on “The Case for a Unified Northeastern Rail Authority

  1. Just as a nitpick, is Boston-Concord really more of an intercity service than, say, New York-New Haven? On the list of services that justify a unified service plan it has to rank pretty low, since it can be put in the MBTA-with-other-state’s-money basket, together with the Providence Line.

    The problem in New Hampshire is that its state government is temporarily run by assholes, rather than any long-term animosity; it actually was studying an extension to Manchester, but then the Teabaggers won the 2010 election and killed the plan. Sometimes, the problems really are about political will rather than technical problems (or agency turf battles).

    To me, the most important city pair showcasing the need for unified planning is New York-Philly. From passengers’ point of view, through-running at Trenton is more important than at Penn Station; the main benefits of central station through-running are for train operations and for passengers going between inner suburbs, and not passengers going all the way from Trenton and New Haven. NJ Transit and SEPTA do try to make the Trenton transfers nice, but they’re hobbled by track ownership by an intercity operator that wants all NY-Philly rider to ride its own overpriced services. But anyway, elsewhere in the region it’s possible to slice things into metro area-based operators; on the NEC between New York and Philly, this breaks down.

    • As I said at the bottom, a lot of these services are hybrids that don’t fall neatly into “commuter rail” or “intercity” categories. I kinda think of Concord/Manchester as being its own urban area, but put in fast enough trains and it will absolutely become a true suburb of Boston. I imagine a lot of the people who live in the ‘burbs in southern New Hampshire commute not into Boston but into its northwest suburbs; so maybe the market on that route would be for an express service stopping only in Concord, Manchester, Nashua, Lowell, Woburn, and then Cambridge/Somerville and North Station. Or maybe there would be demand for more frequent stops; that’s what a study is for. Whatever the service plan, it certainly could be run by MBTA, but I worry about their lack of institutional creativity and their dependence on traditional commuter-rail scheduling and practices; I feel like a different operator would have a better chance of breaking out and doing something more successful. The question is whether you think MBTA can be reformed enough (their DMU plan may indicate the answer is yes) to be good at modern operations. Also, having a multi-state authority might make New Hampshire feel like it has more skin in the game, as opposed to being reliant on the manifestation of bureaucratic, liberal Mass.

      And re: New Hampshire’s hostility to rail–I think it goes a little deeper than the Tea Partiers since 2010. Downeaster was a Maine initiative through and through, but MBTA service to Exeter and Dover would have made sense long ago (as would, for that matter, a Hampton Branch restoration between Newburyport and Portsmouth, a pet project of mine). It took literally decades to get a short extension over the border to Plaistow going (saying nothing about that project’s complete lack of merits). I think the antipathy goes a little bit deeper, but I’m hopeful things can change a little.

      • New Hampshire’s attitude towards rail indeed goes back further. They contribute zero to the Downeaster and previous service to Nashua & Manchester ended when they refused to fund it. That said, I think the Tea Party election in 2010 was a setback in an overall trend towards being more rail-friendly. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s a good investment to keep extending MBTA commuter rail beyond the old mill cities that ring Boston… especially to the vanishingly low-density exurbs of Southern NH. (Salem, for example, only has 65% of the density of Lancaster, which includes miles and miles of empty Mojave Desert in its city limits.)

        Nashua is absolutely in the Boston commuter sphere; Manchester somewhat, but by the time you get to Concord I think you’re into the intercity realm. Maybe do an extension of the Lowell Line to Nashua, and run Concord – Manchester – Nashua – Lowell – Boston on a pattern like the Downeaster? (Though I hear some people use the Downeaster as commuter rail.)

        In the bigger picture, as you note, interstate authorities like the PANYNJ can become corrupt, perhaps partly because they are run by appointees that change with the political winds, and they are subject to mission creep.

        Is there any potential for a ballot initiative? For example, do an end run around MBTA bureaucracy and NH intransigence, charter an authority backed by a tax (sales tax, or whatever), and put it to voters of Middlesex County MA and Hillsborough County NH? The enabling legislation could specify that the authority would be created for the sole purpose of building & running the service, to prevent the money from being raided and the agency from being politicized. That might increase voter support.

        Side note: I believe Amtrak dispatches South Station and the NEC in Massachusetts… so they can’t blame that one on the MBTA 😉

      • I actually thought about MBTA extensions farther east, i.e. Exeter and Portsmouth, back when I was writing my Improving the MBTA posts. The problem with those is that those areas don’t have enough commuters going to Boston and environs. The biggest sources of Boston- and Cambridge-bound commuters in Rockingham County are suburbs along I-93: Londonderry, Derry, Windham, Salem. There’s much less demand from the suburbs along the B&M and Eastern Lines. The Lowell Line extension cities, in contrast, have a couple hundred Boston-bound commuters each, and Manchester could also get some from the I-93 suburbs.

    • Apparently one of the issues with NJT/SEPTA at Trenton are train sizes/passenger demand. SEPTA runs three or four cars between Trenton and Philly, NJT needs eight or ten. If SEPTA ran mostly express from Trenton to Philly, then it could get a lot of NY-Phl ridership, but it takes 50 minutes to get from Trenton to Philadelphia. And the express schedules don’t match: each agency runs inbound in the morning, so there’s no time when both run fast, fewer-stop trains.

      I guess that’s where a multi-state agency comes in. I’ve always thought it would make a lot of sense to not have each agency operate its own little fiefdom, and commuter-style services could link together to provide one-seat rides for longer-distance travelers while providing commuter services as well. There are only 65 non-commuter miles on the NEC:

      44 miles Wickford Junction to New London
      21 miles Newark (Del) to Perryville

      So some amount of coordination would make sense. Especially, say, between Boston and New York. If relatively-fast, electrified commuter trains stopped at Kingston (500 pax/day), Westerly (120 pax/day) and Mystic (80 pax/day) and Old Saybrook (200 pax/day)—and maybe even New London—it would free up Amtrak to provide speedier service on the Regionals. Hourly service, something like:

      Boston-Back Bay-Sharon-Mansfield-Attleboro-S Attleboro-Providence-PVD-Wickford-Kingston-Westerly-Mystic-New London-Old Saybrook-Westbrook-Clinton-Madison-Guilford-Branford-New Haven-[varying local stops to Stamford depending on time of day]-Stamford-NYP

      This means that with one through run that probably only takes 20 to 30 minutes longer than a Regional, you cover:
      * An MBTA Providence/Wickford Jct train (inner stops covered by Stoughton trains)
      * An Amtrak Regional in RI
      * A SLE run
      * A MN NH outer express (fewer stops at rush hour, more at off-peak times)
      But with one crew and one-seat connections along the entire route. Towns in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut lose the Regionals, but get much more frequent and only slightly slower service (I’m assuming you use 125 mph electrics for this service). Everyone on Regionals gets a faster trip out of it, too. SLEs provide more frequent service, too. (Of course, there’s the “God forbid we would inconvenience recreational boaters on the Connecticut” issue with adding trains, but jesus, maybe a couple of yachtsmen can wait a few minutes, hmm?)

  2. I’m with you on the futility of MBTA extensions past the old mill cities. I am, however, intrigued by the possibility of linking the old mill towns to Boston with fast, frequent (by which I mean electrified) train service–giving people a place to live that’s urban (those old mills make wonderful condo conversions!) but is a little cheaper than Boston itself. That’s why I see service to Manchester and Concord as more of an intercity thing–if we want to encourage commuting from there to Boston, we want it to be from the downtowns, not from park & rides. And yes, some people do ride the Downeaster for their commutes–NNEPRA takes really awesome, detailed rider surveys and I worked with the data when I was interning at CNT. Mostly it’s professional-class types who work 2-3 days a week in Boston and from home in Portland or Saco or wherever the rest of the time–but that’s a model that could really take off in the coming years.

    A ballot initiative is not a terrible idea, though coordinating intiatives across that many states would be really, really hard–I don’t even know what the rules are about initiatives in many of these states (though I’ll ask my dad, he studies that stuff sometimes). I’m just still stuck on how to ensure accountability.

    Thanks for the correction on NEC dispatching. Regardless, though, the slow commuter trains definitely get in the way of the intercity trains, and as Alon has written about extensively, that will be even more true in the future.

    • Having been to Lowell a few times, it’s really kind of depressing how much most people in Massachusetts rip on the mill cities. How many cities would kill to have those canals and that kind of architecture!? (New Bedford and Fall River too.)

      • It is pretty amazing, especially considering how much New Englanders boast about their historic architecture. Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill are all about 45 minutes driving time from downtown Boston–if trains could make the same time, that’s a totally reasonable commute (assuming you live within walking distance of the destination station). And there’s still lots of old buildings and ex-industrial land to be converted to residential use in all three cities.

        New Bedford and Fall River are significantly further away–1:15 or so by car. The South Coast Rail project might be kind of absurd in conception when there are much more low-hanging fruit to pick–but at least it shows some kind of vision. The sad part is that that level of investment in the Lowell and Haverhill lines really could be transformative for those cities.

  3. Lowell Line already has service all day every hour at worst, and it’s double track the whole way… would not be hard to increase service. And it does the trip in 45 minutes. The station location in Lowell isn’t great but it’s not bad either… less than a mile to pretty much the entire core. Easily the most potential of any of them. Lawrence & Haverhill really need the double track the whole way so they can bump up service.

    New Bedford & Fall River are definitely a tougher sell, especially with the watered down branch service they’re going to get out of South Coast Rail. Providence is closer but the rail alignments are terrible, the topography is surprisingly difficult, the 195 isn’t very congested, and it’s not like Rhode Island is booming anyway…

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  5. In the 15th paragraph is written “Delays [to Amtrak] caused by commuter trains and commuter-favored dispatching on tracks controlled by the commuter railroads..along the NEC in Massachusetts…”. It is my understanding Amtrak dispatches the NEC all the way from NHV to BOS. I have twice been on an out-of-slot Acela and we followed an T commuter train all the way in. In the first instance we followed the T right out of Canton Jct. Maybe Amtrak dispatchers are instructed not to delay T eastbounds in the early afternoon because either the equipment or the crew are on short turns at South Station. However, it may be that MA actually owns the ROW all the way from the RI line and Amtrak was let to dispatch it with certain guarantees as to prioritization.

    • You’re right about NEC dispatching, as was discussed above. I do think the trains get in each other’s way, largely because of the slow acceleration of MBTA diesels, but Amtrak does dispatch it.

  6. One issue that would need to be thought through nationally if the Northeast were to adopt regional control over all rail is the impact of this on the rest of Amtrak. Amtrak’s accounting allocations are notoriously resistant to transparency, but the Acela trains alone contribute about a quarter of Amtrak’s annual revenue, so slicing the NEC out of Amtrak would only intensify the current decisions and debates surrounding the PRIIA 209 state funding efforts going on around the country. Absent the NEC’s revenue stream, Amtrak’s operations elsewhere would become relatively more expensive, shifting the financial burdens around in a way that breaks some quiet Congressional agreements that are now 40+ years old. This is not to say unshackling the NEC from Amtrak wouldn’t be a good step forward, but all involved parties should have a clear sense of the implications of a decision like this on them, even if they live far from the NEC itself.

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