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The busiest rail line in the U.S., the Northeast corridor, is an apt metaphor for most passenger trains in the U.S.. Built more than a century ago, it is a creaky affair held together by constant fixes, gumption and a little bit of faith that gets the job done for some 800,000 daily trips.
Now, Amtrak, eight states and the District of Columbia, and the federal government under the umbrella of the Northeast Corridor, or NEC, Commission, have a plan— albeit a pricey one at $117 billion — to improve train service from Boston to New York and Washington, D.C. Dubbed Connect NEC 2035, or C35, the plan outlines a coordinated and phased approach to upgrading the entire line to add and speed up trains along the line over the next 15 years.
“Improving the NEC rail system is a vital multi-state effort” Federal Railroad Administration Deputy Administrator Amit Bose, who is also co-chair of the NEC Commission, said of the regional coordination in a statement.
The C35 plan drops just as President Biden is making what could be the final push to get his proposed infrastructure deal through Congress. In June, he unveiled a bipartisan deal for “traditional infrastructure” — airports, bridges, highways and trains for example — that includes $66 billion for rail infrastructure. The entire package would invest an estimated $1.2 trillion over eight years.
While the deal has yet to make its way through Congress, Amtrak and other parties interested in those rail funds are already lining up. The national railroad unveiled an ambitious plan to expand rail service across the country in March with the backing of President Biden, who as a senator was nicknamed “Amtrak Joe” for is near daily trips back and forth between Wilmington, Del., and Washington. Private railroads are also pushing for funds, including Brightline for its planned high-speed line between Las Vegas and Southern California, as well as potential expansion in Florida.
The timing of the C35 plan, which lacks funding for $100 billion of its $117 billion price tag, is likely positioning to be ready to seek some of the proposed rail dollars in the infrastructure deal.
Local Improvements, Regional Benefits
The C35 plan is broken down and sequenced into dozens of local projects that aimed to serve everyone along the line. These range from the hyperlocal, like a new innovation district adjacent to the Providence Station developed in part of station upgrades, to new high-speed tracks between Baltimore and Wilmington that will speed Acela trains from New York to Washington.
By far, the single largest part of of the plan is the long-delayed Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. The tunnel, which would double trans-Hudson capacity at the single biggest chokepoint on the whole line, is estimated to cost $10 billion — or nearly a tenth of the entire C35 budget — with work underway by 2025, according to project documents.
Other major works include new high-speed tracks in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and Delaware and Maryland; new bridges and tunnels, including a $4 billion plan to replace a nearly 150-year old tunnel in Baltimore; plus new tracks and other infrastructure improvements.
All told, C35 backers estimate that the improvements would cut travel times on Acela — Amtrak’s high-speed service — between Boston and New York by 28 minutes to a little over three hours, and between New York and Washington by 26 minutes to a little over two-and-a-half hours by 2035. In addition, it would increase capacity for Amtrak by 33 percent and some commuter railroads by 50 percent.
Some new train service that could be added includes direct, transfer-free service from places like Hartford and commuter towns in New Jersey to New York’s Penn Station. These links could also support Amtrak’s Connect plans to open new lines between New York and Allentown and Scranton, Pa., as well as Ronkonkoma on Long Island.
“C35 represents a big step towards the high-quality rail network our nation and this vital region deserve,” said Amtrak President Stephen Gardner in a statement. “The investments in infrastructure laid out in this plan will lead to more modern, reliable, and faster trains, expanded service, and a better customer experience.”
The railroad recently unveiled a $7.3 billion order for new Siemens trains for the Northeast Corridor and other lines. The new fleet would be able to run on both electrified lines — like those between Boston, New York and Washington — as well as unelectrified ones that could speed through train service to points in Virginia, upstate New York and Vermont.