Will a Faster Acela Require a Tunnel Under Long Island Sound?
The quite successful, profit-generating Amtrak Acela is currently the only service resembling high speed rail in the United States. With an occasional top speed of 150 mph, and an average of 80 mph, it has been able to attract a lot of travelers and has a bigger share of the travel market on the Northeast Corridor than the airlines.
But to expand that service, adding more trains at faster speeds to increase capacity, requires a significant new investment in tracks. One proposal to do that would include a tunnel under Long Island Sound:
Trains speeding from Washington to Boston would run through the heart of Long Island, cross into Connecticut through a tunnel emerging in Milford, head to Hartford and then race east toward Worcester on new tracks running alongside I-84.
The segment between Manhattan and Hartford would cost about $20 billion, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s high-speed rail design studio, which first put forward the idea in 2010. Overall, the full 450-mile route from Washington to Boston would cost about $100 billion, PennDesign said.
That’s an entirely new alignment between NYC and Boston. Currently, the Acela follows the Connecticut coast to Rhode Island, stopping in Providence before continuing on to Boston. The new route would head out to the middle of Long Island from NYC, then veer north under the sound to serve New Haven and then Hartford on the way to entering Boston from the west. You’d lose Providence but pick up Hartford, and I am not familiar enough with New England to know whether that’s worth it. But there are practical reasons why this alignment might be needed:
Connecticut is a particularly problematic stretch of the existing shoreline route because of century-old bridges and steady twists and bends along the southeastern coast. They prevent the Acela from getting anywhere close to its top-rated speed of 150 mph. Amtrak’s own proposal is to bring trains from New York up to Danbury, then create an all-new corridor running to Waterbury and then Hartford before banking eastward for Providence.
European-style high-speed rail would require two tracks dedicated exclusively to 220 mph bullet trains, advocates say. The routes would have to be mostly uninterrupted by grade crossings or sharp curves so that the trains could maintain speed and stick to much faster schedules than what Amtrak offers now.
This underscores just how much new capital investment will be needed to upgrade the Acela. I believe that investment is worth doing. But to those who argue that the US should only invest in HSR along the Northeast Corridor and not in places like California, I’d just point out that there’s nowhere this can be done cheaply. Besides, cheap isn’t the point of high speed rail. The point is to build lasting infrastructure that creates value for decades to come.