The Acela Story Part 2: Planning for the Not-So-Distant Future

In a two-part series, we examine the history of Amtrak's Acela Express service, to determine the lessons its provides as we plan for the future. In Part 1, we detailed the service's growth and success, despite facing strong criticism early on and delivering only incremental service improvements. In Part 2, below, we examine the service's ongoing challenges and Amtrak's plans to improve service in the near-term.

>> Acela's existing limitations highlight the investments we must perform in order to improve passenger rail service on the Northeast Corridor.

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Persistent Challenges

Despite its success in increasing ridership on the NEC, Acela has its shortcomings. The service reaches its top speed of 150 mph only on short stretches along the northern half of the line, and averages approximately 70 mph over the entire route between Washington DC Union Station and Boston South Station. These numbers fall well below the high-speed figures in other countries, where trains can reach top speeds above 200 mph. Furthermore, like the other rail services on the NEC, the Acela trains are subject to frequent delays.

The limitations of the Acela service are not the result of poor management by Amtrak. Instead, the service faces a number of challenges that constrain and hinder operations, including curvy tracks that limit its overall speed and congestion that prohibits service expansion. The challenges facing Acela, described below, signal the investments and changes we need to make in order to see faster, more reliable service on the NEC.

Legacy Infrastructure
In many ways, the Acela trains are using 21st century technology, but running on 20th century infrastructure. Even on the busiest sections of the NEC, the Acela travels along infrastructure over 100 years old. For example, the tunnels leading to New York Penn station were completed in 1910; and the tunnels under Baltimore in 1873. Overall, the NEC's tight curves and narrow spacing between tracks were not designed for 150+ mph speeds and make speeds of 200 mph or more almost entirely unfeasible. In order to accelerate and maintain high-speeds, trains need long stretches of straight, uninterrupted track.

State of Disrepair
The age of the NEC compounds the maintenance issues that plague the Corridor. After decades of under-investment by the federal government, the NEC faces a backlog of $8.8 billion in repairs necessary to achieve a state of repair. The poor conditions along the line result in frequent service failures and limit overall speed.

Consider the Portal Bridge, a century-old span over the Hackensack River, which carries the NEC from Newark, NJ to New York Penn Station. The bridge swings open to accommodate maritime traffic, but occasionally gets stuck in the open position, stopping all traffic on the busiest stretch of rail in the country. Due to its age and repeated malfunction, Amtrak has also chosen to restrict speeds on the bridge to 60 mph, even though trains can travel at 90 mph on the surrounding tracks. And the Portal Bridge is just one example. Amtrak has identified 224 bridges on the NEC that are beyond their design life and must be replaced.

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Regulations
Acela's speeds are also affected by weight. As we have explained before, regulations from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) require that passenger rail cars in America be constructed strong enough to withstand a high-impact collision with a freight train. In Europe and Asia, regulations focus less on ensuring that cars are crash-worthy and more on preventing crashes altogether, by fully separating passenger services from freight operations. The result is that American rail cars are significantly heavier than rail cars in other countries, which slows acceleration, reduces overall speed, and increases energy consumption.

Shared Tracks
Unlike high-speed services in other parts of the world, where trains enjoy their own, dedicated tracks, the Acela must share its right of way with multiple commuter rail operators and Amtrak's own Northeast Regional service. In addition to sharing, Amtrak does not own the NEC tracks in key sections in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, leaving its trains subject to the delays of commuter rail operators, who in many cases prioritize their own trains.

This complex arrangement can cause significant delays and slow service. With Acela trains operating at significantly higher speeds than commuter trains, schedules must be highly engineered to minimize conflicts. In May 2011, the most recent month for which data is available, interference with other passenger trains and slow orders from other rail operators together represented nearly half of Acela's delays for the month (1,400 of 2,900 minutes). (PDF of Amtrak's May 2011 Performance Report.)

Limited Capacity
The sheer number of trains running on the NEC restricts Amtrak from adding additional service on the line. In key areas, such as the entrance to New York Penn station, commuter and intercity traffic have reached maximum capacity.

According to the NEC Master Plan, completed in May 2010, 24 out of 66 segments of the NEC are currently operating at 75% capacity or higher, with eight segments in Northern New Jersey and New York City already at 100% capacity. As a result, there are no available schedule "slots" for Acela trains via NYC during the peak period.

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Congestion levels on the NEC in 2008 and 2030 (projected). Source: NEC Master Plan.

The high congestion also causes severe delays. During peak periods, trains run one after the other, without any schedule buffer between them. As a result, if one train experiences a malfunction, the delay impacts it and all trains behind it, cascading throughout the system. A delay in New York City can result in delays in both Washington, DC and Boston.

Planning for the Not-So-Distant Future

A true high-speed rail service could address many of these challenges. A new, two-track, dedicated high-speed rail system would provide new capacity, remove conflicts between commuter rail and intercity trains, and offer a 21st century system capable of speeds reaching 200 mph.

High-speed rail, however, cannot be the only answer. Even if we construct a new, dedicated high-speed rail system, our commuter rail and conventional passenger rail services will continue to face the issues of the system's age, poor maintenance conditions, and limited capacity. In addition, a true high-speed rail system is likely decades away. As a result, we must pursue a state of good repair and increased capacity on the existing NEC right now.

Recognizing the need for a multi-pronged approach, Amtrak has already begun to invest in near-term improvements on the existing NEC to meet the growing demand for higher speed service.

New Rail Cars
acela_interior.jpgWith virtually no capacity available for Amtrak to run additional Acela trains during peak travel times, Amtrak's only option is to enable more passengers to ride on each train. Currently, Amtrak runs 20 Acela train sets, each with six passenger cars. To add capacity, Amtrak plans to acquire 40 new rail cars and extend each train set by two cars, for a total of eight cars per train.

Every year, Amtrak makes a request to Congress for annual appropriations that support its capital and operating expenses. This year, for Fiscal Year 2012, Amtrak has requested capital funding to begin the procurement of the 40 new rail cars. As Congress continues to debate transportation spending levels for Fiscal Year 2012 and beyond, Amtrak's appropriations are still undecided. If the corporation receives the necessary funding to begin procurement, the new cars could theoretically be put into service in three to four years (though Amtrak itself has not provided a time frame). (PDF of Amtrak's FY 2012 Budget Request)

Improvements to the Existing NEC
In addition to upgrading its rolling stock, Amtrak is also making badly needed improvements to its track infrastructure. Amtrak is taking the lead in making almost $450 million worth of improvements to the NEC in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. These improvements, including the upgrading of a 24-mile stretch of track from 135 to 150 mph, enabling the Acela to achieve its top speeds. The project will also replace the electrical system, reducing the system failures that frequently plague this stretch of the NEC.

Like Amtrak's rolling stock plans, the fate of this project rests in the hands of Congress. In July, the House voted to effectively cancel this project, although the Senate's support of the HSIPR Program should ensure that it goes forward. Looking beyond this one investment, the NEC Master Plan provides a detailed overview of the projects that would bring the NEC up to a state of good repair and meet the growth in travel demand through 2030. Despite the detail in this plan, Congress has not taken up the task of funding these critical improvements.

Lessons Learned

  1. The operational shortcomings of the Acela are the result of aging infrastructure, poor maintenance, and limited capacity that strains to accommodate commuter and intercity services.
  2. While a dedicated, two-track high-speed rail service could solve these operational shortcomings in the long-term, achieving a state of good repair and increased capacity can enable Amtrak to expand Acela service, increase speeds, and reduce delays in the near-term.
  3. While Amtrak has developed plans to improve Acela service in the near-term, the Corporation must rely upon Congress to make a firm commitment to improve the NEC.

Conclusion

The success of the Acela service, despite early operational hiccups and widespread criticism, reveals the strong demand for high-speed passenger service on the NEC. Its growth also demonstrates the power of more modest, incremental improvements to improve service and expand ridership.

Many of Acela's operational limitations and its frequent delays, however, signal the kinds of improvements we need to make: repairs on our existing infrastructure, new capacity to meet future demand and a long-term investment in a dedicated, high-speed rail system. In the near-term, Amtrak is forging head with improvements that will increase capacity and improve service. But without Congress's support these near-term investments will not come to fruition, which will constrain Amtrak's ability to address current ridership and to meet the growing demand for passenger rail.

Images
Acela Express Engine: Licensed under Creative Commons flickr.com user Cliff1066
Congestion analysis on the NEC: 2010 NEC Master Plan. PDF.
Portal Bridge: Michael Rosenthal, NJ Transit. Portalbridgenec.com
Acela Interior: Michael Hicks. Licensed under Creative Commons. flickr.com user mulad.

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