Pete Buttigieg likes to be called by his current job title, such as Mayor Pete, and Candidate Pete. Now as Secretary of Transportation Pete, will he also earn the title of Amtrak Pete? Will we be seeing a re-investment in rail passenger service? There is much to be done. Here’s my list of where things are now in the country, gathered from recent sources. Please note that there are two types of projects which he could support: short term with some aspects already done, and mega projects that will take many more years to complete.
We are frozen in a world of rubber tires on asphalt with maximum speeds of 75-85 mph. Railroad speeds currently have to adapt to a basically 19th century roadbed and alignment in much of the country today. Furthermore, our passenger rail transportation is currently stuck on the tracks of 55-mph freight railroads. The mega projects, which could be a breakthrough, not only will take many years to build, but to date have been lacking in political will, while the rest of the world has actually invested in their high-speed networks. Let’s look at both types of projects.
HIGH-SPEED LINES: 200-MPH NEW LINES
These are the Cadillac models. Except for the Northeast Corridor, only the California and Texas plans call for a 200-mph speed range. The Northeast Corridor has other challenges, but is the one line with trains that can now travel at 150 mph.
California: This state has started a complex project for a three-hour end point time between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Work is now going on in the Central Valley on a 170-mile section. There are many needed viaducts and bridges that are being built for later use. When complete high-speed trains will whisk the rider from the Los Angeles basin to San Francisco in three hours. The line will have many tunnels with 3 long ones of 11-13 miles each. The line will start in San Francisco where a massive terminal and office complex is under construction. It will also serve local commuters to San Jose and beyond. Electrification, alignment in the tracks, and a completely isolated right of way remain to connect with the work in progress in the Central Valley.
Texas: A privately funded company, the Texas Central, would offer Japanese bullet trains from Dallas to Houston covering the distance at 200 mph in 90 minutes (currently five hours). Interestingly, much of the route would follow an electric transmission line right of way which is laser-straight for much of the trip.
HIGHER SPEED LINES: 90-120 MPH
Florida: The development of the heavily used Orlando airport is impetus for a new rail line already operating from the airport to Miami. Now under the Virgin Railway Investments Group work is underway on the line. The line is being built from south to north, but significant structures including the airport station and the Miami terminal are mostly completed. The line increases speed as it heads for the airport and will include some rights-of-way in the median of expressways. The last 30 or so miles will need to be built from scratch. Other sections will reflect speed improvements and extra tracks from Cocoa Beach to Miami over the Florida East Coast line. The Miami terminal will also be a hub for commuter trains and potentially Amtrak services.
The Midwest: During the Obama administration several lines received new cars and engines. New equipment will improve the ride. New Siemens venture cars and engines are now in use. Combined with track improvements in Illinois and Michigan, speed has been pushed up for some distances, but much remains to be done.
Virginia: The Commonwealth of Virginia is projecting a whole range of new trains (many are running now) and would like to increase existing line capacity from Washington, D.C. to Richmond. They have already purchased the line. Plans call for a third track in many places to relieve congestion. This work would extend the Northeast Corridor which now ends in Washington D.C.
THE NORTHEAST ACELA CORRIDOR (WASHINGTON TO BOSTON):
AMTRAK’S former president Anderson is not viewed well for providing passenger comfort efforts or on-board food, but a whole new fleet of Acela trains he ordered should soon be entering service. Built to a French TGV style, each of the 28 train sets will have additional seating, comfort and reliability. Two mega projects around New York City, labeled the Gateway projects, would advance speed and capacity in New Jersey and New York City. Phase 1 calls for a bridge and approaches. Phase 2 will build a second double track tunnel under the Hudson River and into Penn Station. In Baltimore, another critical project would replace a 19th century tunnel with a new one designed to speed trains south to Washington. In New England updating the New Haven’s 100-plus-year-old catenary (electric overhead), from New Rochelle to New Haven would increase speeds by eliminating slowdowns from New York to New Haven. Currently only 67 miles in the New England corridor allows 150 mph travel. The urban nature of southern New England slows corridor improvements.
Vermont: Vermont’s trains are currently suspended due to COVID hesitancy to travel, but hopefully could make a comeback once people feel free to move about. The recent Bennington Banner story about the Brattleboro station shows a well-designed building and much needed parking on the Connecticut Valley line. Extending Massachusetts Valley Flyer trains to Brattleboro from Greenfield, Mass., is a no-brainer. Vermont will also see improved rail passenger access when the Ethan Allen extends its run from Rutland all the way to Burlington from New York City.
Things are in place to “build back better” when more people are willing to travel. What will Pete Buttigieg do with the above priorities?