The Northeast Corridor is the United States’ rail transportation flagship, yet it remains a dim imitation of comparable high-speed rail transit lines around the world. Amtrak’s Acela service, the speed boss of a line shared by a handful of conventional regional and commuter rail services along the Atlantic coast, tops out at about 150 mph on some brief stretches of track and looked pretty slick on its 1990s unveiling. In 2013, it’s creeping along at half the speed of the world’s fastest passenger rail services and looks like a prototype of even some of the most sluggish bargain rail equipment outside of North America. It’s easy to say the Acela is “not enough.”
It is, however, inaccurate to say that it’s not enough. This is at least true of technology. The Acela, in concert with its slightly slower NEC shadow (known just as the Northeast Regional), is a profitable enterprise able to charge pretty much whatever it wants. The trains will run full, and the service’s airline competition isn’t getting any better or drastically cheaper. (In commuting terms, it's actually getting much worse.) The Northeast Corridor’s competition instead comes increasingly from the low end, in the form of a minor deluge of new bargain buses traversing the same corridor for a fraction of the price and a much larger fraction of the speed. The real problem of the rail line is capacity, of which speed is only a part of.
Nonetheless, transit dreamers like to imagine that speed is the only problem of rain transportation in America: if only bullet trains. It’s a way of framing the problem as strictly technological, which is part of why cynical ploys like the Hyperloop get so much attention. (There’s nothing like technology to drive an inferiority complex in the first-world; access, meanwhile, is nothing.) Before Hyperloop there was maglev technology, an idea which rears its head somewhat cyclically in transit discussions, and is now making an encore in the Northeast via the Japanese government and an investment group boasting some notable American politicians.
The proposal, simply called the Northeast Maglev (TNEM), is based on a new technology (old new technology, more accurately—it’s been in development for nearly 40 years) currently being tested on a short section of line outside Tokyo called Superconducting Maglev. Japan hopes to eventually drop some $100 billion on a 320 mile line between Tokyo and Osaka. The technology holds the current rail speed record of 361 miles per hour and offers a cruising speed of just over 300 miles per hour. The TNEM group hopes to convince President Obama and regional leaders to go in on a segment of maglev between Baltimore and Washington D.C., requiring some 30 miles of underground tunneling and theoretically cutting transit times between the cities from just under an hour to 15 minutes.
The price for a ticket on this ride is expected to be just over current Acela prices, putting a D.C./Baltimore roundtrip at over $84, according to The Baltimore Sun, whereas a current one-way on the local commuter railroad, MARC, goes for $7 and considerably less than that with a monthly pass. I’m still trying to track down ridership numbers on Acela between the two cities, but anecdotally (having lived in Baltimore for a number of years and being friendly with a good handful of commuters) it’s not a significant local commuter service. Many people actually make that commute in the first place because Baltimore is vastly cheaper to live in than D.C. Spending a Baltimore mortgage every month on train tickets seems to defeat the purpose. (Baltimore is great, by the way, but I’m not sure charm is always the dominant commuter motivation.)
There’s a final and quick point to be made about speed on the Northeast Corridor. Friction is not at all the barrier to fast transit times. The real-world problem is bottlenecks like the tunnel between New Jersey and Penn Station and the ancient tunnel underneath West Baltimore where trains have to either slow way down or stop and wait (among others). This has been a problem on the line since its inception and it’s a problem of money, not technology. A new right-of-way between D.C. and New York with existing rail technology would cut travel times to 96 minutes. But more than anything, the NEC needs more rail capacity—more trains carrying more people for less money. Only then can we begin to talk about the future.