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Railroad Administration Plans Future of Northeast Corridor

Tunnel Might be Dug Under Raritan River in One Possible Future Envisioned For Major Railroad
FRA

WASHINGTON, DC--The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has unveiled a plan for the Northeast Corridor, the railroad line that connects New Brunswick to New York, Philaelphia, and other major cities.

The plan does not yet call for a course of action, but instead lays out four options, one of which will become the "Preferred Alternative." 

Under three of the options, North Brunswick would gain a train station. Under the most ambitious option, which resembles Japan's Shinkansen network, Metropark would gain a station along the new line.

Under the two most ambitious options, there would be expansions of the Northeast Corridor outside of its current right-of-way in Central New Jersey, including the parts running through Edison and New Brunswick.

Both options would have the new Corridor tracks running under Highland Park, the Raritan River, and New Brunswick in a tunnel, as well as in the Metuchen area. In areas where land is more open, the two new tracks would run parallel to the existing line, expanding the NEC from four tracks to six. 

As is the custom (and law), the first of the four options is to do nothing: the "No-Action Alternative". This gives a yardstick to measure the other alternatives against, and, thus, to provide an argument to do something. This alternative would see maintenance as usual, as well as the emergence of already planned rail projects such as New York City's East Side Access.

The second option ("first alternative") is to maintain the Northeast Corridor's role in the region's transportation system as is, keeping pace with population growth through 2040. A few new stretches of rail would be built; some new train stations might arise; traffic would be streamlined by smoothing out bottlenecks and chokepoints. The tracks between Wilmington and Washington would be replaced by newer tracks, although on the same lines.

The third option ("second alternative") is to grow the Northeast Corridor faster than population is anticipated to expand. This would bring new segments into being on long stretches of the corridor, including in Central NJ. A new branch of the Northeast Corridor would be built between Hartford, Connecticut, and Providence, RI. This would be in addition to the developments described in the second option ("first alternative"). 

The fourth option ("third alternative") is the most ambitious of all, an option to "transform" the Northeast Corridor. This would effectively create a new high-speed railroad line parallel to the existing corridor from Washington to New York, and heading inland from New York to Boston.

Under this third alternative, this fourth option, there are a couple of suboptions as to which route to take from New York to Hartford. The first suboption dashes through Long Island to Ronkonkoma and goes across the Long Island Sound to New Haven, and continues north through Connecticut.

The second suboption heads up through the Bronx to White Plains, stopping at the inland Connecticut cities of Danbury and Waterbury. There are also two choices of route between Hartford and Boston: a southern route running through Providence, Rhode Island, and a northern route running through Worcester, Massachussetts. 

Under the "do-nothing" option, according to the FRA, service would deteriorate because tracks would not necessarily be in a state of good repair, there would still be existing issues in connectivity (such as there being only two one-lane rail tunnels under the Hudson River, and century-old ones at that), and the line would not expand train service to new markets. Also, freight travel would be slowed down.

The "Maintain" option would see the restoration of the corridor to a state of good repair, would enable higher intercity and commuter service frequency, and allow feeder branches to the Northeast Corridor to increase the number of trains running from such places as Harrisburg and Albany to New Jersey.

A new segment from Old Saybrook in Connecticut to Kenyon, Rhode Island would provide a detour in case the track between those points need to be fixed. This would arguably reduce pollution and shift 69 million trips, per year, from other modes to passenger trains.

The "Grow" option would expand capacity at the Hudson River crossings (read: "allow new tunnels"), as well as providing a new route between New Haven and Providence; more importantly, this route would be inland, allowing train service to continue if a hurricane should wash out the coastal tracks.

The "Grow" option would allow speeds of 160 mph along most of the NEC, potentially cutting Boston-to-Washington travel time by over an hour. The overall intercity service would be expanded to five times today's amount, with double the amount of rush-hour Regional trains.

Two airports, the T.F. Green Airport in Providence and the Philadelphia International Airport, would get intercity rail service. (Philadelphia Airport currently has commuter rail service.) This is in addition to the benefits of the "Maintain" option. The number of trips arguably shifted to rail would be 93 million per year. 

The "Transform" option would kick speeds up to 220 mph on the "Shinkansen" (the "second spine", or parallel line), cut up to 2 hours 55 minutes from the Boston-to-Washington trip, and allow up to six time the intercity service and three times the peak-hour service of today. According to the FRA, this would shift 141 million trips to rail per year. 

The three "action alternatives" - the Maintain, Grow, and Transform options - would require land to be acquired and developed, floodplains to be built upon, waterways to be crossed, and some prime farmland and timberland to be converted to prime railwayland. Much of this impact would be north of NYC; however, the construction of a new trunk line in the "Transform" option would affect New Jersey properties.