Although portions of the Northeast Corridor routes were built some 180 years ago, the modern NEC dates from the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965, an early form of a public private partnership between the federal government and the Pennsylvania Railroad that resulted in improved trip times and performance. Through the following decade, ownership of the NEC was gradually consolidated through the creation of Penn Central Railroad and then transferred to the public and Amtrak control between 1971 and 1976 as part of the recovery plan for Penn Central bankruptcy.
When Amtrak assumed control of Northeast Corridor in 1976, the railroad was in a state of disrepair and required major investment. To address this need, the Federal Railroad Administration, Congress and Amtrak worked closely together to establish, fund and carry out the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project. This project, the subsequent Northeast High Speed Rail Improvement Program, invested a total of $4 billion in the NEC between 1976 and 1998. One of the major outcomes of this project was the electrification of 155 miles of railroad between New Haven and Boston, making possible the introduction of high speed Acela Express® service in 2000.
Thanks to the investments made as part of the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project and the Northeast High Speed Rail Improvement Program, the Northeast Corridor was transformed from a rundown midcentury railroad into a modern, electrified, high speed line capable of handling twice the number of trains including 125 mph Northeast Regional service and 135 mph – 150 mph Acela Express service. Read more about Amtrak history here.
The main line of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) is 457 miles long traversing major cities in the northeast region including Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. With the addition of connecting corridors to Harrisburg, PA, Springfield, MA, Albany, NY and Richmond, VA, the NEC spans a total of 899 miles. Most of the rail line is owned by Amtrak, with New York State, the Connecticut Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority owning parts of the northern section. The Northeast’s five major metropolitan regions – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC – rely on Amtrak services for a significant and growing share of business and leisure passenger travel – and on NEC infrastructure for the daily commuting needs of their workforces.
In addition to operating the Acela Express®, Northeast Regional, and Long Distance train services on the NEC, Amtrak serves as the infrastructure manager for the majority of the NEC. Amtrak provides dispatching services and electric propulsion power and maintains and improves the infrastructure and facilities used by commuter and freight rail services. The NEC is an incredibly intricate railroad system and one of the most complex and heavily-used railroad territories in the world. Amtrak is a minority user of the NEC but the only operator to provide end-to-end service.
More than 260 million passenger trips are made on the NEC per year, of which 17.1 million annual trips are made by Amtrak passengers. The balance is made on services provided by Amtrak’s eight commuter railroad partners that share the NEC. The eight commuter services that operate on the NEC are Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Shore Line East, Metro-North, Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, MARC and Virginia Railway Express. On a daily basis, approximately 820,000 trips are made on the NEC – either on Amtrak or one of the commuter railroads. More than 2,100 passenger trains and 60 freight trains operate on some portion of the NEC every day.
In the context of such heavy daily use and its reliance on aging infrastructure, much of the NEC is approaching the limits of its capacity and at the same time in need of rehabilitation. Many rail assets are in need of redesign and replacement to provide the capacity needed for a growing population and economy, and continue to provide safe, reliable, and convenient high-speed rail service into the next century and beyond.
As required by the Passenger Rail Investment Improvement Act of 2008, the Northeast Corridor Commission developed and adopted a cost allocation policy to share operating and normalized replacement of basic infrastructure costs based on each railroad’s proportional use. This federal directive, which prohibits cross-subsidization among railroads, provides the Corridor’s first dedicated, predictable capital funding. While an important first step, this amount is far less than what is required to restore the NEC to a state-of-good-repair and make improvements for the future.
In addition, in December of 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) was signed into law authorizing policy and funding levels for five years. In Amtrak’s case, the FAST Act authorizes funding under a new structure which creates separate accounts for the Northeast Corridor and the National Network. A key element of this new account structure is requiring NEC revenues to be reinvested in the Northeast Corridor.
While infrastructure age and condition are major considerations, the long term outlook must also contemplate the growing capacity needs of the NEC. The Northeast is a highly productive and densely inhabited region, supporting 17 percent of the nation’s population on two percent of its land area and generating 20 percent of its GDP. About 80 percent of this population lives within 25 miles of the NEC. This population is expected to grow significantly in coming years, and that growth is forecast to translate into increased demand for passenger rail service. In its current state the existing infrastructure cannot accommodate this demand.
Amtrak has created a vision and strategy to address these issues. The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor (which updates work first published in 2010), outlines a vision for a high-capacity, high-performance railroad featuring a major upgrade and expansion of the NEC. This effort would accommodate increased and improved commuter, intercity, and freight service augmented by new, dedicated high-speed tracks, on new and existing right-of-way, and allow Amtrak to dramatically increase frequencies and speeds while reducing trip times to world-class levels.
The Vision for the Northeast Corridor is now serving as one of the many inputs into the Federal Railroad Administration’s NEC Future planning process, which will help determine the options for Northeast Corridor service and infrastructure development in the decades to come.