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A Bold Proposal for High Speed Rail in the Northeast

A possible high speed rail alignment - graphic from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click to enlarge.

City and Regional Planning graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania PennDesign studio drafted a high speed rail study for the northeast corridor. The study recommends extensive tunneling under cities and water and other bold changes to the current intercity rail service. Amtrak’s recent infrastructure upgrades for Acela mostly consisted of piecemeal fixes which still keep average speeds between Washington and Boston between 60 and 80 mph – well below the average 150mph+ speeds of international systems. If Europe and Japan’s rail service is like a BMW M5, ours is more like a 15 year old Honda Civic with new rims and a tail fin. You can trick out that puppy all you want, but you’re still in a Honda.

The study recommends making Charles Center a new high speed rail station in Baltimore. This would bypass the aging tunnels leading into Penn Station which limit train speeds. Having a station at Charles Center could also spark revitalization in a section of downtown which is pretty stagnant right now. Traveling from anywhere in the Northeast corridor to Baltimore (and getting dropped off a few blocks away from the Inner Harbor) in a couple of hours could be a game changer for our tourism industry. Because a smaller percentage of travelers who arrive by train actually drive from the station to their final destinations compared to those who arrive by air, we could also have more out-of-towners walking/biking or using transit.

Another idea from the study is using Interstate right of way for the rail alignment.   High speed rail down the center of I-95 would be a great way to laugh in the faces of the millions of drivers stuck in traffic everyday and would make the service highly visible. A sleek bullet train cruising at 120mph past gridlocked traffic would more than compensate for Amtrak’s lackluster marketing efforts and reputation problems (assuming Amtrak would run the service) . This would be living proof that trains are a viable alternative to driving and flying for mid distance trips.

The President has already started the ball rolling with a $8 billion dollar investment for passenger rail upgrades. San Francisco started building their new high speed rail station and the California portion of the system has momentum and a solid plan. There is absolutely no reason why the northeast corridor shouldn’t see similar investments. We have the ridership, the cities, and much better sports teams than California.

So, for what it’s worth, the Penn student’s plan gets Car Free Baltimore’s solid endorsement and a funding promise. I’ll gladly buy tickets for this thing and ride it every chance I get when it’s built. It’s time the U.S. gets its own M5.

Related Links:

  1. Federal Railroad Administration High Speed Rail Website (
  2. Federal Railroad Administration High Speed Rail Strategic Plan (
  3. University of Pennsylvania PennStudio High Speed Rail Seminar Final Report (

  •…-which-one-shall-we-use-today/ the Success Ladder

    This is a very interesting point of view. Your blog is refreshing, but I wish one could find more content, though. I am looking forward to reading more from you. Keep up the good work. thanks.

  • Guest

    Your endorsement would make the developers at Penn Station very unhappy.

  • Mark

    Oh well! Amtrak’s maintenance of Penn has been horrible. They let a great building rot before the stimulus saved their ass. Now they’re doing renovations they should have done 10 years ago.

    Penn would still be a hub for local trains and perhaps future streetcar routes. It’s an irreplacable building which will always find a use.

  • Thomas Gonzales

    I’m not sure why it should go to Charles Center (or downtown Philly). Looking to examples in Europe, or even in other U.S. cities, it probably makes more sense to improve the existing infrastructure and renovate historic stations. Adding a major rail hub on top of downtown congestion could be a nightmare—where would taxis lineup? It makes more sense for the rail hub to be a bit removed but well connected (by streetcar or LRT that would presumably be completed long before the high speed rail), and it would also provide opportunity for more development around Penn Station–improving more neighborhoods than just downtown (which gets more than its share of investment as is). But regardless, improved high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor is certainly a noble cause!

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