Greater City Providence

Amtrak’s Next-Gen High Speed Rail vision by-passes Providence

Update 07/11/2012: Amtrak has released an updated vision for the Northeast Corridor which happily does not by-pass Providence. Read the report. (.pdf)

Amtrak released A Vision for High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor [.pdf] today. The Vision is as of yet unfunded, would not be complete until 2040, and the alignment analyzed for this report would by-pass Providence (there’d be a station in Woonsocket though).

A number of possible alignments were initially analyzed for their potential to meet these goals.

New York City to Boston

In the New York City-to-Boston segment, the study team examined a variety of potential alignments, including a “Shore Alignment” paralleling the existing NEC; a “Long Island Alignment” heading east of out New York and traversing Long Island Sound; and “Highway” alignments paralleling all or portions of major interstate highways, including I-84, I-90 and I-91, through Connecticut and Massachusetts. It is important to note that virtually all of the alignments considered pose a variety of construction and environmental challenges. It was beyond the scope of this study to analyze all potential alignments in significant detail. However, a representative alignment was chosen for analytical and costing purposes. This “Analyzed Alignment,” as shown in the figure, parallels the existing NEC from New York to just north of New Rochelle, then follows a combination of highway, rail and overland routes through Connecticut and Massachusetts, before rejoining the existing NEC south of Rt. 128 in Massachusetts and paralleling it into Boston. A route substantially paralleling the existing NEC between Boston and New York was not chosen for initial analytical purposes because of a combination of capacity constraints on MetroNorth’s New Haven Line between New Haven and New Rochelle. Curvature restrictions and design requirements to meet environmental concerns on the Amtrak-owned “Shore Line” from the Massachusetts state line to New Haven would make it extremely difficult to meet the travel time targets of approximately one hour and 30 minute service.

Now, this is a preliminary report, and nothing has been engineered or officially picked yet, so it is not exactly time to panic about being bypassed. Also, this is a plan for a 240mph corridor between Boston, (Woonsocket??), New York, and Washington, plus other cities; highspeed rail of somesort, just not as fast, would still run between Boston, Providence, New Haven, and New York City.

Pink and green lines, new Next-Gen Highspeed rail, service Bos-DC in under 4 hours. Blue line, existing regional and Acela routing. Yellow line, Next-Gen route, Acela-like speeds Boston to NYC (stopping in Providence) and Next-Gen speed south of NYC.

However, it is never too soon for our Governor, Mayor, Congressional Delegation, and everyone else to start working to ensure that we’re on that line.

If the highspeed line were routed south to Providence then west to Hartford it would finally establish the mythical Providence-Hartford connection that was canceled out of the Interstate Highway plan.

Thinking about how a line to Hartford would branch off our current section of the Northeast Corridor (presuming that the existing Providence Station would be our highspeed rail station), a branch along Route 6 out of Olneyville makes sense as the starting point for the Providence-Hartford line. This Next-Gen Highspeed route is still 30 years from reality, but we should not do anything now to preclude it. As we look toward re-engineering the 6/10 interchange for example.

Nothing against Woonsocket, but if we’re going to lay new track (which is what this plan calls for) between Boston and Hartford, it would be ridiculous for it to serve Woonsocket, but not Providence.

View the entire report here. [.pdf]

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • What were they smoking when they decided it should stop in Woonsocket and at Rt 128? It should go from Hartford to Providence to Boston without that stop at 128. It’s unnecessary for a high speed line. People who would get on/off at 128 can get to either Boston or Providence via existing rail. A super high speed line should stop at only the major cities/stations. Heck, I’d even cut out Waterbury or Danbury and the Westchester stops. Go straight from CT into NYC. Again, there is already rail from those places into NYC.

    It’s as if the second-ish largest city in New England (not to mention a transit hub) is an afterthought, being on only 1 of those high speed routes.

  • Granted Amtrak wouldn’t be creating a new route south of New York. However, Wilmington, Delaware has 100,000 less people than Providence and is within a 65% smaller Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Why does Amtrak identify Wilmington as a major city and not Providence?

    Woonsocket is the booby prize to keep Rhode Island quiet. Amtrak can say that it’s providing the state with a stop on the proposed 240 m.p.h. route, even though the route avoids its largest city that’s the center of a 1.6 million MSA population.

    In the 19th American century cities were made or broken by where the railroad located. It’s no different today. The “new” cities of Europe like Lille or Lyon have become important economic hubs only due to their location on a high-speed rail route.

    If Amtrak proposes to trail blaze a new rail right-of-way across Burrillville, they could easily shift the route 8 or 10 miles south so it would pass through Providence. Unless this proposal is changed, Rhode Island will forfeit enormous future business, investment, and economic development opportunities.

    Write emails or letters to Rhode Island politicians to inform them of this ill-conceived plan.

  • A “vision” like this is designed to popularize the idea of railroad building among people accustomed to traveling by car and plane. That’s good, I guess. But I will sit out the fight between the NIMBYs in Foster and the boosters in Providence. If the alignment through Woonsocket is the one that can be completed earliest, along with a decent Providence – Woonsocket rail connection, I am for it. I expect to see the existing NEC north of Providence at capacity with local service anyway. I will be content being able to choose between saving an hour to NYC by changing trains in Woonsocket and a cheaper, one seat, 3 1/2 hour ride like now.

    That applies only if the future looks a lot like today. I do not think it will. Under the likely fuel supply scenario, a huge, single purpose HSR investment will wind up looking like an everything-top-of-the-line kitchen in a big old house where the bathrooms are out of order and the kids have to sleep on the floor.

    First of all, environmentally, HSR is like an airplane on wheels. Second, when most people can not afford cars anymore, (pretty much the case already especially if you consider the vast expense of highway maintenance) a dense network of very ordinary trains and streetcars will do more for the quality of life of more people in more places than a high priced two hour ride to NYC. Are we willing to see hundreds of places like Pittsfield, Burlington, Binghamton, and Keene snuffed by isolation? Want to still be able to visit the White Mountains or Cape Cod? To have it all would be nice, but I would put a higher priority on making it possible for the Providence job market to continue to overlap those in Boston, New Bedford, Worcester, New London and points between than on shaving an hour off the trip to NYC.

    Also not as much fun to talk about as zoomy passenger trains but probably of greater fundamental economic consequence: New England’s poor freight rail connections to the NYC area and the rest of the USA.

  • Its hard to make a judgement without actually seeing a final alignment. I can’t imagine it would actaually be in downtown Woonsocket. A more appropriate location might be at the 295/146 interchange. That could easily be reached by BRT, rail or shuttle from Providence and Warwick. Given the options of driving, slow speed rail or flying, having a 20 -45 minute trip for a 1.5 hour train ride to NYC or 4 hours to DC isn’t all that bad.

  • Good points, but there’s still an economic factor to this proposal. If the new NEC line is built as proposed there will be winner and loser cities/regions. Providence as an economic center is pretty diminished at this point. Its NEC link has in part has contributed to keeping it viable. A Woonsocket stop would not exactly help its adjacent eastern region through New Bedford as they would be even further from the NEC route as they are from any airport. With a “Super Express” New York/Boston train that would bypass everything in between, how many 3 1/2 trains on the coastal route do you suppose would be eliminated?

    In all likelihood the new NEC won’t be built. The scenario of linking to other cities off the NEC makes complete sense, but would Amtrak build it? For Providence and Hartford there’s been only a tentative secondary road connection, which has hurt both cities/regions for decades. Does anyone really believe that unless there’s a bold initiative from Washington that bike paths over rail right-of-ways will ever be ripped out and re-purposed for rail use?

  • Andrew, my thoughts about this whole High Speed rail revival coming out of USDOT and the White House has been that it is very much cart before the horse, here in the Northeast Corridor and much moreso in places like Central Florida.

    It is all well and good to have high speed rail connections between cities, but when you get off the train, without a car, you need some way to navigate the city. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, DC are navigable sans car, and technically, so is Providence. But I would much rather see initial federal stimulus going direct to the cities to beef up their intra-urban transportation. Green line to Medford in Boston should be shovels in the ground now, red-blue connection in Boston should be happening now, etc.

    In Providence, we shouldn’t be looking at a 1 1/2 mile streetcar, we should be building 10 miles of streetcar right out of the starting gate and have things like GPS tracking, off-board fare collection, enhanced bus service, etc. funded and in progress now (some of that is, but gee it is snails pace). Pawtucket Station and Blackstone Commuter rail should be way further along in planning. RIPTA should be expanding service into Bristol County, MA.

    I hear a lot coming out of Washington about high speed rail, and I think we need it, but it is utterly useless and a waste of money if people using it have no way to leave the station once they arrive.

    And indeed we need to look at the connections that won’t be served by high speed rail. How can mass transit to the Cape happen, how do we connect Providence to Hartford, Providence to Worcester? We have large numbers of people commuting 146 in both directions, restore rail service now.

    Maybe all these thing will get addressed in the next 30 years before this vision actually comes to fruition. But I’m not hearing enough out of Washington that makes me think intra-urban transit is the priority it needs to be.

  • Most likely, this has less to do with not serving Providence and more to do with having the fastest, most direct root from DC – Boston. The Acella can achieve much faster speeds than is actually allowed on much of the rail line between Boston and New York. The problem is that it follows rail lines over a century ago meant for trains that rarely went higher than 20 or 30 MPH. The route outlined on that map for the Acela is not as straight in real life. There are many more subtle curves that cause a reduction in speed. If the plan is to lay new track for this high-speed train, then the idea is to lay them in a manner that allows them to optimize for speed, which means as many straightaways as possible with minimal curves. This route most likely allows them to obtain that goal. There’s probably not a lot of space in or around Providence to built vast straight-aways of railroad tracks without causing decades of delays from those NIMBY’s who don’t want the tracks in their area.

  • Nor are there to be found many “vast straight-aways” available in Boston or New York, but it’s clearly of great economic importance to have HSR connections in those cities. Certainly there will be NIMBY resistance in those cities too, but they will eventually be overruled for the greater economic good. If that logic applies in NYC and Boston, why not Providence too?

  • This is why we cant have nice things.

    Every city not included complains that they were ignored. Providence, Worcester, freaking STAMFORD.

    And every city that IS included complains that there will be noise and a barrier and such.

    Wah wah

  • Well this may not be saying much, but high speed rail that runs off the grid is theoretically upgradable. As long as airplanes are running on fossil fuel, they are not.

  • Wah Wah indeed. Yo, people, get over it. There is work to do! Much of our far from world class Northeast Corridor is operating at full capacity. Highways are past full capacity. The day a new line opens, passengers will show up – just like it happens with new highways. However, new rail capacity is cheaper and more sustainable than highway capacity. People go places to spend or earn money in a way they can’t by just staying home. This is how an urban economy thrives. Any way you look at it, we are crazy not to be building new passenger railroads in the Boston – Washington region: Parallel to the existing trunk line and branching off. Should the top speed be 100mph or 200 mph? Yes to both. Borrow or print the money, and pay people to build needed, useful things. This is how to fix the economy.

  • The sobering thought for me is 2040? What type of leaps in technology could make this completely obsolete by the time it reaches the Northeast. Hopefully, they will design a system that will be flexible enough to embrace any new technology as it happens Unless of course they perfect the flying car!

  • Since we’re discussing Amtrak fantasy world where price seems to have no reasonable limit, how might Providence Station and a Woonsocket Amtrak station be linked to provide for more seamless Rhode Island high-speed rail connections; Commuter Maglev? There are likely several technologies available from around the world that could work. From some earlier research Urbanaut may offer a glimpse into speeds and costs.

    Osaka, Japan is precedence for having a high-speed rail station that doesn’t come into the center of the city. In Osaka you have to take the subway to Osaka Shin Station to access the Shinkansen train system. Granted it’s within the city limits and not as far as Woonsocket, but it does take about 15 minutes and if you’re far from the specific subway line it can take much longer.

    An elevated maglev line could be located down the center of 146, which is a fairly straight road that might well be suited. In New York the Airtrain to Kennedy Airport runs along the center of the Van Wyck Expressway is an example of how this could be done. Van Wyck/Airtrain

    A Woonsocket to Providence route would be about 13 ½ miles. The Urbanaut maglev has a maximum speed of 140 mph, but with acceleration and deceleration would average 70 mph. It would be possible to make the trip in slightly less than 12 minutes. If stations were added at Washington Highway and Mineral Spring Avenue the trip would take about 16 minutes and maybe an extra minute or two for station stops. At $15 million dollars per mile the line would be a bargain at about $203 million.

    Another application for this technology might be to use the 195 corridor to connect the main metropolitan cities Providence, Fall River and New Bedford with suburbs in between and possibly extending to the Cape. Due to the distance it would likely cost twice as much.

  • 2040 indeed. Correct me if this is more rumor than fact, but Acela trains south of NY cannot reach their full speed on straightaways because the tracks lack the high-tension catenary that higher speeds require. Upgrading that catenary is a large project, but it is an immediate way to increase speeds and improve service. Amtrak cannot even afford to do that. Andrew’s right. It’s gonna take some borrowing, printing, and prioritizing, but it’s worth it. Bail the rails!

  • Wow I’m baffled by the overlooking of the terrain.Can you imagine a new right of way curving and climbing over the Eastern Upland(think the “Airline through E.CT.) To get to Woonsocket from Hartford was never achieved because of so many deep valleys and highland plateaus.Instead,they built out of Middletown continued tortuously to Willimantic and on to Woonsocket Jct. The route featured the highest tressles &deepest rock cuts in the east out side of PA. Can you imagine the cost,can you imagine the unimformed political boostering??

    Keep High Speed on Whistler’s grade ? Keep it with Providence in it’s sights .It will be far more cost effective.

  • So, I know it’s no where near an in-depth study, but it would seem the new line would branch from the present-day NEC ROW over to the Franklin MBTA ROW. To make that happen (and still serve the 128 station) you’d have to figure a way to go through Norwood airport or the center of Norwood itself – a tough task indeed.

    Next, if they followed the old ROW (which we have to assume would be the easiest/cheapest/most “feasible” way to pull this off versus ripping through established neighborhoods and existing infrastructure), they would get to Harris pond just north of Woonsocket. They ruled out MBTA service as using this route to link Woonsocket and Boston in the Blackstone rail study already becuase of the environmental issues there, nevermind high speed rail!!

    Once they figure those out, they’d follow the ROW just southwest of Woonsocket and run into the same problem at Slaterville Reservoir. Then to the SW of that, Pascoag Reservoir – and this is just the 128 through RI section.

    I don’t care that it’s 30 years away and it’s not complaining to question why a high speed rail line in our region would not pass through Boston-Providence-Hartford – then NYC, etc. 3 state capitols and 3 major cities in NE. It just makes sense!

  • 2040?? what are they smoking at Amtrak headquarters? We may be able to send ourselves to NYC over email as an attachment by 2040 🙂

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