Trains For America

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GUEST COLUMN: Canada-USA High Speed Possibilities

Logan and I are 30 years apart (sadly for me!) and we are both slammed by school work this semester. The Trains for America blog has been a sad casualty of that business and my own frustration with the toxic political climate that is doing so much harm to the country I love.

Since it’s been a while, I can say that Amtrak is in a bad state. It is unclear to me whether the president is the president or an interim, and the commitment (if any) to long distance trains seems vague. I may be misreading. I do know that the recent rumblings about the Sunset/Eagle schedule changes being discussed for April are, so far, nothing but wishful thinking and your typical railroad rumors.

While Logan and I have been neglectful, and we feel really bad about it, we do welcome guest columns. If you wish to contribute, the work must be attributed (not anonymous), free of libel and personal attacks, and hopefully bear some marks of journalistic evenhandedness.

Though I do not know Paul Langan of High Speed Rail Canada personally, I consider him a friend am I am delighted to submit this item for your discussion. I hope to offer more new material to TFA in the next months and perhaps offer a new look. Anyway, enjoy.

Canada-USA High Speed Possibilities – Part 1 Montreal-Boston

Paul Langan,  Founder High Speed Rail Canada http://highspeedrail.ca11/11/09

High Speed Rail (HSR) is coming to North America the question is where will it be implemented first. I would like to examine the cross border opportunities for HSR that have been put forward.

Four possible passenger rail corridors connecting Canada and the USA exist. They are; Vancouver BC to Seattle WA , Windsor ON to Detroit MI ,   Montreal QC – New York NY and Montreal QC-Boston MA.

All these cross border corridors share three significant fundamental challenges.

1. A multitude of political stakeholders – The more governments that are involved the process the slower the ability to get change to occur. This is especially true between Canada and the USA where dialogue and cooperation on passenger rail issues has been historically weak

2. The immigration and customs border crossing issue. Border Immigration officials in the USA and Canada must come to an agreement on an efficient and effective means of allowing people to cross between the two countries by rail. I witnessed first hand the elimination of the Toronto , ON to Chicago IL Amtrak passenger rail service in part by over zealous USA immigration officials delaying trains. In British Columbia the Canadian Border Services Agency has been a severe detriment to increasing passenger rail service between these two countries

3. A lack of a national Canadian vision on HSR – USA President Obama has made clear his vision for the revitalization of modern higher and high speed passenger rail service for the USA . In Canada , Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not stated any national plans relating to passenger rail renewal.

Over 110 years of passenger rail service ended on the Montreal-Boston corridor in 1967 when the past passenger rail service ceased between the two cities. That trip took eight and a half hours to complete. Modest new plans are for a restored service with five and a half hour trip time.

The Boston – Montreal Corridor was designated a high speed rail corridor in 2000 by the Federal Railroad Administration.  In 2003, a HSR study was completed for this 529km corridor. The full study is available to be read at the .

The study lays bare some of the additional challenges facing the implementation of HSR from Boston to Montreal. They are;

  1. Dealing with 4 different rail owners – Getting agreements from four railway companies to restore higher speed passenger rail service in this corridor will be challenging. An example of this problem is in shown in #2.
  2. Pan Am Railways – Privately owned railway who own track between Nashua-Concord Hew Hampshire have no interest in high speed rail along the line and have prevented the State of New Hampshire from applying for funding for HSR
  3. None of the current infrastructure currently meets the needs for higher speed rail.
  4. There are over 360 at grade road /rail crossings.
  5. North Boston Station does not have significant capacity to handle these trains.

It should be mentioned that there is also a small group of individuals that would like to see a Boston-Portland- Montreal higher speed passenger rail route along the former CN now St. Lawrence Atlantic Railway line.

Since that study ws released there has been some very positive renewed commitments to higher speed rail.

A “Vision for New England High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail”.

has been collectively developed by the State Departments of Transportations in Maine , New Hampshire , Vermont , Massachusetts , Rhode Island and Connecticut (the New England states).

The New England states are successfully working through the Coalition of Northeastern Governors (CONEG) promoting the need for high speed passenger rail service renewal.

Although there are very real challenges to restoring higher speed passenger rail service to this corridor, the Phase One HSR study has been done. The study concluded that there were no fatal barriers from the implementation of HSR in this corridor.

The recent New England states vision for renewed passenger rail service and a recent  meeting in Boston between  Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to promote HSR are promising signs.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

24 Responses

  1. PeakVT says:

    What is meant by “high-speed” for the Boston-Montreal line? I don’t see how anything more than 110 mph could be achieved south of the border on the existing ROWs. And I don’t think the cost of a new 186 mph or 220 mph line could justified. The Montreal-Albany-New York City line would be a much higher priority anyway. Click on my URL to see my writeup for the Montreal-Albany section.

    Also, it should be noted that the Concord-Claremont line has been dismantled and the ROW abandoned. The Concord-Franklin-White River Junction line has been dismantled but fortunately the state owns the ROW.

  2. robpageiii says:

    I would push for a Montreal-NYC line first. Since NYC the main transit hub for trains on the East Coast the line would get both point-to-point riders as well as through riders (DC, Philly, etc..) If they start with Montreal-Boston this limits the number of through riders and the overall number of potential customers. The Transport Politic looked at this issue here:

  3. John says:

    You missed Toronto-New York via Niagara/Buffalo.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Toronto-New York not only has the capability for much higher ridership than all other lines proposed here, but also would be cheaper to implement than most. New York-Buffalo is a good HSR corridor on its own, so the only additional cost of NY-Toronto service over existing US plans is electrifying and rebuilding the existing line from Buffalo to Toronto, which is with few exceptions as straight as an arrow. This is not the case with NY-Montreal: without a connection to Montreal there’s no reason to extend HSR north of Albany, so the additional cost is hundreds of kilometers of greenfield construction in hilly terrain.

  5. Jon Fostik says:

    Missed ” corridor”-although perhaps not a candidate for higher speed rail, there should be ” eventual” consideration to a Minneapolis-Winnipeg ” corridor”. South of the border the state of Minnesota is actively engaged in the development of its passenger rail infrastructure. Witness the newborn Northstar commuter rail and the planned Northern Lights Express to Duluth. Since introduction of any new passenger rail in North America moves at a ” glacial” pace, evaluation of the Winnipeg connection should be considered.

  6. 1. It’s not a case of which one goes first. Since states are taking the lead on this, it will be a simultaneous effort. Vermont and New York will each be promoting their own route with their own resources.

    2. Montreal – Boston is proposed at 110 mph tops with many curve restrictions due to existing track geometry.

    3. A Montreal – New York line should run through Vermont: Montreal – Burlington – Rutland – Albany – New York. The Rutland – Burlington section is arrow straight while the old D&H snakes along the pretty but curvey shore of Lake Champlain. And Burlington is a large population, student and tourist travel destination which the western side of Lake Champlain is not.

  7. PeakVT says:

    1. Since most of the funding will be coming from the federal government, prioritizations will be made (though not always on merit). From a national perspective, connecting Montreal with New York is higher priority than connecting Montreal with Boston.

    3. The Western Corridor is hardly “arrow straight” though it is definitely less curvy than the D&H. (Rouse’s Point to Saint-Jean – now that’s arrow-straight.) Also, if the Montreal-Albany section is a new, dedicated line then the only stop in Vermont that could be justified is Burlington. However, it is clearly a better candidate for a stop than Plattsburgh.

  8. Nathanael says:

    “Toronto-New York not only has the capability for much higher ridership than all other lines proposed here, but also would be cheaper to implement than most. New York-Buffalo is a good HSR corridor on its own, so the only additional cost of NY-Toronto service over existing US plans is electrifying and rebuilding the existing line from Buffalo to Toronto, which is with few exceptions as straight as an arrow.”

    Agreed. Even more so, Canada has already been planning the high-speed Toronto-Windsor route — via Hamilton. Which reduces the additional planning to Hamilton-Buffalo. Admittedly that section is never going to be the fastest, but it also manages to reach Niagara Falls, a major destination from *both* sides of the border.

    Increased services Hamilton-Niagara Falls are already in the works, and Buffalo-Niagara Falls is already loosely in the US HSR plans. Plus which Niagara Falls is probably the only border crossing large enough that the customs delays could be combined with an extended station stop without wasting time.

    Toronto-NYC should be the first target for international HSR, since it shares infrastructure with so many existing HSR plans and has the largest intermediate *and* end cities.

    (Vancouver-Seattle is probably easier to get done, however, due to most of it being in one state.)

  9. MadPark says:

    There is another possibility: South Sta Boston west on the old B&A to Palmer, thence northwest on the old CV, the current route of the Vermonter, to Burlington and on to Montreal. Others above suggested a Montreal-Burlington-Rutland-Albany-Penn Sta NYC routing; this would allow about 90 miles of duplicate ROW from Montreal to Burlington.
    Sadly, however, the DHS will need to be abolished and the Patriot Act repealed before there will ever by any kind of higher speed border crossings between the US and Canada.

  10. Rob says:

    Couldn’t customs and immigration be done at the Montreal Station? Similiar to the way the airports do it.

  11. MadPark says:

    That’s the way it is done in Vancouver, BC, and the way it could be done in Winnipeg, Toronto (perhaps) and Montreal. Better yet, why not have a Schengen-type agreement between Canada and the US instead? That lets trains stop at cities in Canada other than the termini.
    From wikipedia: “The borderless zone created by the Schengen Agreements, the Schengen Area, currently consists of twenty-five European countries.”
    No need, then, for silly DHS inspections and even sillier Patriot Act nonsense.

  12. Walter says:

    New York-Albany-Montreal would be great, but it would only occur after New York-Buffalo HSR. A route that could work is New York-New Haven-Springfield-Burlington-Montreal, as long as Springfield-Boston is also upgraded to HSR standards. The state of Connecticut is trying to upgrade and double-track the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, and the state of Massachusetts knows it needs to placate the population in Western Mass. because of all the money that was thrown at the Big Dig in Boston. This would also hit major population centers to ensure ridership.

    HSR from Springfield to Albany is near impossible with the hilly terrain, so upgrading the existing Vermonter (with a turn to Burlington instead of St. Albans) may be the best bet for Boston-Montreal instead of the direct route or Boston-Albany-Montreal. Connection to New York available in New Haven on the Acela, or the train could simply continue to New York (or even Washington) as an Acela service.

  13. PeakVT says:

    Walter – HSR isn’t impossible in Western Mass, just more expensive.

    Border crossing data can be found here. Currently, the busiest rail crossings are Skagway, Rouse’s Point, Buffalo, and Blaine. Buffalo is one of the top 3 for auto travelers.

  14. Woody says:

    Jon Forstik — Amtrak came out with a designed-to-be-DOA report on restarting the North Shore Hiawatha line (the fishy estimated cost: $1 billion or so). So I suggested looking at a second frequency on the Empire Builder route Chicago-St Paul-Fargo. That couldn’t require half a billion in new track work, but it would serve the most highly populated stretch.

    The current Empire Builder leaves Chicago mid-afternoon, 2:25 p.m.. and arrives in Fargo, the largest city in ND, at 3:35 a.m. But a morning departure, say, 8:30 a.m., might arrive in Fargo by 9:00 p.m., plus or minus. It could actually serve the stations west of St Paul, St Cloud-Staples-Detroit Lakes-Fargo-Grand Forks, that are currently left in the dark.

    Now you suggest a link to Winnipeg, and I like it. That second Empire Builder frequency could split off at Grand Forks, the next stop beyond Fargo, and be in Winnipeg by….

    A crude calculation. It’s 662 miles Chicago-Fargo, and Amtrak takes about 13 hours. It’s 216 air miles Fargo-Winnipeg, say 250 track miles, so at Amtrak speed that would be about 5 hours more, plus border delays. Leave Fargo 10 p.m., be in Grand Forks before midnight, and arrive Winnipeg 4 a.m. Or go really slow on purpose and arrive around 6 or 7 a.m.

    ( Connections to VIA in Winnipeg. The current schedule shows three-times-a-week trains from Toronto arriving in Winnipeg at 8 a.m., departing for Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper, and Vancouver at noon. Eastbound trains arrive at 8:30 P.M. and depart for Toronto before midnight. Twice a week trains head far north to Churchill on Hudson’s Bay, departing at noon and returning at 4:45 p.m. )

    Going the return direction, the current Empire Builder gives western Minnesota the same level of post-midnight service, departing Fargo at 2:15 a.m. and arriving in Chicago by 4 p.m. A second frequency, leaving Fargo about 5 hours later could reach Chicago before 10 p.m.

    So to get to Fargo at 7:15 a.m., Grand Forks at 6 a.m., border hassles, go slow on purpose, depart Winnipeg at 10 or 11 p.m., allowing most passengers to get some sleep on the train.

    Folks on the ground in this area will have a better idea of the practicalities of this or another schedule.

    It will be a long, long time before Winnipeg gets HSR. But a connection to Winnipeg is already on the NARP wish list

    Winnipeg should get a connection to the Amtrak system, and it is easily fits with my suggestion for a second frequency Chicago-Fargo or -Grand Forks, the third largest metro in ND and home of the Univ of ND.

    Sections of that route, Chicago-Milwaukee especially, but also Chicago-Milwaukee-St Paul, could get significant upgrades and marked reductions in the trip times in the next decade or so. A Winnipeg link makes even more sense as the Chicago-St Paul trunk gets faster schedules with more frequent trains.

  15. HockeyFan says:

    I think the Montreal-Boston HSR is not going anywhere for 3 reasons: more Montrealers want to go to NY than BOS, the tracks are gone in some NH sections, and NH dropped out of the coalition a few years ago. In the 50’s/60s, the state of VT stepped up and purchased rail lines rather than let them be abandoned like in NH. Once those tracks are gone, neighbors will be very surprised by a plan to restore them, let alone for HSR operation.
    Toronto-NY is a good candidate: big cities, flat, good existing infrastructure. Montreal-NY via Vermont is also appealing: VT is pro-rail, tracks are there, freight operators are cooperative, Burlington has deserved a train for years. VT has a lot of NIMBY’s so true HSR won’t go over well in small rural towns, but medium speed operation until reaching NY is possible. Christopher Parker’s association VRAN is doing a great job promoting rail in VT.

  16. Rafael says:

    MadPark’s suggestion of a Schengen-style agreement between the US and Canada on policing the North American landmass is interesting, given the long land border between these two vast countries is inevitably porous. Unfortunately, switching from the notion of border security to policing immigration, customs etc. across vast areas would not only be expensive, it would also involve a major paradigm shift in national security policy and police jurisdiction – especially in the US.

    For the moment, the more realistic model for cross-border high speed train service would be Eurostar. It features airline-style check-in and security screening at a small number of stations along the route. There are no delays related to immigration and customs at the physical border. Running an express-only service isn’t an onerous restriction for Eurostar since it travels at 300km/h (186mph) where possible, i.e. stops are anyhow quite far apart for operational reasons.

    At “emerging HSR” speeds of 110mph, it would be harder to resist pressure for more frequent stops, which would entail a lot more security infrastructure and staff. Of course, it would be possible to run local and semi-local trains domestically in each country and express trains across the border, but only if there is sufficient ridership to support a sufficiently large number of trains per day to begin with. Since ridership and operating profitability depends crucially on speed, the restrictions and overheads involved in cross-border service may not be worthwhile for anything less than express HSR.

    The US has plenty of money to build such lines, it just needs to rein in its largely ineffective military spending. In both countries, individual states and provinces have to take the planning and funding lead, with the federal government merely providing supplemental funding. In the US, the federal share might go as high as 80%. In Canada, a country with even less geographic solidarity, it might go no higher than perhaps 50%.

  17. Erik G. says:

    As long as we are treating the US-Canada border just as we treat the US-Mexico border, all of the above is a pie-dream enclosed in hot air. Border stops will have to be scheduled for a minimum of 90 minutes; just think of the children!

    Whether it is to be politically correct or because the current Ministrix for Faderland Sicherheit is a former governor of a state that borders the banana republic to the south, Canada, despite her birth from a common mother and use of the same legal system as ours, must now be treated with suspicion.

    And now all of us are certainly on a list somewhere as confirmed racists since we think that Canadians should somehow be treated differently than Mexicans. Shame on us!

  18. Hieronymous Braintree says:

    When I took the train from Hong Kong to Beijing and back (which are treated by the Chinese gov’t as if they belonged to separate countries), one had to got through customs in order to get to the waiting room. If one wanted to get out and stretch your legs along the way, one exited their car into a segregated part of the platform. Then you went through customs again at your destination. Those that presented no problem to the officials flew right through.

    I’m not sure how feasible that might be in the US due to the added expense, but one idea that might work would be to do something like segregate passengers going to canada into their own cars. For example, for passengers headed to Toronto, have all Canadain-bound passengers return to their cars and have Canadian customs process them while the train is moving. You could do the same with US Customs between Toronto and Niagra falls.

    And, BTW, one small quibble: the line between Buffalo and Toronto is not actually straight. It curves around the western shore of Lake Ontario. I know because I took the CN Budd cars along that route back in the early 80s.

  19. Hieronymous Braintree says:

    Oops. Aside from my lousy grammer, part of my suggestion was to have Canadian customs get on board around Rochester to process passengers.

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November 2009


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