The Northeast Corridor (NEC) is the 457-mile rail transportation spine that runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston, carrying more than 2,200 intercity, commuter, and freight trains per day. Most of the rail line is owned by Amtrak, with New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts also owning portions of the line. The NEC carries over 750,000 riders per day on trains operated by Amtrak and eight commuter rail authorities.
NEC FUTURE is a comprehensive planning initiative launched in February 2012 by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Its goal is to prepare a Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan (PRCIP) for the NEC that will set a framework for future investment in the corridor through 2040. The PRCIP consists of two key activities: preparation of a Service Development Plan, which is focused on passenger rail service planning and alternatives analysis; and preparation of a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement, an environmental analysis of the alternatives conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and related laws and regulations. Both activities require significant public outreach and engagement to ensure that key public and stakeholders’ concerns, issues, needs, and ideas are fully considered in the development and analysis of service alternatives. The outcome of the PRCIP is a preferred alternative or a set of alternatives that best and most reasonably addresses the underlying transportation challenge.
Under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), there are various levels of environmental review that can be undertaken by an agency. NEPA provides the flexibility to assess projects in a staged approach known as “tiering,” where broad programs and issues are addresses in an initial Tier 1 or programmatic level analysis, followed by site-specific, project-level (Tier 2) studies. The FRA determined that a Tier 1 EIS was the appropriate level of NEPA documentation for NEC FUTURE due to the complexity of the NEC and the multi-jurisdictional nature of the passenger rail operations.
The FRA initiated the NEC FUTURE planning process to define a collective vision for the NEC and an investment program to guide future decisions by the NEC states and railroad operators in a coordinated manner, for the greater good of the Northeast region and the traveling public. The purpose of the NEC FUTURE rail investment program is to upgrade aging infrastructure and to improve the reliability, capacity, connectivity, performance, and resiliency of passenger rail service on the NEC for both intercity and regional trips, while promoting environmental sustainability and economic growth.
The NEC FUTURE alternatives include a full array of passenger rail services, including commuter and intercity service and high-speed service. Each alternative includes a form of high speed service on the NEC. Alternatives 1 and 2 assume operation of high-speed trainsets at speeds up to 160 mph along portions of the existing NEC. Alternative 2 adds a new route segment between New Haven, Hartford, and Providence to supplement the existing New Haven-Providence route along the shoreline. The new route segment will support 160 mph service, significantly reducing travel time between New York and Boston. Alternative 3 includes construction of an additional two-track segment between Washington, D.C., and Boston to support high speed service at speeds up to 220 mph. Travel time between Washington, D.C., and Boston on a limited-stop express train will be reduced by approximately 30-40 minutes under Alternative 1, 60-70 minutes for Alternative 2, and as much as three hours for Alternative 3.
NEC FUTURE is not only a technical study process. Equally important is the opportunity for public dialogue to establish a future vision for the corridor. By bringing together numerous stakeholders from the corridor's eight states and the District of Columbia, the FRA’s planning process is structured to help foster a broad agreement on future directions for corridor investment.
NEC FUTURE is being developed in close coordination with the NEC Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission (NEC Commission), an organization established through federal legislation to promote mutual cooperation and planning for the NEC. The NEC Commission members include representatives from Amtrak, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the corridor states and District of Columbia, and non-voting representatives of the freight railroads who operate over the NEC. Connecting states and commuter operators on the NEC have also been invited as non-voting representatives. The FRA also regularly coordinates with federal, state, and regional agencies.
The FRA is committed to an open and transparent involvement process with the public. A scoping process was held from June 22-October 19, 2012 to solicit public input on the issues and concerns that the study should address. Public meetings have been held throughout the alternatives development process, and public hearings and a public comment period are provided for the Tier 1 Draft EIS. Beyond these required activities, FRA is engaging in a proactive public involvement process that includes a comprehensive project website, informal public meetings and workshops, presentations to interested organizations, and outreach to rail passengers. For more information, see the Get Involved/Stay Informed area of this website.
The Tier 1 Draft EIS presents three Action Alternatives, along with a No Action Alternative that provides a baseline for comparison. Each of the Action Alternatives includes improvements to achieve a state of good repair on the existing NEC and add capacity for growth.
The FRA has considered a broad range of alternatives for the NEC, beginning in 2012 with a public scoping process and analysis of travel markets. In 2013, the FRA consolidated nearly 100 initial concepts into 15 Preliminary Alternatives that varied by level of investment, service, and route. In 2014, the FRA evaluated the Preliminary Alternatives and identified three distinct Action Alternatives; these have been refined and analyzed in the Tier 1 Draft EIS. Each Action Alternative represents a different long-term vision for improving passenger rail service that will enhance mobility options, improve performance, and better serve existing and future passengers in the Study Area. More information is available in the Preliminary Alternatives Evaluation Report and in Chapter 4 of the Tier 1 Draft EIS.
Not yet. A Preferred Alternative will be identified in the Tier 1 Final EIS. The Tier 1 Draft EIS provides the framework for the selection of the Preferred Alternative by defining goals and objectives, providing an analysis of the alternatives, comparing the results of the analyses of each Action Alternative to the No Action Alternative, and collecting comments from the public and stakeholders during the comment period and the public hearings following the publication of the Tier 1 Draft EIS. The FRA will consider all of this information in identifying a Preferred Alternative in the Tier I Final EIS.
Amtrak, the intercity rail operator on the NEC, has proposed the Gateway Program, which includes a number of improvements between Secaucus, NJ and Penn Station New York. These improvements will preserve the existing system and add capacity. While NEC FUTURE does not include or assess Gateway as a specific program, each of the Action Alternatives adds new tunnel capacity between New Jersey and New York and new platform capacity at Penn Station New York. Thus, the Gateway Program elements are represented in the NEC FUTURE Action Alternatives, and will be evaluated in the Tier 1 Draft EIS. While NEC FUTURE is underway, the FRA continues to closely coordinate with Amtrak and other stakeholders on critical preservation projects that can advance in parallel, e.g., Hudson Tunnel Project and Portal Bridge North.
There are a number of critical projects along the NEC that are advancing before NEC FUTURE is complete. The Hudson Tunnel Project is an example of a critical project that will soon undergo the necessary environmental and engineering work. The Hudson Tunnel Project includes the construction of a new Hudson River Tunnel and rehabilitation of the existing Hudson River Tunnel, which is more than a century old. Advancing concurrently with NEC FUTURE is a priority. Ongoing coordination will ensure consistency as both efforts proceed. All Action Alternatives include additional capacity under the Hudson River.
Freight railroads are major users of the corridor, and the FRA has had extensive discussions with the freight railroads to identify their future growth projections. While NEC FUTURE does not provide a freight plan, the importance of not precluding freight growth has been understood as an objective of each alternative. The alternatives have been developed to ensure that additional passenger rail service can coexist with the expansion of freight rail service on the NEC, and, where possible, provide increased access to the NEC for freight operations.
In the stakeholder and public outreach process for NEC FUTURE, FRA received the overwhelming message that the users of the NEC are seeking reliable, integrated, and expanded train service to meet both Intercity and Regional rail travel needs. As such, the FRA focused on Action Alternatives that meet the Purpose and Need by improving steel-wheel passenger train technology that is used today by all the railroads sharing the NEC. Given the accelerating pace of technological change, application of future emerging and new technologies may help to support rail service on the NEC, and may include new train propulsion and guideway systems, fare collection innovations, information systems, and safety enhancements. An advanced guideway system, such as magnetic levitation technology, could possibly be used to develop a second spine or portions thereof as envisioned in Alternative 3. Such technologies could be studied separately, and are not precluded as future investments.
The Tier 1 EIS is a high level, programmatic study. As such, the cost estimates prepared in the Tier 1 Draft EIS represent relative levels of investment that could be required to fully build out each vision. These estimates are for comparative purposes. The estimated level of investment for the No Action Alternative is approximately $20 billion. Investment in improving the existing NEC would range from approximately $65 billion (Alternative 1) to $135 billion (Alternative 2). To improve the existing NEC and construct a second spine the length of the corridor would require an investment of approximately $290 billion. These costs would be spread over many years. Not all projects will necessarily be implemented, and some may be built differently as further studies are done.
For all of the Action Alternatives, projects would be implemented incrementally as needed to meet operational requirements. The FRA has developed a Universal First Phase, described in Chapter 10 of the Tier 1 Draft EIS, consisting of projects required to implement any of the three Action Alternatives. These fundamental building blocks are included in all of the Action Alternatives. They collectively address the Study Area’s most pressing capacity and state-of-good-repair challenges. The cost for this Universal First Phase would be approximately $34 billion and could be implemented over a 10-15 year time frame.
Funding has not been identified to implement any of the Action Alternatives. Even the No Action Alternative requires a level of investment higher than what has historically been available. The federal government, through FRA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), has been a funding partner of the NEC states, railroads, and Amtrak. Since 1978, the FRA has provided more than $10 billion in funding for NEC improvements. The FTA grant programs have also provided operating and capital assistance to all of the NEC commuter railroad authorities. By developing a long-term vision shared by the region’s railroads and states, a case can be made for substantial federal funding for incremental upgrades of the NEC consistent with NEC FUTURE. Potential future project sponsors are likely to include entities that plan, operate, and/or fund passenger rail service on the NEC, including Amtrak, the eight commuter railroads, and state departments of transportation.
The FRA expects to complete studies associated with NEC FUTURE by early 2017. This includes a Record of Decision for the Selected Alternative from the FRA in late 2016, and a Service Development Plan describing a phased implementation plan that details operational, network, and financial aspects of the Selected Alternative. For more information, see the schedule.
Completion of the NEC FUTURE investment program is the first major step towards advancing passenger rail corridor improvements. Once the process is completed, as funding becomes available, projects in the investment program can advance to preliminary engineering and more detailed environmental analysis and then to construction.
Individual project sponsors will be able to use the Record of Decision and Service Development Plan as a starting point to advance Tier 2 projects in coordination with other stakeholders. An example of a Tier 2 project would be adding a bridge at an existing river crossing. The NEC FUTURE Tier 1 EIS will identify the train service that a bridge could carry, but the specifics of the bridge design and localized impacts of that bridge will not be completed as part of the Tier 1 EIS. A subsequent Tier 2 project and NEPA document would focus on that specific project.
The NEC Commission Five-Year Capital Plan is a region-wide action and funding plan for infrastructure projects that are underway or planned on the Northeast Corridor and connecting corridors to Harrisburg, Albany, and Springfield. The NEC Commission Five-Year Capital Plan results from collaboration between NEC Commission members and identifies both funded projects and unfunded projects that could be advanced within the next five years if additional funding were made available. The Five-Year Capital Plan is updated and approved annually by the Commission in the spring and then transmitted to Congress as a unified capital request for the NEC.
While the Five-Year Capital Plan provides a comprehensive view of the NEC’s immediate infrastructure needs, it does not assess the long-term role of rail in the region, define and evaluate various service and routing alternatives, or perform environmental impact analyses. Instead, these tasks are objectives of NEC FUTURE.
The FRA has coordinated closely with the NEC Commission throughout the NEC FUTURE process. One part of this collaboration has been in developing the No Action Alternative for NEC FUTURE. The No Action Alternative provides a baseline for comparison with the Action Alternatives that are being evaluated in the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement. It includes funded projects, as well as mandated projects (funded or unfunded) and unfunded projects necessary to keep the railroad running. Many of the projects included in the NEC Commission’s Five-Year Capital Plan meet these criteria, and are therefore, included in the No Action Alternative.
The NEC FUTURE Service Development Plan, expected to be completed in 2017, will help guide the investment strategy and project prioritization of future investment throughout the NEC. Accordingly, subsequent annual updates to the Five-Year Capital Plan developed and adopted by the NEC Commission will reflect the investment strategy and framework provided by the NEC FUTURE planning process.
While NEC FUTURE is intended to define a future vision for the NEC and to identify the improvements required to implement that vision, it is not meant to slow down work on the many existing NEC projects currently being implemented or planned to address capacity, safety and reliability issues. Among these projects are the replacement of the Portal Bridge in Newark, NJ; replacement of the Niantic River Bridge in Connecticut; design of new tunnels in Baltimore and bridges in Maryland; upgrades to Boston South Station; and improvements in New Jersey intended to increase speeds to 160 mph. These and other important projects are progressing at various stages and will continue to advance during the NEC FUTURE planning process, with close coordination between the FRA and other project sponsors.