DC to New York in under 2 hours.

That’s what the Acela Express could do, if the tracks it ran on were upgraded. The Acela express is a highish speed train line that runs from Washington DC to Boston with limited stops, covering the distance in about 7 hours. Its faster time schedule, onboard wifi and relatively new train carriages have allowed Amtrak and the Acela to capture more than 50% of the air/train commuting market between NYC and DC, and after the Northeast Regional, the slower but cheaper train that travels the same route, it carries the most passengers per year of any Amtrak route. The Acela line is even responsible for a whopping 25% of Amtrak’s revenue.

But the Acela, despite being the only U.S. certified high speed train (the U.S.D.O.T. define trains that travel above 125 mph as high speed) manages to achieve a paltry 81mph average speed between NYC and DC. There are several reasons for the trains average speed being that low, and only one of them, the fact that average speed calculations include stops, is even barely acceptable. The Acela is limited by old tunnels, old bridges (224 of the bridges maintaining the Acela track are beyond their design life) local rail restrictions (mostly regarding the maximum amount of tilting a train can do, which affects how fast a train can travel around a curve [more tilt=faster]) and the fact that the Acela runs through many commuter rail stations and slows down at all but two of them (there is one station in Connecticut that it passes through at 150mph. That would be scary).

Amtrak is trying to improve Acela speeds on its own, which is great. Amtrak has a plan to lower travel time to 3 hours between DC and Boston by 2040, which is impressive. But 2040 is a really long way away. Track improvements and bridge repairs could knock significant time off of the Acela timetable now, but it is expensive, and infrastructure repairs just aren’t political gold. But they need to happen, and the Acela is a perfect example of an infrastructure project with clear benefits.

Like getting my parents home faster!

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