This is the first part of my two part series on examining five rail links between the North East Corridor and Pittsburgh, PA. I apparently went over the email length limit, so the two New York lines and my conclusions are going to follow this newsletter in a few days.
Two weeks back, in the bowels of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, someone spun the wheel of obscure policies for twitter to meltdown over and it landed on high speed rail (HSR). Okay, that might not be fully charitable. The conversation has been bubbling under the radar for months. Two maps, one by Alfred Twu (which dates to 2013) and the other by Alon Levy, have been going viral on a regular basis. This reached a breaking point when Pete Buttigieg tweeted out a Vox article about Twu’s map and Amtrak released their uninspiring map of their upgraded system if Biden’s infrastructure bill becomes law.
I like the idea of HSR, but I find both the Twu and Levy maps to have problems in the mountain crossing department.1 To be more specific, my objection is connecting Pittsburgh to the North East Corridor (NEC). Both are examples of placing lines without thinking about the topography of the area. Normally, this is neither here nor there; we are more likely to get the boring Amtrak map than either of these. Further, Levy was thinking from an economic point of view and Twu was thinking from a dreaming point of view. However, a cadre of militant HSR fans have taken one or both of the maps as the best possible version of reality. So, I decided to make some maps because I am too online and need to go outside and touch some grass.2
I decided to sketch out the possible alignments to route HSR between the NEC and Pittsburgh, PA.3 I worked off of the assumption that the NEC was already going to be HSR and the choice of where to start it is an open question. I also used the assumption that HSR would run along existing rail right of ways. Eminent domain is a time and money sink and, in many places, land owners are likely to gamble on the federal government changing in 4 years and drag out the proceedings. Using that assumption, I prioritized Class I railroads over Class II or Class III ones when creating routes.4 In the end, I continue to question if connecting Pittsburgh, to the North East makes sense.
I have identified five possible routes between New York City, Philadelphia, or Washington, DC. I named them using their historic name or the name that their current rightsholder uses when referring to the subdivision that the alignment runs over.
They are, from south to north:
Baltimore & Ohio Main Line
Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line
Southern Tier Line
New York Central Water Level Line
Baltimore & Ohio Main Line
1h 22m @ 220 mph
2h 4m @ 150 mph
The most southern of the potential alignments, the B&O Main Line, runs from Washington, DC to Pittsburgh. It follows the Potomac River until Harper’s Ferry and then cuts north until it reaches the Youghiogheny River watershed. From there, it follows a series of creeks and rivers until it reaches Pittsburgh. Today, the Capital Limited runs over these tracks to move passengers from DC to Chicago.
At 309 miles in length, it is short enough to be a viable route. The problem is that this alignment is that it crosses a steep section of track known as the Sand Patch Grade that contains a horseshoe curve to get the train across the Allegany Mountains. The horseshoe curve and narrow, winding river valleys that the route darts through would make this an expensive upgrade.
Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line
1h 36m @ 220 mph
2h 21m @ 150 mph
The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) Main Line runs from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Today, the Pennsylvanian uses this entire track during its run from New York City to Pittsburgh via Philadelphia. Like B&O Main Line above, this alignment is named after the owner of the tracks for most of its life, the Pennsylvania Railroad. This is the alignment that Levy was thinking of when they made their map and probably what Twu was thinking of as well. It is one of the most famous railroad routes in the Eastern US.
The PRR Main Line cuts overland until it reaches the Susquehanna River south of Harrisburg. After a short time on the Susquehanna River, it starts following the Juniata River and its various branches until Altoona. At that point, the makers of the grade needed to grapple with the fact that the Allegany Mountains exist. To cross them, the Pennsylvania Railroad built the Horseshoe Curve (the black arrow points to it below).
The problem with crossing the mountains like this is that it is slow. Freight trains move at 30 mph and passenger trains reach only 41 mph. With speeds this slow, high speed rail through this section is going to be difficult. Much like the B&O Main Line, the PRR main line spends quite a bit of time crossing elevations above 500 meters compared to other alignments.
Proponents of HRS that are faced with this have a solution: just bore through the mountains. After all, the Swiss and the French were able to put tunnels through the Alps. The areas’ industrial heritage throws a monkey wrench in this plan. This is a euphemistic way to talk about the fact that the Horseshoe Curve is the eastern edge of one of the most heavily coal mined areas on the planet. About 200 years of abandoned coal mines dot these hills and are filled with orange sludgy, oftentimes acidic, water.5 The streams that flow through the curve have active discharges of abandoned mine drainage. With a mostly sedimentary mountain, I would think that a pool water above your tunnel and potentially crossing it might not be the best of ideas. I will admit that it is possible to thread the needle, but it would be costly and difficult.
The section between Latrobe, PA and Pittsburgh as well as the section between Philadelphia and Harrisburg are great candidates for localized high speed rail.6 Pittsburgh needs a good public transportation link between the eastern suburbs and the center of the city to alleviate congestion near the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and to provide a viable way of getting into the city without driving. There is already a decent rail link between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, but speeding that up opens the door to a more diversified economy in Harrisburg as well as a replacement for the auto-focused collar suburbs.
1h 40m @ 220 mph
2h 53m @ 150 mph
The Buffalo Line, named for the Norfolk Southern Buffalo Line that it runs along for part of its route, starts very similar to the PRR Main line. However, at Harrisburg, it continues up the Susquehanna River until Keating, PA. At that point, it follows tributaries until DuBois, PA where it crosses over into the Ohio River watershed. At that point, the Buffalo Line follows a string of rivers and streams until it reaches Pittsburgh.
As you might guess, this way of crossing the Appalachian Mountains is much more gradual than the PRR Main Line and B&O Main Line. This alignment, if you could add an additional track to the whole thing, has the best chance so far to sustain speeds above 100 mph. The downside is that it misses all of the railroad towns between Altona and Greensburg. If I were going to place HSR crossing Pennsylvania, this is the route I would take. The, theoretical, extra 30 minutes is worth the reduction in cost and engineering challenge over the PRR Main line.
I have nothing against either of them personally. I met Twu at a YIMBY event a few months back and they were lovely; Twu is a great industrial artist and I enjoy their work. I’ve never interacted with Levy before, but I agree with their broader goals on the HSR front.
In my defense, I took my puppy for a long walk this weekend. That has to count for something, right?
One of the elephants in the room is just how little track there still is in the North Eastern United States. Besides the cuts that Conrail did in the 70s, many railroad grades have been turned into roads.
CSX and Norfolk Southern are going to need Federal approval when they decide to acquire additional railroads.
Switch to map 4 of this application and bask in the sheer amount of damage that industrialization did to Pennsylvania. I grew up around the wave of environmentalists and engineers trying to tackle this problem in the early 2000s and know far more than I would ever want to about it.
To put my cards on the table, I grew up and went to high school in Latrobe. The area is in need of both good public transportation and the kind of investment that would come from a fast rail link to Pittsburgh. Without it, the area is going to be a sea of dying strip malls as it depopulates.