East Coast Train Travel Will Soon Be Much Smoother Thanks to These Major Upgrades

The Biden Administration has signed off on $16 billion in improvements along the Northeast Corridor. Here’s what that means for rail routes in the region.

Interior of railcar, with no passengers

Will U.S. rail ever be on par with major train networks in Europe and Asia?

Courtesy of Hansel Wong/Unsplash

“Americans need and deserve world-class rail, but for decades now we have under-invested in passenger rail,” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said during a recent press call announcing a major influx in spending on the busiest passenger rail corridor in America.

That under-investment is about to be remedied by a $16.4 billion infusion announced by the Biden Administration this week, which will go toward 25 passenger rail projects along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., the Northeast Corridor sees 800,000 train trips each day and more than five times the number of passengers than all flight traffic between Washington, D.C. and New York.

“Today’s Northeast Corridor is the product of investments that date back to the 1830s, and many of its existing bridges and tunnels were built at the turn of the 20th century, and many are more than 100 years old,” Mitch Landrieu, senior advisor to the President and White House infrastructure coordinator, said on a call with reporters last week. But now, he added, “we’re rebuilding it.”

These are some of the major rail projects planned for the Northeast Corridor.

New York Penn Station

The massive transit hub on the west side of Manhattan is receiving $1.6 billion to, among other things, create an extension of Metro-North Railroad‘s New Haven Line that would reach Penn Station. Under the new plan, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will develop four new stations along the extended line and create a public transit connection that will cut travel times between the Bronx and Manhattan by almost an hour in some instances. The Metro-North connection comes as the Penn Station passenger experience is being enhanced by other recent investments as well, including the opening of the beautiful Moynihan Train Hall in January 2021.

Hudson River Tunnel between New York and New Jersey

The more than 100-year-old Hudson River Tunnel is one of the busiest sections of the Northeast Corridor, serving 200,000 passengers daily on New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains—and it’s in critical need of repairs after suffering serious damages during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In combination with other investments, $11 billion is going toward the tunnel’s complete overhaul in order to ensure the long-term viability of this essential passageway.

A new Frederick Douglass Tunnel in Maryland

A total of $4.7 billion is being invested to replace the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel (which dates back to the Civil War era) with the new Frederick Douglass Tunnel. The project will allow train speeds to increase from 30 miles per hour to 110 miles per hour and will reduce delays along the entire Northeast Corridor; due to the current tunnel’s tight turns and steep inclines, trains have to considerably reduce their speeds. “The tunnel is the largest Northeast Corridor bottleneck between Washington and New Jersey and a single point of failure for the roughly 24,000 Amtrak and Maryland Area Commuter (MARC) passengers who rely on it daily,” stated a White House fact sheet on the new Northeast Corridor investments. Currently, more than 10 percent of weekday trains along the Northeast Corridor are delayed.

Connecticut River Bridge

Another aging section of rail infrastructure is the 116-year-old Connecticut River Bridge, located between the Connecticut towns of Old Saybrook and Old Lyme and used by Amtrak and CTRail’s Shore Line East trains. With $827 million, the old bridge will be replaced by a two-track, movable bridge with all the modern rail bells and whistles (including proper signals, controls, and security features). The new bridge is expected to enhance reliability and safety, and it will allow train speeds to increase from 45 to 70 miles per hour. Construction is set to begin next year, and once completed, the new structure is expected to last another 150 years.

Benefits to the economy and the environment

In addition to the benefits to commuters and the local economies they support, more immediately the planned rail projects are expected to create tens of thousands of jobs—the Hudson River Tunnel project alone will result in 72,000 direct and indirect jobs during construction, according to the White House.

The investments in passenger rail also stand to benefit the environment. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the country’s trains emit 83 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to cars, and up to 72 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than flying. With all the planned updates to its network and the promise of even faster travel times, Amtrak expects to add more than 1.5 million riders annually—which could have a significant effect on reducing travelers’ carbon footprint.

A new fleet of Amtrak trains

The Northeast Corridor enhancements announced this week are just the latest in a string of investments being made in the country’s rail network. In November 2021, President Biden signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law that set aside $22 billion for the country’s main passenger rail operator, Amtrak.

Amtrak is using the money to update its intercity rail networks, make more than 280 Amtrak stations throughout the country more accessible, and replace its existing fleet with a more modern fleet of trains.

Image of blue Amtrak Airo train on tracks

The next generation of Amtrak trains will start arriving in 2026.

Courtesy of Amtrak

The new Amtrak Airo trains will begin rolling out in 2026 and will feature numerous upgrades over their predecessors, including more spacious seating, adjustable headrests, seatback tablet-holders, and panoramic windows offering better views of the passing scenery. Other enhancements will include a redesigned café car with self-service options, touchless restroom controls, and dedicated outlets and USB ports for passengers (as well as Wi-Fi, which is currently available on many Amtrak trains).

They will also be more accessible, with lifts for customers with reduced mobility, accessible restrooms and food service cars, and a special type of sound system for people with hearing aids. Not only will the new trains be more comfortable, but they also will produce 90 percent fewer emissions.

The Airo trains will operate mostly along the Northeast Corridor and the Palmetto line from New York to Miami. Other routes the trains will ultimately serve include Empire, Virginia, Keystone, Downeaster, Cascades, Maple Leaf, New Haven/Springfield, Carolinian, Pennsylvanian, Vermonter, Ethan Allen Express, and Adirondack.

Additionally, several new high-speed train routes are planned for the United States, many through private investments and companies, such as Brightline in Florida. All of which is adding up to more and improved options for train travel throughout the country. Perhaps the dream of a “world-class rail” service for Americans is actually somewhat within reach.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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