New rail stations, tunnel to airport eyed for Philadelphia

Posted: August 16, 2012

If bullet trains someday race up and down the East Coast, they may not stop at 30th Street Station.

Amtrak and city officials envision a new high-speed rail station on Market Street east of City Hall, linked by a 10-mile tunnel to Philadelphia International Airport, where a second new station would be built.

The neoclassical 30th Street Station, opened in 1933 by the Pennsylvania Railroad and touted by Trains Magazine last year as "America's Finest Railroad Station," would become a hub for slower intercity trains and commuter service.

Amtrak, which owns the station, says a new high-speed rail alignment beneath Center City would allow bullet trains to avoid speed-killing curves and space limits near 30th Street Station, helping meet a goal of 37-minute train trips between Philadelphia and New York by 2040.

And a Market Street station beneath SEPTA's existing Market East Station, between 10th and 11th Streets, would mesh with the Nutter administration's efforts to boost redevelopment between City Hall and the Delaware River.

Federal planners have scheduled a public meeting in Philadelphia for Monday as they study ways to improve rail service along the Northeast Corridor, and the future of 30th Street Station will be part of that analysis.

"The current alignment is a problem, but there are a lot of places where a new station could go," said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak's vice president for Northeast Corridor infrastructure and investment development. "We need a dialogue with the city and the public and the business community."

That conversation may get heated, especially with boosters of 30th Street Station, who believe it can be adapted as a high-speed hub at a small fraction of the $3 billion or more that a new station and tunnels would cost to build.

"It's cheaper, more aesthetic, and it's the best station in America. It just needs respect," said Scott Maits, vice president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. Although he is a staunch advocate of 30th Street as a station for bullet trains, the rail passengers' organization has not taken a position.

"DVARP's position is that both the existing and new alignment options need to be analyzed . . . so we can get preliminary cost, running time, and ridership estimates on which to make an informed decision as to which alignment is preferable," said spokesman Matthew Mitchell.

The Federal Railroad Administration is in the early stages of a 38-month process to figure out how to improve rail travel on the Northeast Corridor for the next three decades.

By March 2015, the FRA is to come up with a comprehensive plan, including an environmental-impact statement, for remaking the 457-mile Washington-to-Boston corridor, with proposals for updated equipment, more trains, new stations and possible new routes, as well as estimates of costs and benefits.

On Monday, FRA officials will conduct the meeting at SEPTA headquarters, 1234 Market St., as part of a nine-city tour to gather public ideas about the rail corridor's future. The Philadelphia session will be from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., with a presentation at 5:30 p.m.

The cost of a new station in Center City, another new station at Philadelphia International Airport, and a 10- to 12-mile tunnel linking the two and continuing north of Center City would be at least $3 billion, planners estimate.

Costs presumably would be shared by federal, state, and city governments and private developers, and the price would be more than offset, proponents say, by the benefits of a high-speed rail corridor: more jobs; economic growth; increased development; reduced congestion; reduced pollution; greater productivity.

Critics argue that the costs are too high, especially in an era of growing deficits, for taxpayers to bear.

Amtrak proposes eventually to run 220-m.p.h. bullet trains on dedicated tracks, set apart from slower regional and commuter trains.

And that, Amtrak officials say, requires a new alignment through Philadelphia.

The current Northeast Corridor takes a serpentine path through the city, creating a slow ride in and out of 30th Street Station.

Trains traveling between Philadelphia and New York must slow to 50 m.p.h. at Frankford Junction near the Betsy Ross Bridge and to 30 m.p.h. at Zoo Interlocking, a curving junction near the Philadelphia Zoo.

Several other curves just south of 30th Street Station also reduce speeds for trains to or from Washington.

"We think we can upgrade Zoo to 60 [m.p.h.] and other stretches to 110, maybe 125, but that is not a high-speed plan," said Andrew Galloway, Amtrak's chief of Northeast Corridor planning and performance. "You can never take this stretch and make it a high-speed alignment."

Amtrak planners also say they're concerned about auto and pedestrian access at 30th Street and limited room for growth at the station, which is bordered by the Schuylkill River and the Schuylkill Expressway.

"Thirtieth Street was as close as the Pennsylvania Railroad could get to Center City . . . but now, automated tunnel-boring machines make it economical to think of going to Market East," said Robert Yaro, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has directed student studies of high-speed rail development on the Northeast Corridor.

Yaro, who also serves as president of the Regional Plan Association in New York City, said a Market East high-speed rail station would be a "transformational investment," attracting new development to the neighborhood.

"Market East could start to pull its weight in the Center City economy," Yaro said.

Marilyn Jordan Taylor, dean of the School of Design at Penn and a director of the student studies on high-speed rail, said 30th Street Station would remain a key factor in rail travel.

"This is not either-or, but a way to take full advantage of the possibilities of high-speed rail," Taylor said. Moving high-speed trains to Center City, while keeping slower trains at 30th Street, would allow a straighter shot from the airport for bullet trains.

"It's a bigger move that also affects the airport," she said. "This is the shot in the arm, the game changer, that really brings the train to an intense point of development."

Maits, though, argued that Amtrak could straighten out most of the kinks in the current alignment for much less than the cost of tunneling 10 miles and building a new Center City station.

"We need to knock as much off the cost as we can, to get it funded," he said.

A tunnel from the airport could run afoul of an oil plume beneath the Sunoco refinery in South Philadelphia, he said. With 30th Street Station, he argued, passengers would get a more scenic ride, along the river and past the boathouses, and a more attractive destination.

Amtrak's Gardner, who lives in Center City and works at 30th Street Station, said both locations have much to offer, and he called the new FRA study of the Northeast Corridor "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to create a better train system.

"We need to get this right," he said.

"We're not talking about ever leaving 30th Street Station . . . but Center City needs another train station," Gardner said. "There's no city on the corridor that stands to gain as much from high-speed rail as Philadelphia."

The FRA will take public comments on ways to improve Northeast rail service until Sept. 14.

Comments can be made on the project's website: http://www.necfuture.com/.

They can also be e-mailed to info@necfuture.com or mailed to Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, Federal Railroad Administration, Office of Railroad Policy and Development, 1200 New Jersey Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. 20590.


Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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