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Volpe's Amtrak tunnel vision.

Better times are coming for Amtrak, according to news reports from Washington. The feds are ready to pony up $7.2 billion for track and infrastructure improvements, and the profitable eastern corridor's budget will be uncoupled from the money-losing long lines to the west, which will enable the Boston-New York line to use its revenues to improve service.

All good stuff, most will agree.

But as I pondered the idea, I began to wonder if the planners are thinking too small. My mind went back 50 years or so when John Volpe came up to our editorial board conference to expound his plan for better train service between Boston and New York.

It was breathtaking then and still is now: A tunnel.

John Volpe was not some dreamy-eyed fantasist. He was a hardheaded realist, a skilled politician, and an expert in construction. He had been twice elected governor of Massachusetts, and had been considered by Richard Nixon for his vice presidential running mate (Nixon chose Spiro Agnew, one of his many poor decisions).

When Volpe came up to our editorial conference he was Secretary of Transportation in the Eisenhower administration. Those were the heady days when the new Interstate Highway System was under way, and massive construction projects were lacing the nation with modern superhighways.

As ever, the northeast coastal region was poorly served from a transportation viewpoint. The roads were crowded, air service was limited, and travel between Boston and New York often took three hours or more.

It was a problem that challenged the imagination. John Volpe was up to it. As he unfolded his plan, we stared in disbelief. A railroad tunnel from South Station to New York's Pennsylvania Station. Could it be done? We wondered.

Volpe, who had run his own construction company back in the day, was coolly reassuring. It was mostly solid rock he said, which made things easier, in that there would be no need for timber supports. Anyway, Massachusetts engineers in the 1930s had constructed a subway-sized tunnel through solid rock from the new Quabbin Reservoir to the Wachusett Reservoir in West Boylston.

Tunneling equipment was much improved since then, he said.

Even more imaginative was Volpe's concept of how the tunnel would operate -- by compressed air. The tunnel would not be level but would be built to slant downward to a low point perhaps 200 feet deep halfway between Boston and New York.

From there it would slant back upward until it reached surface level in New York. Trains would not be powered by locomotives, but by enormous air pressure against their tightly sealed rear compartments. The train would start off with a jolt, course rapidly down the slanted tunnel until it reached maximum speed -- perhaps 250 miles an hour.

At the midpoint it would begin to slow down as it began to climb the inclined tunnel to the surface. Volpe estimated that it would take an hour or less to travel between the two cities.

A pipe dream? I don't think so. John Volpe was not one to indulge in airheaded theories. And we can easily imagine what it would mean to the eastern seaboard if travelers could board at South Station in the morning and arrive at New York in an hour or less. No weather problems. No train-truck collisions. No intersections.

Air flights between Boston and New York would no longer be necessary. Logan Airport's problems would be eased considerably.

I have no idea what it would cost. But it would pretty much solve a problem that will not be solved by the proposed $7.2 billion upgrade to Amtrak that is being proposed. Yes, some marginal improvements will be made. New cars and locomotives will be added to the rolling stock. But at the end we will still have essentially the same system in place that we have now. Trains on the surface will not be traveling at bullet speeds, planes will still be crowded and highways will still be jammed.

Sometimes it pays to think large -- out of the box, as they say. Consider the Big Dig with all its problems and cost overruns. It was a brilliant achievement with benefits lasting for years and decades. One estimate says that it is saving commuters $166 million a year already -- something that is not much discussed in all the horror stories.

Similarly, tunnel train service between Boston and New York would be transformative. I don't know whether John Volpe's idea of compressed air in a sealed tube would work. Maybe not. But I am willing to predict that some day a tunnel will be built.

It will make all the difference.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 19, 2015
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