Why High-Speed Rail Could Spur a Golden Age in the Northeast

With a new plan for a high-speed system, Amtrak execs hope they can revive both American rail and American cities

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Penn Station in New York (Reuters)

From New York's Pennsylvania Station, you can catch a northbound subway train toward the Bronx. Thirty-nine minutes later, it will pull into Pelham Pkwy, a dozen miles away. But imagine, instead, that you could hop aboard a Next Generation High-Speed Rail train and in thirty-nine minutes pull up in Waterbury, Connecticut. The aging industrial town would be more swiftly accessible from midtown Manhattan than much of New York City.

That's the alluring vision Amtrak unveiled on Monday morning. The national railroad passenger company imagines a high-speed network that, by 2040, would whisk travelers from New York south to Washington or north to Boston in just 94 minutes. It's the highlight of an ambitious, $151 billion plan to rework its northeast corridor to meet burgeoning demand. The price-tag alone makes the plan implausible. But for the beleaguered rail corporation, which Mitt Romney and Congressional Republicans have suggested privatizing, the vision amounts to an argument for its future relevance and unmet potential.

The report touts many prospective benefits, including creating construction jobs, shortening travel times, boosting productivity, enhancing safety, and mitigating environmental impacts. These benefits are quite real, but urban economist Ed Glaeser has argued that they aren't remotely worth the price. He calculates relatively modest gains in productivity, safety, and the environment and points out that a construction project stretched over decades is an ineffective counter-cyclical stimulus.

Glaeser does, however, acknowledge one potential benefit large enough to tip the scales. Large economic impacts from high-speed rail, he writes, come "only if it significantly increases the speed at which an area with cheap real-estate gains access to a booming place that doesn't have any comparable, closer available land area." That describes, almost perfectly, the relationship of Connecticut's rusting industrial towns to the burgeoning prosperity of New York City.

Travel today to Waterbury on the MetroNorth commuter railroad, and after one transfer, two hours, and fifteen minutes, the train will pull in to a desultory concrete platform, not quite large enough to accommodate two rail cars. Overhead looms the 240-foot clock tower of the old Union Station, still the tallest structure in Waterbury a century after it was built. It stands as a monument to Waterbury's great age of prosperity, which came rolling into town on rails of steel.

The first railroad reached the small industrial town in 1849. "The importance of this event to the industries of Waterbury," one historian declared, "cannot be overstated." Within a few years, the borough had incorporated as a city. It grew explosively. By 1860, the city's half-dozen brass manufacturing firms were joined by fifty new joint-stock corporations. By 1900, fifty thousand people lived in Waterbury, and half its workers labored in its factories. It was the Brass City, and in the valley around it rose most of the nation's brass industry.

By shrinking the distance between vibrant urban cores and the smaller communities that lie between them, high-speed rail could spark an economic boom.

The Naugatuck Valley, though, contained neither significant deposits of ore nor substantial numbers of consumers. Its rivers were not navigable, and its roads were unequal to the traffic. It took railroads to haul raw materials up the valley, and to fill their cars with buttons, pins, daguerreotypes, ammunition cases, hooks, clocks, and more than two hundred other articles made of brass for the return trip.

The railroad turned the Naugatuck Valley into "one great factory city with a continuous freight-yard," stretching from Waterbury down to the Connecticut shore. The constant flow of raw materials in and finished products out soon made it the most profitable-per-mile in the nation.

By the century's end, the city's various railroads had consolidated into the New York & New Haven, which doubled the track to accommodate the traffic. At the peak, eighty-six passenger trains arrived each day. In 1909, the railroad erected a palatial station, emphatically announcing the city's new prominence. Architectural Review declared it "most delicate and refined," and American Architect a "dignified treatment of a difficult subject." The city cooperated enthusiastically, condemning private buildings to make way for approach roads and ancillary facilities. And above it all loomed the Italianate tower, bearing an enormous clock, in tribute to one of the city's leading industries.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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