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

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.

But that tower marked the peak of the city's prosperity. The 1910 census declared it the 76th largest city in the nation. From there, it began a relative decline, sliding steadily down the list. It continued to grow through the middle of the twentieth century before its factories began to shut down and its population stagnated.

Could rail lead to a revival in Waterbury? One promising model is Ciudad Real. The sleepy Spanish town, nestled midway between Madrid and Seville, boomed with the arrival of the high-speed AVE trains in 1992. Residents of the two larger cities, drawn by cheap housing, relocated to Ciudad Real, and the surging commuter traffic led to a tripling of rail service. Even better, businesses relocated to the city, lured by the combination of an attractive town, low rents, and easy access to big markets. Ciudad Real built a gleaming regional hospital, and its fledgling university developed a striking national reach.

Waterbury has much of the same raw potential. The Brass City sits tarnished by age and neglect, but the charming business district and attractive housing erected during its heyday could easily be restored, and its abandoned factories re-purposed. In 2010, the census reported a median home value in the city of $156,600. That's not far below the national average, but roughly a third of the figure for the New York Metro area, and a fifth of the median in Manhattan. Nor has that gap gone unnoticed. Even without convenient transportation, the city has recently attracted a sizable community of ultra-orthodox Jews, lured north from New York by Waterbury's urban density and cheap housing.

For Waterbury to thrive, though, it will need to be more than a commuter town. It needs an economy of its own. The tight connections to larger cities offered by high-speed rail would allow the city to attract and retain talented workers and students. Low costs and high quality of life may serve to foster start-ups, lure back-office operations, and pull in small businesses that cannot afford big-city rents. Waterbury already hosts a satellite campus for UConn, and its two hospitals, now merging, serve a regional population and are teaching affiliates of Yale's School of Medicine. The potential is there.

All of this remains, at best, decades in the future. An official near Danbury, one stop down the line, scoffed to a reporter that the Amtrak plan is "a pie-in-the-sky idea," pointing out that much of the rail corridor would have to be constructed from scratch. That's true. But if it were, a train could reach Danbury from New York in less than half an hour, cutting the present commute by 75%. To the east, Hartford sits midway along the proposed line, just 47 minutes from either Boston or New York.

The uncertain economic benefits of Amtrak's plan certainly need to be weighed against its inevitable costs. Critics like Ed Glaeser may be right that, even in aggregate, the gains Amtrak enumerates fail to justify the huge expense. But that is, at least in part, because it has left the biggest potential benefits entirely unmentioned. By shrinking the distance between vibrant urban cores and the smaller communities that lie between them, high-speed rail could spark an economic boom, transforming the cities it touches. In the nineteenth century, railroads conferred a key advantage on cities competing for economic growth. In the twenty-first century, they may play that role yet again.