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Students in the Master of City Planning Program at Penn’s School of Design are helping to transform the face of rail transportation in the entire Northeast Corridor.

One of the proposals currently being considered by the NEC FUTURE project — a three-year Federal Railroad Association initiative that aims to develop an investment strategy to bring long-term improvements to the outdated rail transportation systems in the NEC — was created by PennDesign students in the school’s “High-Speed Rail Studios.”

Led by PennDesign professor Bob Yaro and Dean Marilyn Jordan Taylor, the HSR Studios have taken place each spring semester since 2010.

The work in these studios has proven that it hasn’t just been the tracks that are run-down — it’s also been the ideas.

For instance, Amtrak believed there was no feasible way to build a true high-speed track along the existing corridor. Challenging this idea, the 2010 HSR Studio designed a new rail alignment that would allow for two tracks dedicated solely to high-speed trains.

“It sounds crazy, but it’s actually cost-effective,” Yaro said.
Working in close collaboration with stakeholders and major engineering and consulting firms, the studio’s proposal also detailed a service plan and came up with some “cold hard numbers” for this estimated $98 billion undertaking, according to 2010 studio member and PennDesign graduate Jeff Barg.

The plan caught Amtrak’s attention and led the company to release its own plan later that year, presenting a vision for implementing a high-speed rail in the NEC. Amtrak’s proposal was largely inspired by PennDesign’s plans.

“People within Amtrak actually credited our students for lifting their thinking and causing them to consider a more aspirational future,” Taylor said.

In 2011, the HSR Studio defined what kind of service the two high-speed tracks could provide, as well as what service could open up on existing tracks due to the innovations.

Based on models from countries where high-speed rails are already a reality, the studio suggested that Amtrak should provide either the infrastructure or should operate the system — but not necessarily both.

“We put a little thorn on Amtrak’s side,” Taylor said.

This year’s iteration of the studio evaluated possible financing mechanisms for developing an “early action” project — a $35-40 billion investment that would incorporate high-speed tracks into the New York-Philadelphia portion of the NEC and demonstrate the value of high-speed rails, according to 2012 studio member and PennDesign graduate Christopher DiPrima.

While high-speed rail networks would reduce trip times and alleviate congestion, studio members believe these are not the only reasons to advocate for them.

“More rail service means better opportunities for cities and most importantly, more job opportunities for individuals,” Taylor said.

The benefits reach even beyond increased economic opportunities. “It’s really about expanding our capacity to move between cities for the first time in a century,” DiPrima said.

Another studio is expected to take place in 2013, although its focus remains to be determined.

“We will always keep trying to advance the research each year,” Yaro said. “That’s what universities are here for — to pioneer these ideas and make them available to whomever can make use of them.”

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