The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) held its 2016 "Day on the Hill" congressional meetings last week, sending members to lobby Congress for the federal funds needed to fuel the nation's many passenger rail projects.

One of those projects is Boston's North-South Rail Link. In exclusive interview with MultiBriefs, Richard Arena, president of the Association for Public Transportation, explained what the rail link would mean — not just for the Boston metropolitan area, but also for the entire Northeast Corridor.

Rail disconnect

The North-South Rail Link is a proposed rail project that would connect downtown Boston's North and South Stations, two stations on opposites sides of the city that have never been connected. Currently, both Amtrak lines — the line heading south from Maine and lines heading north from New York — terminate at North and South Stations. This disconnection separates Maine's rail line from the Northeast Corridor.

To alleviate this problem, the project would build two 1.5-mile tunnels, connecting both stations and providing better access for Amtrak's lines that go in and out of the city. This also includes the northern and southern MBTA Commuter Rail lines.

The North-South Rail Link's most notable proponents— former Massachusetts governors Michael S. Dukakis and William F. Weld — call it one of Boston's "most important and cost-effective investments." They say connecting the two halves of the city could prove to be a huge economic boon for the region.

"Our purpose is to connect North Station and South Station in Boston, uniting the entire New England corridors for high-speed rail," Arena said.

Arena, who is part of the working group with Dukakis and Weld, explained that as confounding as it sounds, there's never been a connection between the two parts of the city.

Apparently, in the early 1900s, the two major companies in Boston agreed to never allow a connection between North Station and South Station. This was done so the two companies would never be forced to compete.

Surface trains once joined the two sides and currently there's a track that goes around the city. But the route is slow, and both alternatives have proven to be inefficient.

Congressional lobbying

Arena came to Washington last week to lobby for funding for the North-South Rail Link.

"We want the North-South Rail Link to be the solution in Boston, just as the Gateway Project is in New York and as the new Union Station is in D.C.," he said.

In an all-out blitz on Capitol Hill, Arena visited 16 representatives for New England in addition to key committees — the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) committee and the House T&I committee — to talk about the steps needed to be taken on the federal level to get the North-South Rail Link project moving forward.

"We had some very successful meetings," Arena said. "We talked to senators and congressman; they understand it, they get it, and we're just going to keep pushing forward."

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker recently released $2 million to restart the study on the North-South Rail Link. The next step is to draft the environmental impact statement and report, and lastly to preserve the right of way.

"This is very important," Arena explained. "During the current housing boom, there are four major skyscrapers going up in Boston, any one of which could jeopardize the railway. So what we're trying to do is get this impact statement in place so that we can protect this right of way [as soon as possible]."

The buildings can still be built, but preserving and protecting the right of way will allow for the tunneling procedures to make space for the rail lines underground.

Massive benefits

One major benefit that would accompany the North-South Rail Link would be the ability to develop true high-speed rail for the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington, D.C.

"This means 220 mph top speed, 160 average," Arena said. "Boston to New York in 86 minutes, Washington to New York in 86 minutes. That's time and cost competitive with air travel."

And perhaps that is the ultimate beauty of the North-South Rail Link: It solves a host of problems for both Boston transportation as well as other NEC projects.

"Right now, both Amtrak and the MBTA in Boston have operations in both stations, which is very inefficient," he said. "You basically take the trains into the stations and bring them out empty, or vice versa, during rush hour."

How inefficient is this process? Amtrak's analysis of passenger rail movement in New York City, for example, found that "when you have to back a train out of station after bringing it in full, you lose essentially 75 percent of your capacity," Arena noted.

Passenger rail riders traveling from Boston and down the East Coast could find things more convenient as well.

Currently, "if you work south of [Boston], you can't take mass transit to get north of the city, you'd have to drive," Arena explained. "Or if you want to catch the Acela Express for instance to go to New York City, you can't get that train when you're north of [Boston]. You have to either beat your way into South Station Boston, or go south of the city to get one of the trains there.

"And if you're going to do that, most people just drive to Logan airport instead and fly," he lamented.

Arena estimates that if the Rail Link is completed, it will more than double the throughput on the Acela travelling to Washington, D.C. Plus, it will take anywhere between 50,000 to 75,000 cars off the road.

"So it would be a very positive thing," he said, "for everybody."