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TALKING TRANSPORTATION: On the fast track? Amtrak’s future in Connecticut

Amtrak, what passes for America’s national railroad, has some big plans for the future. The problem is finding any consensus, let alone the money, on what those plans should be.

Before we detail their vision for the year 2030, here’s a snapshot of how Amtrak operates today. Amtrak runs 46 trains a day through Connecticut serving 1.7 million passengers annually. New Haven, the busiest station in the state, is also the 11th busiest in the nation.

Amtrak’s flagship, Acela, running from Boston to Washington, also stops in Stamford (and once-a-day in New London), while the slower Northeast Corridor trains serve Bridgeport, Old Saybrook and Mystic with branch-line trains running from New Haven to Hartford and Springfield.

Amtrak is also hired by the Connecticut Department of Transportation to run Shore Line East commuter trains between New London and New Haven.

Unlike the rest of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak does not own or control the tracks from the New York state line to New Haven. Those tracks are owned by the state DOT, which pays Metro-North to maintain them and the overhead power (catenary) lines. Amtrak pays a flat fee (far too low, says the transportation department) to run its trains on “our” tracks, plus a little bonus money to the state for prioritizing its schedule over that of the commuter lines.

Connecticut’s section of the Northeast Corridor contains more miles and serves more stations than any other state from Washington, D.C., to Massachusetts.  And it includes several 100-plus year-old bridges crossing the Thames, Niantic and Connecticut rivers, crucial to inter-city service. It’s old and expensive to maintain.

It’s hard to run a true high speed railroad on a century-old right-of-way. In fact, Acela goes no faster than Metro-North (90 mph) between New York and New Haven and cannot engage its tilting mechanism on the many curves.

So, as Amtrak looks to the future, it’s thinking of building an entirely new line through Connecticut to connect New York City and Boston. Rather than following the coastline (parallel to Intersate 95) it envisions an inland route (parallel to Interstate 84).

As the last phase of its 2030-40 “Next Gen” high speed rail, 220 mph Amtrak bullet-trains (faster than the current French TGV) would bypass Stamford, New Haven and New London and instead zip through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford.  “Super-Express” service would be non-stop through Connecticut while “express” trains would make brief stops in those inland Connecticut cities. Northeast Corridor service would continue along the coast as either “shoreline express” or “regional” trains.

Needless to say, Gov. Malloy and the DOT are not happy with Amtrak’s plan, especially given Connecticut (and the federal government’s) investment in the NewHaventoHartfordhigh(er) speedcorridor. They want the existing coastal corridor to New Haven to be served by the super-Acela service, which could then continue north through Hartford to Springfield, before heading east to Boston. Put the trains where the people are, is their argument.

Amtrak thinks the coastal corridor is too old, has too many curves and would be too expensive to operate. They think it would be cheaper to build a new line from scratch, and they’re probably right.

We are so lucky that, a century ago, a four-track rail line was built along Connecticut’s coast. It was state-of-the-art for its time and could never be built today. But for the 21st Century, this line is obsolete. Every serious high-speed railroad in the world operates on a new, dedicated right-of-way, not some hand-me-down from the past.

So, good for Amtrak for bold planning for our future. It’s time for our governor and DOT to get on board. A new, inland high-speed route is the best way to go.

JIM CAMERON is chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA.  He may be reached at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

 

 

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