» New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor would get significantly improved service, opening up possibility of Inland Route New York-Boston trains.
As the competition for the rapidly diminishing federal funds for intercity rail heats up, states are apparently taking seriously Washington’s call for increasing local spending on such projects. The $10.5 billion thus far allocated by the Congress for this transportation mode may encourage state and municipal governments to devote much more of their own funds to the program. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation — at least behind the scenes — seems to be informing states that the only way they’ll receive future grants is by committing some of their own budgets to new tracks and rolling stock.
This is the case in Connecticut, which received only $40 million in the first distribution of funds this past January. Governor Jodi Rell (R), who is in her last year in office, wants more, so she has asked the State Bond Commission to release $260 million for the reconstruction of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield (MA) corridor, which runs roughly north-south through the center of the state. Connecticut hopes to bring in an additional $220 million from Washington later this year, enough to fund the first phase of the project.
The announcement ups the ante for other states that want the federal government to chip in for their own rail programs.
Connecticut’s project, which has been discussed for more than a decade, would double-track the entire corridor between New Haven and Springfield, a 62-mile Amtrak-owned line that is currently used by half a dozen Amtrak intercity trains a day. Much of the second track was torn out in the mid-1990s.
Stations would be upgraded to high-level platforms at each of the nine existing and three new stations. Once the improvements are completed in 2015, commuter trains would run every thirty minutes during peak periods and every hour at other times. Operations would be substantially bettered: Average train speeds are expected to rise from 40 mph to around 60 mph; daily round-trip trains to Hartford and Springfield would increase from six to 25 or more; travel times from Hartford to New York would decrease from 2h46 to 2h09, and travelers will be able to get to Worcester, Massachusetts from Penn Station in 3h49, a considerable improvement.
The funding that the state received in January already ensures the double tracking of ten miles of the corridor. Electric operations, necessary for direct Metro-North or Amtrak Northeast Regional service into Manhattan, would cost another $100 million and will not be included in the current project.
A 2005 report on the project suggested that the program would only attract about 3,000 daily riders, but that estimate may be low; the study claimed that only eight people would ride out of New Haven Union Station during the morning peak hour — this is a definite underestimate.
Even so, Governor Rell’s claim that “this is the most exciting mass transit project ever in the state of Connecticut” is too exuberant: The New Haven Line Metro-North trains from New Haven, Bridgeport, and Stamford to New York’s Grand Central will remain far bigger ridership generators and fulfill a more important function in the state’s commuting patterns. And it could be argued that support for streetcar lines in the state could play a bigger role in determining the future of the state’s cities.
But in terms of improving the national rail network, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield project is a fantastic investment. If the entire Inland Route is electrified (the route runs from New Haven north to Springfield, and then east to Boston), it could provide direct and vital access from Central Connecticut and Massachusetts to the large Boston and New York metropolitan areas. Intercity trains running along the line from New Haven to Boston will increase in number to six daily. Connecticut’s project will leave room for the future installation of overhead catenary.
In addition, the improvements along the New Haven-Springfield route, in conjunction with the realignment of service to Burlington, Vermont partly funded by the federal government in January, will radically alter the ability of northern New Englanders to get into New York City. Future funding will go towards connecting the line to Montréal, allowing trains from Boston to the Canadian city. Amtrak service to White River Junction from Penn Station will run in 5h32, compared to 7h36 today. In addition, the opening of full double-tracked corridor will ensure more reliable commutes. The Vermonter, which runs on the line now, has an on-time performance of only 84%.
Though the upgraded line does not fit anyone’s definition of high-speed rail, it is exactly the type of improved, fast-enough service that will allow more Americans to take the train without sacrificing their time compared to driving in a car. Connecticut’s decision to implement both commuter rail and improved intercity rail (the latter mandated by the fact that the U.S. grant program is explicitly not for commuter rail) will mean that new operations will be used by a whole variety of users, not be confined to a single purpose.
Image above: Hartford rail station, from Flickr user Mamorital (cc)