Riding on an old railroad line from Berlin to Waterbury, I saw the future.
We were "high-railing" — traveling in an SUV equipped with special wheels — as we rolled through Berlin and New Britain, and then on to Plainville and Bristol. We passed the empty factories, stopped in the old downtowns and chugged through the suburban countryside.
And that was before I even got as far as the Terryville Tunnel, an early 20th-century engineering marvel that bores 3,800 feet through a hillside before bursting into the leafy wilderness outside of Waterbury.
I could see a Connecticut future in which commuters abandon the gridlock of the interstate highways. I pictured ESPN personalities hopping a train to work in Bristol. I imagined a railroad from Hartford to Waterbury and all the stops in between, trains filled with insurance workers laughing it up in the bar car, or students headed home after a busy day.
Escorting me on this high-rail adventure was state Sen. Donald DeFronzo and representatives from Pan Am Railways, which owns the line. DeFronzo and I talked about how almost overnight everything has changed with railroads.
"Two years ago the New Haven-Springfield line was a pipe dream," DeFronzo, co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee, said, referring to the high-speed rail line up the Connecticut River Valley that everyone is talking about. "Now it's better than 50-50."
By the end or our journey, I had a fresh sense of how these little towns and cities, divided by highways and forests and sprawl, could be joined by a railroad. It's a feeling that's spreading.
This old 26-mile rail line from Waterbury to Berlin appeared to be a huge opportunity to get even more rail travel on track. It's a barely used line, it's available and everyone's talking rail.
Lay down some new rails, pick up a few old Metro-North cars, and presto, passenger railroad returns.
If only bringing back commuter rail to the Hartford area was this easy. The reality — despite my agreeable high-rail outing — is that this is going to take a lot of careful planning and persuading the federal government to pick up much of the tab.
"It is a very pleasant rail line," Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie responded when I called. "But it is not a commuter rail line."
Marie, who has built rail lines in Minnesota and Arizona, is in a position to know this sort of thing. He's also the guy now in charge of Connecticut's nascent railroad renaissance.
"You can't just say we've got a rail line between Waterbury and Hartford," Marie said. "It's in terrible shape. None of what is there is salvageable. Nothing is usable. You would have to rip up everything that is in place and build a new rail line."
Pan Am, which runs a few creaky trains every week along the tracks, says the old line could be brought up to speed for as little as $52 million. With Congress handing out billions of dollars this year, I asked Marie whether this would be a bargain.
He told me that railroad's future in Connecticut lies, for the moment, elsewhere — along the New Haven to Springfield line, the Shoreline East Line, which runs from New Haven to New London, and on Metro-North between Waterbury and Fairfield County. These lines have the essential population density and the demand necessary to make commuter rail work.
OK, maybe a cool old railroad line through the cities and green countryside might not be the answer.
But the Waterbury-to-Berlin line has created a buzz, attracting interest from legislators, business leaders and mass-transit supporters. It's part of what DeFronzo says is a "sea change" in attitudes toward transportation in a state in which cars and highways have long ruled.
The future is trains, even if one might not run from Waterbury to Berlin. That's not just progress, it's a transformation.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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