Let's Put Springfield-New Haven Train On Fast Track Before We Start Dreaming About Boston
By Rick Green
July 16, 2012
If all goes well, one summer day far in the future I'll step aboard the bullet train in Hartford and be at Fenway Park in about an hour, ready to enjoy a Red Sox game without making that dreadful Mass Pike drive to and from Boston.
The downside is I'll be 80 — this will be the year 2040.
Every Sox fan has to dream.
I got to thinking about this after reading a tantalizing new master plan for train travel in the Northeast from the folks at Amtrak. Not surprisingly, they want trains to play a big role in the next century. They envision a bullet train system rocketing from New York to Boston at speeds of 220 mph.
At stake is nothing less than "America's economic powerhouse and political capital." Amtrak says our Northeast region needs faster, more frequent and more reliable trains to prosper in the 21st century. It's a world where Waterbury could be a morning commute from Manhattan, and Danbury becomes the next funky neighborhood for New Yorkers looking for cheaper housing.
As dreams go, this isn't pure fantasy. Amtrak loses a $1 billion a year, but the busy and congested Northeast Corridor is the place where the passenger train operator breaks even. And as blogger Matthew Yglesias points out in Slate, $150 billion is a lot cheaper than spending $1.4 trillion on a couple of wars that took us nowhere.
"We must be equal to the challenges before us, and be daring to think big," Amtrak CEO Joseph H. Boardman writes in the newly released "Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor."
In truth, this $150 billion plan — no, Sen. Markley, there's no money appropriated to pay for this yet — is a blueprint for Amtrak for the next 30 years. It would have a startling impact on Connecticut, a state already planning for a high-speed rail line between New Haven and Springfield and with a busway now under construction between New Britain and Hartford.
Amtrak would blaze an entirely new path through Connecticut, sending its proposed Northeast Corridor trains through Danbury and Waterbury before arriving in Hartford and on to Providence and Boston. The Boston-to-New York run for the Acela train in 2040 would be an estimated 94 minutes. Hartford to Washington would take less than three hours.
I love this sort of science fiction, because rail travel has got to become more of an option in the traffic-clogged Northeast, with 50 million residents and growing, in coming decades. It will take tens of billions of dollars annually to expand and fix up the highways, so it's not as if the money won't have to be spent.
My problem is that we're already planning an expensive, and more practical, high-speed rail solution in the proposed upgrade for the New Haven-to-Springfield line. I'm not sure when Danbury and Waterbury surpassed New Haven and Stamford as vital transportation hubs, but before we talk new train lines we ought to improve what already exists.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's vision for high-speed rail is more like a 70 mph commuter train that would resemble the existing MetroNorth line and be up and running by end of the decade, 20 years before Amtrak's bullet train. The governor's plan could cost as much as $700 million. Thus far the state has failed to win a significant commitment from Congress and the Obama administration, which makes me wonder about the prospects for the $150 billion Amtrak plan.
Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm told me the two different lines "serve different constituencies and different markets." He noted that upgrades to the existing busy shoreline route are needed anyway.
"What we are talking about here,'' Kulm told me, "is a new, next-generation high-speed rail service that goes 200 mph. We are not going to be able to achieve that on existing tracks. We are looking at building new tracks and a new right of way."
"This is a real document of how we improve the corridor. It's a vision of how we can move forward to improve existing services and improve our current high-speed rail service and develop the next generation of high-speed rail,'' Kulm said. "This is not a pipe dream."
But much as I love the idea, we need to wake up. Getting federal money to revive the Hartford-to-New Haven line and then to add a whole new high speed rail corridor — on top of the already mostly federally funded busway — seems more like a hallucination, albeit a good one.
We ought to instead think about what's possible.
I'll settle for the two-hour drive to Fenway, even at age 80, if we can get better, slightly faster and more reliable trains on the tracks we already have.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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