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High-Speed Rail Can Wait For Better Connecticut Service First

Northeast Corridor Get better regional service, then high-speed trains

By Don Stacom

August 20, 2012

Would you like a 50-minute train ride from Hartford to Boston or New York? Would you settle for 130 minutes?

Amtrak recently announced its long-term, $151 billion vision for updating the Northeast Corridor, which includes plans for a separate, dedicated high-speed right-of-way for trains traveling 220 mph between Washington and Boston. In Connecticut, one possible route would go through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford and then through the eastern part of the state to Providence.

One idea — this is all conceptual at this point — is for two levels of high-speed service, a "Super Express" that would not stop in the state, and an "Express" that would. The Super Express would stop only in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. It ought to stop in Hartford and Baltimore as well. But let's not worry about that now.

The high-speed project is a long-term and as yet unfunded notion. In the unlikely event that all goes well, the Boston–New York high-speed link will not be opened until 2040. The Northeast Corridor needs attention today. The 450-mile transportation channel, vital to the nation's economy, is at or near its carrying capacity and becoming dangerously congested.

Let's not let the long-term high-speed project get in the way of the rail project that is well under way.

Fix The Corridor First

Southern New England at last is rebuilding its rail system. This has sometimes been called "commuter rail" or, somewhat optimistically, "high-speed rail." Planners are now calling it "regional rail," and it means service such as that being added to the New Haven–Hartford–Springfield corridor.

This is a bird in the hand. Service is scheduled to begin in 2016, with a total of 30 trains a day to and from Hartford. With new equipment and systems, the "one seat" trip from Hartford to New York can be done in two hours and 10 minutes, 23 minutes faster than today's Amtrak travel time.

That time can improve as the corridor is upgraded. The Northeast's main rail artery was built by several railroads between 80 and 150 years ago. Maintenance was intermittent during the postwar highway-building era, and as Amtrak acknowledges, the corridor needs extensive repair to maintain current levels of service.

This should be Amtrak's main focus, and will be for the first decade (2015-25) of the Corridor plan. This is essential. Bridges, signaling systems and catenary wires must be replaced. Choke points must be eliminated. There's no good reason why trains from New Haven to New York should take an hour and 45 minutes to go 74 miles. "Build the network we have now," said state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker, in a recent interview. He's right; this region can do very well with higher speed trains.

So let's make sure we have those before attention turns to the separate high-speed line.

Trains And Airplanes

The Northeast region is an economic powerhouse. But it won't stay that way unless goods and people can move easily.

In the five major metropolitan areas in the I-95 corridor, commuters are experiencing 60 percent more traffic delays than they did 20 years ago. Northeast airports are among the nation's most congested, yet a third of the flights from New York's airports are to destinations within 500 miles — where rail should be competitive.

Trains carry more people more efficiently than highways, something the public has been discovering. Amtrak ridership in the corridor has risen about 5 percent a year in each of the last five years, and there's been strong growth on the corridor's commuter rail lines as well.

But, like the highways and airports, the rail corridor is also getting congested. The Northeast Corridor carries more than 2,000 trains a day, which is close to capacity. Let's increase capacity.

The rest of the world has this right. We can save energy, reduce pollution and stress, and make the highways more efficient by improving rail service.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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