In this part of the country, people are taking trains again. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor has increased ridership by 36 percent since 2000. The New Haven Line of the Metro-North Railroad is the busiest single passenger line in the nation and Stamford has demonstrably leveraged the connectivity it provides. Boston has prospered and MBTA extensions to Worcester and Providence have added vitality to those cities. Cities and towns with walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods in a well-connected regional transportation network will have a competitive advantage as future centers of innovation, commerce and culture.
New England leaders understand this. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is boldly proposing to expand the capacity of Boston's South Station to allow for MBTA service increases and extensions. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is implementing the addition of commuter rail from New Haven to Hartford and Springfield, an essential leg of the regional rail network.
But there is still a missing piece, and that is service from Hartford to Boston.
All but two of today's 19 daily Amtrak trains to coming to New Haven from New York are bound for Boston via Providence. Those two non-Boston-bound trains are the Vermonter and the Northeast Regional, ending in Springfield, both via Hartford. Four additional daily shuttle trains between New Haven and Springfield complementing these two "inland route" Amtrak trains and, despite their limited frequency, have the 16th highest ridership in the Amtrak system.
In 2016, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield project will increase these shuttle trains from four to 15 to Hartford, 10 of which will continue to Springfield. However, because of limited track capacity south of New Haven, the majority of southbound trains will continue to terminate at New Haven and require connections to Metro-North or Amtrak. Other than one Amtrak train to Vermont, northbound trains will terminate at Hartford or Springfield. In spite of expanded service, Hartford and Springfield are left without frequent or reliable rail connections to Boston. New Haven-Hartford-Springfield is a vitally important start, but still leaves central New England disconnected, a cul-de-sac in the transportation network.
Kip Bergstrom, Connecticut's deputy commissioner for economic development, has argued that Connecticut's, especially Hartford's, opportunity is not necessarily in connecting New Haven to Springfield, but in transforming itself from being the edge of the New York and Boston metropolitan areas to the center of the two. He says passenger rail is the tool to make this happen, which is why New Haven-Hartford-Springfield route upgrades are so important.
What's the next step? Many point to high-speed rail as the answer. The Federal Railroad Administration is studying high-speed rail and has narrowed down 15 preliminary route possibilities to a handful of reasonable options, which, at their boldest, may include the creation of an additional alignment between Boston and New York that could go through Hartford and under Long Island Sound.
But high-speed rail is a long-distance service that best serves the northeast's major population centers, and almost certainly is several decades away. In the meantime, we still need to complete the network and economically unify our region of mid-sized cities and small towns.
One opportunity would be to build out conventional regional rail connections by extending New Haven-Hartford-Springfield to Worcester. Worcester's Union Station can serve as a very effective transfer point to Boston, as New Haven's does to New York. Or better yet, the service can be fully integrated with the MBTA's Worcester line directly to Boston.
In 1999, Amtrak electrified shoreline infrastructure between New Haven and Boston and introduced Acela service. Speeds increased and service jumped from 11 to 19 daily trains in each direction between Boston and New Haven, leading to a 45 percent increase in ridership in 2000 alone. Boston has reaped the economic benefits of better connectivity and can repeat this performance with a new inland connection.
By using New Haven-Hartford-Springfield to restore connections to Boston; Hartford and the other cities and towns of central New England can be strategically transformed from the remote edge to the convenient center of one of the most dynamic economic regions of the country. Achieving this improved network will require government and private sector leadership, collaboration and a sense of urgency in the Land of Steady Habits.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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