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New Haven-Springfield Commuter System Getting Serious Look


July 06, 2009

For two years, Evelyn Daniels and her daughter took turns behind the wheel, negotiating rush hour traffic between their West Haven home and their jobs with an Enfield-based insurance consultant.

"Then it was the same thing coming home every night — the hustle and bustle of those crazy drivers. Even in the car-pool lane, it was just too much," Daniels said.

Aboard the 8:38 train from New Haven to Springfield one morning, Daniels explained why she and her daughter switched their daily commute to Amtrak four years ago: "We can watch movies on my portable DVD player, and sit back and relax." They pay $360 apiece for monthly tickets, but figure it's a better deal than gas, wear on the car and the relentless Hartford-region traffic jams.

Sipping a coffee in the café car as Amtrak's 6:26 southbound pulls out of Hartford, financial services professional Patrick Maloney of Avon reads The New York Times on his once-a-week commute to his company's Manhattan headquarters. He, too, values rail travel as a timesaver.

"I can check my BlackBerry, go through a pile of papers — I'd lose hours on the road in wasted time if I was driving," he said. "This is pretty much two extra hours in the morning that I pick up."

Five years, $880 million

The state transportation department wants thousands of drivers to join Daniels and Maloney.

Establishing a full-scale commuter train system paralleling I-91 has shot to the top of the Department of Transportation's "to do" list this year, prompted by the hope of landing federal stimulus grants to modernize the existing rail line linking New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.

"It's the most important initiative we have," Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie said. "We're going to bring it to the finish line."

The plan would take at least five years, more than $880 million up front and annual subsidies after that. But the DOT says central Connecticut would get a system only a couple of notches below Metro-North's service between New Haven and Manhattan. That line carries about 58,000 riders every weekday — 58,000 people who aren't further jamming I-95 or Route 1, where rush-hour gridlock is a way of life.

To transit planners, the New Haven to Springfield line looks like a long-term way to head off even more congestion on the north-south corridor. I-91 from New Haven to Hartford is already the fourth-busiest stretch of highway in Connecticut, and the DOT forecasts the congestion will steadily worsen.

The commuter rail idea stalled for years because neither Connecticut, Massachusetts nor Amtrak wanted to pay hundreds of millions to improve the single-track, 62-mile line. That work requires restoring the second track, installing modern signalization, rebuilding grade crossings, rehabbing the Connecticut River bridge in Enfield and reconstructing the rusting, long-neglected viaduct at Hartford's Union Station. The DOT gave a ballpark estimate of $850 million this spring, but another key upgrade — electrifying the line — could cost in the range of $200 million more. And rail projects are notorious for hefty overruns.

This year, President Barack Obama's administration helped kick-start the project again: Stimulus grants are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Amtrak's shoreline bridges, perhaps freeing up money from Amtrak's budget to spend on the Hartford project. But the real carrot in the stimulus bill has nothing to do with commuter rail. Instead, it's a potential share of $8 billion allocated to build high-speed rail systems nationwide.

The federal government sees 110-mph trains phasing out some short-hop airline routes and relieving crowding at big-city airports. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., outspoken chairman of the House transportation committee, envisions Hartford eventually becoming a transit center linking Boston, New York and Montreal by express trains. Also, if Logan and LaGuardia fliers could get home from Bradley on high-speed trains, many would start using Connecticut's airport instead, he says.

Most in-state commuters wouldn't ride the express trains, but they'd get a huge benefit from the service anyway. If federal stimulus money buys most of the infrastructure for 110-mph regional trains, Connecticut would get its new commuter rail system at a fraction of the cost — because those lower-speed trains would share the same rails, bridges and signals.

Current service spotty

Commuters see a cental question: Would faster, more frequent train service lure a lot of drivers out of their cars? Joe Rossi of West Hartford, who commutes to his job at Yale-New Haven Hospital every day, said it would. The one-time rail commuter wishes he could return to Amtrak, but switched to carpooling because of spotty train service.

"The biggest deterrent has been the limited trains, especially in the mid- to late afternoon. If I needed to get home early, I only had the 1:22 p.m. Vermonter available. The next train is scheduled for 5:15 p.m.," Rossi said. "If ConnDOT offered more frequent, regular and reliable train service, I believe there would be a definite increase in ridership."

Ellen Bedard has been taking Amtrak from Meriden to her job at the Yale University Medical School for a year, and she suspects that more service would bring a flood of new riders.

"The commute by cars was costing about $400 a month including parking. The train is $126 a month, " she said. "The time, on the other hand, is not as great."

Either the car or Amtrak run take about a half-hour each way, but afternoon trains often arrive late, stretching the return home to an hour or more, she said.

"And if I miss the 5:15 train I am stuck in New Haven until the 7:22 — not a great option. A train at 4:30, 5:30 and 6:30 would be great, and many other people may use the service because it would be more convenient," she said.

Amtrak's current Springfield to New Haven service isn't designed for commuters, but rather for long-haul passengers connecting in New Haven to New York, Philadelphia or Washington. Only six or seven trains run on weekdays, and the first northbound one doesn't reach Hartford until 9:27 a.m. and Springfield until 10:10 a.m., long after most work shifts begin. Amtrak is doing rail-bed maintenance and tie replacement that will make the trip quicker, but right now the average ride runs just under an hour.

"You could drive faster," Marie said after a legislative hearing on the project last winter.

'Do it right'

The DOT's plan for a dedicated commuter line would start with 16 trains a day in each direction, with one every half-hour during rush hour. In addition to the existing stops at Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin, Windsor and Windsor Locks, the state would build stations in North Haven, Newington and Enfield.

Extra stops would usually make a trip even longer, but the DOT thinks it can avoid that by rebuilding platforms along the line to allow faster loading. Most platforms are at ground level, so each time a train stops, a conductor must lower a small stairway from the raised coach, forcing all passengers to crowd through just one or two doorways to board or get off, and many get delayed as a few people struggle to heft heavy luggage up or down.

Double tracking would avoid the delays that frequently occur when two Amtrak trains — or an Amtrak and a freight train — approach the same spot; one must be detoured to a siding to wait while the other passes. NJTransit experiences similar delays on its Philadelphia to Atlantic City commuter route for the same reason, and conductors privately complain — as they do on Amtrak — about the cost-cutting decisions in the '80s that led railroads to rip out their second tracks. Restoring those tracks is now a massively expensive proposition.

The DOT also intends to improve stations along the route and add parking, bicycle racks and perhaps surveillance equipment for security.

A legislative policy staffer last summer estimated the state would need $70 million worth of new trains for the service, and would be drawing 2,400 to 5,000 riders a day by 2025. That report also anticipated one-way fares of no more than $9.50, and concluded the system would need a $9 million-a-year operating subsidy. But the office acknowledged most of those estimates were made before last year's gas price spike that caused huge increases in mass transit ridership around the country.

The DOT hasn't said what it currently calculates for fares, subsidies or ridership.

If funding comes through and design work moves quickly, it's possible to start regular service by late 2014, Marie said. He insists that waiting until then is better than hurrying now to start with just a few extra trains a day, minimal track upgrades and no station improvements.

"Let's do it right, and do it right from the beginning," he said.

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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