Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Wave Goodbye to the Slow Train

On Saturday I rode Amtrak’s slowest train in the Northeast Corridor — one hour and 23 minutes to travel 60.5 miles (42.7 mph if you do the math.)

This route runs between New Haven, CT and Springfield, MA. There are no glamorous names for this route. The train is designated “Shuttle” if it is merely going back and forth, and “Northeast Regional” if you use this train to connect to one going somewhere else. It also connects New Haven to the state capital (Hartford) and to Windsor Locks, home of Bradley International Airport. Its daily schedule is not pegged to normal working hours, and the “station” in Windsor Locks is a platform adjacent to a commuter parking lot, with the airport nowhere in sight and no taxis waiting to shuttle passengers from train to plane. Despite its limitations, the route has many riders.

I use this train to rendezvous with my sister, who makes a detour off the Mass Pike to pick me up, so we can travel together to visit family near Boston. This multi-phase trip requires some planning and the cooperation of both the highway and train travel gods. But it usually works out.

For the first part of the trip, the train meanders along CT Route 5, a good-sized road which I often use for “local” business. I coast by many familiar landmarks, no faster than I would in my car, but with a view from the backside rather than the front. We pass through some woods and wetlands, but mostly behind the rear fences of once thriving manufacturing operations — foundries and factories, printing and chemical plants. Some are abandoned, some functioning; none appear new.

After Hartford the scenery is a little less urban. We chug alongside the Connecticut River and its chunks of floating ice, passing through woods and by small houses hugging the shore, slowly enough and close enough to catch a detailed glimpse into the lives of the people who live there. On a warmer day people would be out in their yards and kids would wave at the train.

This is all very nice, once in a while. If you have the luxury of time. If you can make the spotty service go your way. And as long as you make your connection if you are traveling long distance.

Currently, freight and passengers compete for service on the one track. The line is not electrified. The inadequacies have been acknowledged for years. Plans for improvement had been drawn up and then tabled.

But change is on the way. On January 12, the State of CT committed $26 million for design work. And on the 28th, Sen. Dodd announced that CT would receive $40 million in American Recovery and Reconstruction Act funding toward constructing the second track required for high-speed rail service between New Haven and Springfield.

With promised speeds of up 110 mph, residents along the route will have a viable option to travel to Bradley without a car, legislators and commuters will be able to commute to Hartford by train, and those living near Springfield will have a more practical way to connect to New Haven and points south.

The project will cost $880 million total, but things are finally moving.

WOW! 110 mph vs. 42.7 mph! Wave good-bye to the slow train.

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