Billion-dollar splurge: Connecticut expands Hartford commuter-rail service

Borrowed locomotives decorated in Halloween orange and black. Rented coach cars lacking restrooms, with air conditioning that may not work. Nevertheless, some added commuter-rail service is operating on what Connecticut’s government calls the “Hartford Line”–in planning since 1994 with designs starting in 2003.

Gov. Malloy on June 15, 2018, in New Haven

GovMalloyNewHaven20180615

Source: Connecticut Governor’s Office

Plans versus progress: Plans in 2004 from the Connecticut Department of Transportation figured capital costs of the Hartford Line at about $260 million. Actual spending so far in Connecticut and Massachusetts totals about $800 million, over $500 million of that from the state of Connecticut. The program is not finished and could take $500 million more.

Since 2006, Connecticut spent about $503 million renovating former Hartford and New Haven Railroad facilities and equipment between New Haven, CT, and Springfield, MA. Massachusetts spent about $45 million to renovate the Springfield rail station. Springfield and the local transit agency put in $6 million. The federal government has contributed about $248 million to the combined projects. Amtrak continues to own most tracks and stations and continues to operate many of the trains.

The Railway Era: Founded in 1833, the Hartford and New Haven sold to the New York and New Haven in 1872. Afterward, although those owners acquired other lines, they operated as the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad–often called the “New Haven.” Its 4-track main line runs from Grand Central in New York City to New Haven–with early, main branches to Hartford, New London, Danbury and Waterbury. That main line is now owned by New York and Connecticut. It is jointly operated as Metro North.

In the aftermath of a 1902 train crash in the Park Avenue tunnel connecting to Grand Central, New York City banned coal-fired locomotives. The New Haven developed technology for its main line: the world’s first long-distance electric railroad. Through the 1920s, the New Haven spread into downstate New York, western Massachusetts and across Rhode Island into eastern Massachusetts, reaching Boston and Cape Cod.

New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, c. 1929

NewHavenRailroadMap1929

Source: Pechristener on Wikipedia

After financial reverses during the Great Depression, the New Haven again prospered during World War II and for several years afterward. However, automobiles began attracting many riders. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 [Public Law 84-627] funded new, toll-free interstate highways, soon erasing passenger rail from most of the United States.

Era of struggle: During the 1950s, U.S. passenger rail services plunged into deep decline. Services halted for lack of demand, and business failures began. New Haven management filed bankruptcy in 1961. At the start of 1969, as directed by Congress, the New Haven was taken over by the Penn Central, a brittle amalgam of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central. A year and a half later, the Penn Central was bankrupt.

In 1970, Congress authorized Amtrak: the National Railroad Passenger Corp. It made Amtrak the operator and prime custodian for the Northeast Corridor–between Boston, MA. and Washington, DC–under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976. [Public Law 94-210] In the Northeast Corridor, more than vestiges of the Railway Era passenger services survive, and in recent years they once again prosper.

Initial Amtrak system map, 1971

AmtrakRouteMap1971

Dashed routes not then stabilized

Source: Brian Roman, Amtrak Archives

Amtrak acquired most former Hartford and New Haven property between New Haven and Springfield, operating a few trains in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Ownership of Northeast Corridor tracks and stations became divided between Amtrak and agencies of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Those states supported commuter-rail services around New York City and Boston: major transit markets without sound alternatives.

New Haven-Springfield service: The initial Amtrak system offered passenger service between New Haven, CT, and Springfield, MA, but during the 1970s and 1980s it became as little as two trains each way on a weekday. The Bay State connected New Haven to Boston via Springfield and Worcester, while Bankers Express ran between Springfield and Washington, DC. In 1995, Boston service ended, and legacy trains were replaced by trains between Springfield and Washington as part of Northeast Direct services–later called Northeast Regional.

There has also been one Amtrak train a day each way using that route between Washington and northern Vermont, subsidized since 1995 by Vermont. The Springfield Shuttle–operated by Amtrak and subsidized by Connecticut–began in 1995, connecting between New Haven and Springfield via Hartford. That service continues today. It has varied between two and eight trains each way per weekday.

With the start of Connecticut’s Hartford Line commuter rail June 18, 2018–contracted with TransitAmerica Services and Alternate Concepts–the state also increased subsidies for the Springfield Shuttle. Amtrak now charges the same fares–as much as a 50-percent reduction–and accepts fares and tickets from new CTrail-branded service. There are 16 commuter trains each way on weekdays. However, only 10 travel the span between Hartford and Springfield, which continues to lack former double-track segments.

To cut its property taxes, during the 1970s Amtrak ripped out segments of former Hartford and New Haven tracks. It neglected maintenance of track equipment, bridges, crossings, platforms, signals and stations. The 1926 Springfield station was closed for over 40 years. The 1889 Hartford station, last renovated after a fire in 1914, is reached over an aging viaduct, reduced to a single-track platform when I-84 was built through Hartford during the 1960s.

Most federal support for the Hartford Line came from a so-called “high-speed rail” program touted by the Obama administration. Although rolling stock on the Hartford Line can reach speeds over 100 mph, tracks and signals do not sustain that. There are no express trains. The Hartford Line trains traversing the 62 rail miles between New Haven and Springfield stop at all of the nine current stations reached on their routes, except that Amtrak trains fail to stop at State Street in New Haven, a station Amtrak does not own. Their average scheduled speed is 39 mph.

So far, the Hartford Line commuter-rail program has reconstructed all but 23 miles of former double tracks between New Haven and Springfield, renovated or rebuilt several stations and put up a new station at State Street in New Haven. Four proposed new stations and several projects to renovate facilities and equipment have yet to start. There is no longer much federal assistance, and Gov. Malloy–a strong supporter of the program–did not run for another term in the November, 2018, state election.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, June 21, 2018


Initial Hartford Line schedule, Connecticut Department of Transportation, June 18, 2018

Initial Hartford Line fares, Connecticut Department of Transportation, June 18, 2018

Mary Ellen Godin, Launch of Hartford Line praised as exciting new chapter in transportation, New Haven (CT) Record Journal, June 15, 2018

Rebecca Lurye, Despite new commuter line, rail upgrades lag north of Hartford, Hartford (CT) Courant, June 12, 2018

Justin Schecker, Hartford Line passenger-rail launch rescheduled for June, NBC Connecticut (WVIT, West Hartford, CT), April 19, 2018

Nicole Ahn, Connecticut leases old rail cars for new Hartford Line, Yale Daily News (New Haven, CT), April 10, 2018

Gregory B. Hladky, 30-year-old rail cars Connecticut is leasing not worth repairing, Hartford (CT) Courant, April 6, 2018

Funding request for FY2019 and legislative report, Amtrak, February 15, 2018 (See Fig. 1, NEC ridership growth, and Fig. 2, Ticket revenue growth, FY1998-2017, p. 17)

Funding for New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail program, Connecticut Department of Transportation, 2018

Ana Radelat, Northeast rail plan stymied by lack of funding, concerns in Fairfield County, Connecticut Mirror (Hartford, CT), December 11, 2017

Jim Kinney, Springfield Union Station rehabilitation: where did the money come from, and how was it spent?, Springfield (MA) Republican, June 23, 2017

Amtrak Northeast Regional and former Northeast Direct passenger services, USA Rail Guide–Train Web, American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (La Plata, MO), 2017

Adam Burns, Serving the heart of New England: the New Haven Railroad, American Rails, 2016

I-84 Hartford project, Connecticut Department of Transportation, 2016

Andres Felipe Archila and Joseph Sussman, Amtrak’s productivity in the Northeast Corridor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013

Don Stacom, Wheels slowly start turning on New Haven-Springfield rail improvements, Hartford (CT) Courant. December 31, 2012

James Redeker (Connecticut Department of Transportation), New Haven, Hartford and Springfield rail service, Legislative briefing, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), Washington, DC, February 29, 2012

State rail plan, Connecticut Department of Transportation, 2012

Mark Samuels (producer), Park Avenue tunnel crash in 1902, U.S. Public Broadcasting System, 2008

Mike Ferner, Taken for a ride on the interstate highway system, CounterPunch, June 28, 2006

Wilbur Smith Associates, Recommended action, New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail implementation study, Connecticut Department of Transportaton, 2004

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, U.S. General Accounting Office, April 13, 1995

John B. O’Mahoney, Railroad electrification a landmark, New York Times, May 16, 1982

Brian Roman, Initial Amtrak system map, Amtrak Archives, 1971

Railway map, New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, c. 1929

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