Northeast Corridor rail plan seeks increased capacity, reliability
A new Northeast Corridor rail plan seeks to expand capacity and improve service in Fairfield County — and it abandons a controversial proposal to reroute traffic in Southeastern Connecticut.
The Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday released its final blueprint to upgrade the aging Northeast Corridor system, noting future work will focus on maintaining a state of “good repair,” while increasing capacity and efficiency of commuter rail lines from Washington D.C. to Boston.
The $150 billion plan includes installing more than 200 miles of track capacity between Washington, D.C. and New Haven, and between Providence, R.I. and Boston. The study does not specify where those tracks would be placed.
One option considered by the FRA — creating an “inland” route to Boston through Danbury and Hartford — was not included in the final plan.
U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, while generally praising the plan, expressed concern about the impact of expanding rail capacity in heavily populated Fairfield County.
Here are some highlights of the Federal Railroad Administration’s plan for the Northeast Corridor:
Increase the number of regional commuter trains
Decrease travel time between Boston and New York City by 45 minutes; by 35 minutes between New York City and Washington, D.C.
Expand the NEC to a 4 to 6 track rail network
Create segments of track capable of handling 220 mph trains.
Study capacity, speed restrictions and flooding along the Connecticut and Rhode Island shoreline.
The Northeast Corridor includes 457 miles of track from Washington, D.C., to Boston and connecting corridors bring the total to 899 miles of track
“I am deeply concerned about possible impact to communities in Fairfield County, and I urge the FRA to work closely with residents to enhance rail service while respecting local needs,” Blumenthal said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy praised the FRA for postponing a new track route through Old Lyme’s historic downtown to accommodate high speed trains. The idea caused a groundswell of opposition in Old Lyme and other shoreline communities also impacted by the proposed route change.
The FRA instead said it will study options to increase capacity in Southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.
“The FRA has developed a vision for the future of the Northeast Corridor and issued a decision that provides a path forward for expanding capacity and improving performance of the existing railroad,” Malloy said.
The next step, Malloy noted, is obtaining federal funding to undertake the needed improvements.
The Northeast Corridor is one the nation’s busiest rail systems, carrying 820,000 passengers a day between Washington, D.C. and Boston.
The FRA plan is the result of months of meetings, draft proposals and public hearings and represents a final statement by federal regulators over what needs to be done to improve Northeast Corridor rail service.
“Safe, reliable and efficient rail transportation is a vital part of our nation’s infrastructure,” said U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.
The plan calls for increasing — and in some areas doubling — the number of regional commuter trains, providing three to five times more intercity trains and improving travel times between key city centers.
The plan envisions decreasing travel time between Boston and New York City by 45 minutes and 35 minutes between NYC and Washington, D.C. The FRA also wants to expand the NEC to a 4 to 6 track rail network with sufficient capacity to accommodate increased demand for intercity and commuter rail services.
Some new segments of track “should be designated for 220 mph operations, unless there are unique or exceptional constraints that justify limiting the highest practical speed,” the FRA said.
A New Haven to Providence study is included to address capacity constraints, speed restrictions and flooding vulnerability along the Connecticut and Rhode Island shorelines.
Jim Gildea, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, said the new plan is generally positive.
“Hopefully this means there will a recognition from the federal government that this corridor plays a vital role in the economic future of the country and will respond with the financial support to make such repairs along the corridor a reality,” Gildea said.
Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for Metro-North, said the plan “represents a positive step forward for the region. We’re pleased the FRA is taking the lead on this nationally significant corridor while we concentrate on the business of running the railroad.”
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd, said she’s pleased the FRA listened to community concerns and found “a solution that will deliver hourly service between New York City and New Haven and add a station in Orange. I look forward to continuing to work with the FRA going forward.”
James Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Group and a Hearst Connecticut Media columnist, said he’s glad the FRA abandoned a plan to lay new tracks along I-95 in Fairfield County, which was one of many options FRA considered.
“Those who complained about the idea were not NIMBY's, but worried about the plan's impact on historical areas, the environment and our existing downtowns,” Cameron said.
“It’s also good news that the FRA seems to be endorsing the idea of fixing and improving the tracks we have already while also recognizing their vulnerability to coastal flooding,” Cameron added.
But Cameron said he’s disappointed the plan does not include an “inland” route for high-speed rail service along I-84. The trains would have passed through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford on route to Boston.
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th, said she will continue to push for an inland route. “I hope today’s decision paves the way for an inland high-speed route through central Connecticut, which would be transformative for local economies throughout our state,” she said.
Blumenthal said the FRA plan includes projects already under way, such as the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line now under construction.
“I look forward to partnering with the FRA to find sensible solutions to expand the capacity of the Northeast Corridor and bring our country’s aging rail network into the 21st century,” Blumenthal said.