Hartford to New York in half an hour. New York to Boston in 90 minutes. Trains zipping through a tunnel under Long Island Sound.

These are all proposals that are under debate as the federal government hosts discussions across the Northeast on the future of passenger rail travel in the region. But for everyone involved, there’s a point where fantasy gives way to reality.

In Connecticut, that reality is a commuter-rail system stuck in the 20th — or even, some argue, the 19th — century.

“I’m glad somebody is looking out 20, 30 years from now to the kind of transportation that this country really needs,” said Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council. “The bad news is, we don’t have money today to run the railroad that we operate — or try to operate — today.”

Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven line is the busiest single rail line in America, surpassing a record 38 million trips last year. Yet hardly any federal money has gone into the rail line because the state owns the infrastructure — a quirk of history that’s plagued the system since Connecticut decided not to let Amtrak buy its tracks in the mid-1970s.

But as rising gas prices, record train ridership, and shifting political forces continue to push public transit toward equal footing with the automobile, that could change. The Federal Railroad Administration is holding hearings in  cities all over the region this month to discuss a vision of the Northeast Corridor — the 457 miles of rail track between Washington, D.C., and Boston — for the year 2040.

Because the FRA doesn’t directly fund commuter rail, Metro-North is not technically the subject of these hearings. But as officials continue to trumpet high-speed rail proposals that are far in the future, experts say the future of Metro-North will be the centerpiece of a battle that may happen largely behind the scenes.

How we got here

More than a century ago, railroads in Southern New England were the lifeblood of a burgeoning industrial economy. Springing up in the early-to-mid 1800s, they were financed largely by businessmen and residents who realized rail’s potential to transform the region’s economy.

“When rail came to town, economies took off,” said Yoni Appelbaum, a doctoral student of American history at Brandeis University. Appelbaum has studied the economic development and decline of Waterbury, where 86 passenger trains used to arrive daily more than a century go.

But soon, railroad owners realized their systems weren’t churning out the needed profits. The Naugatuck rail line, along with most others in Connecticut, was consolidated into a system known as the New York, New Haven and Hartford Rail Company (NYNH&H) that came under the ownership of Hartford native J.P. Morgan at the turn of the century. The new owner, Appelbaum said, was interested purely in maximizing profit, not in growing local economies — and so the rail infrastructure suffered.

The Great Depression, the advent of vehicular and air transportation, and mismanagement prompted a wave of bankruptcies for rail companies throughout the 20thcentury. In the 1971, the federal government took over.

The new entity Amtrak soon bought up the Northeast Corridor — with a few exceptions. The biggest was Connecticut, which decided to own its tracks between the New York state line and New Haven.

“Other than Amtrak, we’re the majority owner” of the tracks on the Northeast Corridor, said Connecticut  Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker. That makes the New Haven line ineligible for the federal dollars Amtrak receives to update its infrastructure.

That decades-old ownership decision is certainly haunting public officials today as the Connecticut Department of Transportation pours $60 million annually into maintaining the New Haven Line tracks, with the rail company contributing an additional $30 million.

“The funding from Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration has always excluded the New Haven Line. And we are now…paying the price for that,” said Howard Permut, president of Metro-North Railroad, which projects a cash deficit of $468 million for this fiscal year.

Permut said the rail system has suffered from several incidents just in the past few weeks: Falling trees knocked out power on the tracks; moveable bridges couldn’t be closed; and catenary wires drooped onto the railcars in the extreme heat. Some passengers were delayed for hours as a result.

At the same time, ridership on Metro-North has steadily increased. The railroad says more than 66 million trips were taken to and from Manhattan on the tracks east of the Hudson River (which include the New Haven line) in 2011, compared with about 60 million ten years ago. (The number peaked at the height of the recession in 2008 with 67 million trips.)

Metro-North ridership 2

Ridership on the Metro-North system overall has grown more than 71 percent since 1984, while ridership on the New Haven line portion has grown more than 66 percent in that time.

“It’s the life-blood of New York. It’s the lifeblood of this entire region,” Permut said. “So it absolutely needs to be a first-rate service.”

A new opportunity

But while Connecticut’s ownership of its tracks has been seen as a funding dilemma in the past, it could present a unique opportunity for the state as stakeholders debate their visions for the Northeast Corridor in 2040.

After all, Amtrak does need the New Haven tracks to get its customers to Boston. Currently it pays Metro-North $15 million annually to use those tracks — a sum many have argued is far too low, and that the railway’s president Permut said he hopes will increase.

“We are very hopeful that [Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration] will step up to the plate over the next few years in terms of funding these kinds of improvements,” he said.

Ridership on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional service from Washington, D.C., to Boston jumped 8.2 percent in the first six months of this year compared to the same time period last year, for a total of more than 3.8 million. As Amtrak continues to aggressively compete with airline routes in the Northeast, it will need Connecticut’s blessing for any future plans.

“Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service is in our hands, so to speak,” said the Commuter Rail Council’s Jim Cameron.

Amtrak has also been pushing a proposal to build an entirely new high-speed rail line that would get riders from New York to Boston in 90 minutes by roughly following the I-84 corridor. At a cost of more than $100 billion, the proposal has angered many officials who say the towns along I-95 are the real economic backbone of the region. Many are also concerned the 220-mph route wouldn’t even stop in Connecticut at all.

But should the new high-speed line through uncharted Connecticut territory ever happen, Amtrak will need the state’s approval.

That means the state could lobby to make sure the high-speed route has stops in Hartford, Danbury, and Waterbury, and, perhaps, convince the national rail service to contribute some of the estimated $2 billion needed to bring the New Haven Line into the 21st century.

“What is unique in Connecticut is that we are both a funding partner as well as an owner-operator partner,” Redeker said. “And that does give us, I think, a very strong partnership with Amtrak that may be unlike any other state.”

The recent creation of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) Commission could also help get Connecticut a “fair share” of funding for its rail systems, Redeker said. Federal law requires the commission chart new course for the funding structure and investment priorities for all potential users of the Northeast Corridor and report regularly to Congress.

“Contrast that with Amtrak, that puts forward an Amtrak[-only] investment plan,” Redeker said. “That is a game-changer.”

Once in a lifetime chance

More than one public official in the state has referred to the proposals presented at the FRA hearings as “pie-in-the-sky.” Amtrak’s high-speed rail is one; another was presented by a University of Pennsylvania graduate studio to tunnel under the Long Island Sound.

The FRA is planning to take all such proposals into consideration for an environmental impact study to be completed by 2015. Cost will be a factor in the FRA’s study — but not a major one. Money for public transit has been up for grabs in every election cycle, and that is not likely to change anytime soon.

“Whatever this long-term vision is, it’s going to be 10, 20 years before anything like that is going to happen,” said Permut.

Still, others say, that doesn’t mean you can’t dream. Should the money ever be available to reshape the Northeast Corridor, plans to do so should already be in place.

“What we’re finally doing is we’re treating rail as an equal partner to highways,” said Joe McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County. “And that is a really big deal. It will reshape over the next 30 years the economy and the livelihood of our residents.”

The FRA has completed about 30 environmental impact statements and service plans across the U.S. for rail projects in the past few years, and some of them have produced tangible results. A $38 million project to expand Amtrak service in Maine is set to be completed by the end of the year, and work is underway for high-speed service from Chicago to St. Louis.

Those projects, though, are not nearly on the scale of the more than $100 billion that Amtrak would need to build its new proposed high-speed line from New York to Boston. Compared to that figure, $2 billion to repair the New Haven Line starts to sound more reasonable.

This story is the result of a reporting partnership between The Connecticut Mirror and WNPR Radio. Click here to listen to a radio version of the story.

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