In China you can travel by high-speed rail between Beijing and Shanghai (819 miles) in about four hours, averaging over 200 mph. Take Amtrak from New York to Boston and the 230 mile journey will take at least 3.5 hours (about 65 mph).
Why the difference? Because the U.S. is a third-world nation when it comes to railroading. Our railroads’ tracks (rights-of-way) are old and full of curves compared to China’s modern, straight rail roadbeds.
When then U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood toured China’s best-in-class high speed rail (HSR) system a few years ago he marveled at the accomplishment, but noted (paraphrasing here) “It’s amazing what you can do in a country that only needs three people to make a decision.”
In China, when the government decided to build HSR, they drew a straight line to determine its path. Anything and anyone in the way was out of luck.
Not so in the United States, witness the Federal Railroad Administration’s plans to build HSR between Washington and Boston. The initial plan was to straighten track in Connecticut, plowing through historic towns like Old Lyme. Local opposition and the engagement of the state’s elected officials all but killed the plan.
But the FRA’s recent Record of Decision revising its plans delivered only a partial victory for preservationists in our state. Sure, Old Lyme was saved, but in southwest Connecticut, the FRA still has plans to re-do our cities’ and towns’ landscapes.
Still buried in the 61-page document is a plan to reroute tracks from New Rochelle to Greens Farms on a new path alongside (on top of?) I-95. This would mean major disruption for everyone from Greenwich to Norwalk, with massive construction right in the heart of those communities.
The details are few: just a fuzzy map showing the proposed HSR tracks somewhere near the interstate, avoiding our century-old rail bridges and replacing them with highway style elevated structures.
With Gov. Dannel Malloy still calling for a widening of I-95, where would these new tracks be placed? The FRA says it doesn’t know. But drive that sound-barriered highway corridor and you’ll see there isn’t much room for new tracks or highway lanes, let alone both.
Local officials, residents and commuters should all be concerned. While the balance of the FRA’s plans in the state call for an upgrade of existing tracks, why the need for this invasive new structure in the already crowded highway corridor? Why not just rebuild the existing tracks?
Better yet, why not re-visit the idea of the “inland route”, sending trains to Boston north through Westchester before heading east along I-84 through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford? There’s more open space and a better chance to build straight, truly HSR tracks.
That idea was rejected by the state, fearing loss of rail connectivity for coastal business centers such as Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven, despite Amtrak’s promise to still run Acela service along the coast.
We are not living in China, nor should we allow the FRA to tell us how to live. Our last hope in opposing this land-grab is the necessary environmental review of the FRA’s plans.
Now would be the time to tell Washington “No!”
Reposted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.