Connecticut DOT’s recent announcement of plans to buy new rail cars for the Hartford Line, Shore Line East, and the Danbury and Waterbury Branches was met with enthusiasm from riders who have grown tired of putting up with slow, outdated, and unreliable trains. But while riders may think they’re finally getting their due – in fact DOT’s plan will ensure that Connecticut’s branch lines, and the struggling cities they serve, suffer sub-par service for decades more.
The state’s plan calls for the purchase of 110 push-pull coaches which would feature larger windows, charging outlets, and other modern conveniences; however, they’ll still be hauled by the same old, slow, polluting and unreliable diesel locomotives. So while the new rail cars may be more comfortable, riders will still rely on locomotives that break down eight to 10 times more often than the M8 electric trains that serve New Canaan and New Haven line riders. New or rebuilt locomotives could offer increased reliability – but they won’t speed up the nearly hour-long trip between Danbury and Norwalk or Waterbury and Bridgeport. Branch line riders deserve more than to be stuck with a slow, sub-par service. Thankfully, a better option is available – we just have to look to Texas.
Since January, a new train service called TEXRail has connected Fort Worth with DFW Airport using state-of-the-art diesel multiple unit (DMU) trains. Like our M8s, DMUs forgo a locomotive in favor of one or more compact power units, resulting in a lightweight, high-performance train with rapid acceleration. These trains can stop at stations and get back to top speed in a fraction of the time our diesel trains can, unlocking major time savings for branch line riders. With minor track upgrades, the Danbury to Norwalk trip would be slashed from 51 to 35 minutes, faster than driving without traffic; Waterbury riders could save 15 minutes. The addition of three more stations could drag out the New Haven to Hartford trip to over an hour – but DMUs could make all stops and still be faster than today’s trains. By clinging to outdated push-pull trains, ConnDOT is ready to pass up a once-in-a-generation chance to transform branch line service.
DMUs and the quicker trips they enable would bring countless benefits to our state. They’d bring residents of Connecticut’s inland cities and towns closer to jobs and schools in Stamford and NYC. They’d raise property values, spur transit-oriented development in our downtowns, and attract many more riders, taking thousands of cars off our roads and reducing the amount of public subsidy needed to run trains. And if that’s not enough to win you over, they’re also cheaper to buy and operate. TEXRail paid about $14 million per DMU in 2015, with each train carrying up to 488 people, with 229 seats. At $4 million per railcar and $7 million per new locomotive, ConnDOT’s trains will cost $23 million to carry the same number of people and offer none of the benefits of reduced travel times. Furthermore, while TEXRail’s DMUs could be modified to run off battery or hydrogen power in the future, ConnDOT’s locomotives will burn diesel and spew carbon all their years.
Connecticut’s fleet needs can be met without buying more coaches. The first step should be to ensure that at least some of the soon-to-arrive 66 new M8 rail cars make their way to Shore Line East, where they could shave 15 minutes off the trip from New Haven to New London. Running M8s on SLE would free up trains for more Waterbury and Hartford service as well as direct trains to Stamford on both lines. As the DMUs arrive, they could free up our current trains to spend their last useful years powering new services like New York to Boston via Hartford and a reborn Berkshire Flyer via the Housatonic line.
So why is ConnDOT ignoring DMUs as it maps out the future of rail in Connecticut? Their actions speak to a risk-averse bureaucracy deeply resistant to embracing modern practices and unwilling or unable to communicate the value of modern trains. And as high-paying jobs increasingly cluster in superstar cities like New York and their satellites like Stamford, access to these places will only become more critical. We need a rail car plan that delivers an equitable level of service to all Connecticut communities.
Gov. Ned Lamont, you should instruct your DOT to procure top-of-the-line DMU trains for Danbury, Waterbury, and Hartford Line riders. Otherwise, you’ll have to explain why branch line riders and their communities should be deprived of the dramatic benefits these trains provide.
David Andrew is the founder of No 2 More I-84 Danbury.