When Gov. Ned Lamont announced in June that the state would spend $8 billion to $10 billion to (modestly) improve travel times on the busy (if pokey) New Haven Line, the reaction was generally favorable. Most understand that the rail connection to New York City is vital to Connecticut’s economy and quality of life, and the faster the better.
But if the state benefits from commuter rail to the Big Apple, as it clearly does, would it not also benefit from similar service to Boston, the Hub of the Universe?
A study released in April answered with a resounding yes. Fast and reliable passenger service from New Haven to Boston via Hartford, Springfield and Worcester would have a “transformative effect” on the Hartford-Springfield regional economy. The report said an investment of $6 billion to $9 billion could yield between $47 billion and $84 billion in new and direct gross domestic product over 30 years in the Hartford-Springfield metro area, and another $15 billion to $21 billion in indirect or induced growth.
The study, along with the growing prospect of a major federal infrastructure bill, has bolstered efforts to restore full passenger service on what was once called the “Inland Route” from New York to Boston.
“I cannot think of a better time to invest in rail, “ said U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., whose sprawling district covers most of Western Massachusetts. Neal has long supported improved rail service in his part of the state, and as chair of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, he is a formidable proponent of better rail service.
He said in a statement to The Connecticut Mirror that the new study is “welcome news and echoes what we already know – improved rail along the inland route … is good for the entire region. Economic growth, jobs, and unparalleled opportunity are waiting. It is simply too costly not to act at this moment.”
But despite the strong support of Neal and other members of Congress, including Connecticut’s John Larson and Rosa DeLauro, getting regular commuter rail service on the inland route remains a challenge.
For openers, a project that involves two states is almost invariably more complicated than one that can be done in a single state.
Also, while the Commonwealth of Massachusetts owns the tracks from Boston to Worcester, now part of the MBTA commuter rail system, CSX, the freight carrier, owns the tracks from Worcester to Springfield and would have to be accommodated. Also, as is typical of rights-of-way laid out in the 19th century, the route does not describe a straight line.
Finally, despite Congressional and public support, neither state is exactly fired up about restoring the inland route, though for different reasons.
Connecticut took the initiative, opening The Hartford Line, regular rail service between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield, in 2018. Though some infrastructure work remains — for example, the line north of Hartford to the Massachusetts state line must be double-tracked to support more frequent commuter rail — the state is in no hurry to get to it unless Massachusetts shows some interest in upgrading its east-west line, particularly the critical 48-mile Springfield to Worcester section.
“Connecticut has done its part by investing in the Hartford Line. It’s really Massachusetts that has been slow-walking it,” said Massachusetts State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, an ardent supporter of “East-West Rail,” as it is known in the Bay State.
Critics blame Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. “When it comes to the east-west rail link, to date he has been passionately uninterested in it,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi on March 31. She also cited Baker’s “historic lack of enthusiasm for public transit.”
Can train supporters bring him around?
Two ways to Boston
In the heyday of mid-century rail travel, trains regularly plied the Inland Route from New York to Boston. But it dwindled in the 1960s and ’70s as the nation took to the new interstate highways. Amtrak ran self-propelled Budd cars, and not new ones, on the Springfield line for more than a decade.
There was a citizen effort to revive the Inland Route in the early 1980s, led by Meriden lawyer and rail enthusiast James M. S. Ullman. Ullman argued that the Inland Route actually served a larger population base than the Shoreline Route and was only two miles longer. He urged Amtrak to provide good service on both routes.
Ullman got people thinking. Gov. Lowell Weicker urged Amtrak to restore the Inland Route. But Ullman’s untimely death in 1994 following serious personal difficulties pretty much ended the effort to restore the route, at least for the moment.
Hartford-Springfield is seeing a decreasing share in an otherwise growing market because it is not connected to it. ”
Two decades later, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy actually got the work started. A former mayor of Stamford who understood the value of commuter rail, Malloy, in partnership with Amtrak and Massachusetts officials, redeveloped the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, known now as The Hartford Line.
It opened in 2018 and offers 17 northbound trains from New Haven to Hartford, all but four continuing to Springfield, and 16 southbound trains, all but four starting in Springfield. It got off to a strong start, carrying more than 1.4 million riders in 2019, though COVID caused a significant drop in 2020.
In 2017, as the work was progressing, Malloy wrote to Baker, his Massachusetts counterpart, “strongly encouraging” him to begin work on the Inland Route section from Worcester through Springfield to the Connecticut border.
Baker didn’t bite, despite considerable public support for the project. Polls in 2018 and 2019 by MassInc, a nonpartisan think tank, found support for east-west rail expansion at 67 and 76 percent, respectively. They are left with one slow and unreliable train a day between Springfield and Boston. It takes two and a half hours, about an hour longer than it takes to drive in midday traffic.
In January, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released a major feasibility study of east-west rail expansion. That study initially looked at six ways to improve service, including the intriguing idea of running a rail line in the Massachusetts Turnpike corridor.
Alas, the consultants believed it too expensive and too far from some of the cities it would serve, so it was dropped. In the end, the study offered three options for improved east-west service. The first would use the existing CSX tracks; the other two call for building new stretches of track alongside the existing track. The estimated costs range from $2.41 billion to $4.63 billion, which includes the option of extending the service west to Pittsfield.
The state’s study cites the costs but not the potential economic benefit. That was the point of the study released in April, which projected a major return on investment if the Inland Route is revived.
The report, commissioned by the Capitol Region Council of Governments and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and prepared by the infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, makes a case that commuter rail service would greatly benefit the Hartford-Springfield metro area.
The Hartford-Springfield metro — defined as Hartford County, Conn., and Hampshire and Hampden counties, Mass. — is a “distinct and consequential economic location in the Northeast Corridor,” the study says, with a combined population of 1.6 million, a gross domestic product of $120 billion, 20 colleges and universities and New England’s second-largest international airport.
Nonetheless, the region is somewhat isolated economically and has not kept pace with the rest of the Northeast Corridor, the report states. Since 1990, job growth in the Northeast Corridor as a whole has been 1.1% annually, but in Hartford-Springfield, only 0.6%.
This translates to about 130,000 jobs not created, notably in the “key sectors of … information, finance, and professional services (including insurance, in which employment has actually declined),” the report states. Transportation isn’t the only reason for the job lag, but it is one reason.
“Hartford-Springfield is seeing a decreasing share in an otherwise growing market because it is not connected to it,” said Chris Brewer, an AECOM economist who worked on the economic impact study.
Hartford-Springfield is about equidistant from Boston and New York. Fast and reliable commuter rail could, over time, regain 20,000-40,000 of the lost jobs, the report estimates. Brewer said a 90-minute commute to both big cities would put Hartford-Springfield in play (in 2019, Lamont announced a goal of 90 minutes from Hartford to Manhattan).
With a 90-minute ride to both major cities, Brewer said, Hartford-Springfield would become attractive to workers on a hybrid schedule, who only need to travel to the Big Apple or the Athens of America two or three times a week. And, as James Ullman observed 40 years ago, commuter rail doesn’t serve only the big cities at the end of the line but the smaller cities along the line as well.
Brewer’s study said if any of the options Massachusetts put forth is chosen, “an investment in the $4 billion range would cut nearly an hour off the Springfield-Boston trip” and enable at least 10 round trips per day.
New England’s second-largest city offers an example of what might happen. Worcester was connected to Boston via the MBTA commuter rail system nearly a decade ago. Good things have happened since: a number of new residential and commercial projects; the arrival of the Boston Red Sox Triple A farm team, the WooSox; and the announcement that a major Chinese biotech firm, Hong Kong-based WuXi Biologics, would locate its first U.S. facility in Worcester. The $60 million facility is expected to employ 150 people when it opens next year.
Perhaps most remarkably, recently released census figures show Worcester’s population increased 14% from 2010 to 2020, to 206,518, more than 25,000 new residents. By contrast, Springfield grew 1.9%, to 155, 929, and Hartford lost 2.8% of its residents, dropping to 121,203.
“We’ve all seen what’s happened in Worcester. The same thing can happen in Springfield and Hartford,” said Dana Roscoe, principal planner and transportation manager for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
“If you are connected to Boston by commuter rail, your economy is probably doing well,” said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Regional Council of Governments.
Wray and other inland route proponents have met with transportation officials as well as Congressional and gubernatorial staffers over the summer to make the case for the inland route. “At least they are listening,” he said. He said he’d like to see Connecticut commit to finishing its part of the double-track work and eventually electrify the line.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said electrification is a subject for future talks with Amtrak. He said while double-tracking from Windsor to Enfield is “not required for near-term service” and the work is not scheduled, it is in the department’s long range capital program. He said the new Windsor Locks Station is being designed to accommodate the second track.
But that second track is not likely to appear until there’s progress on East-West Rail north of the border. Lesser believes there’s a strong argument for it.
He said in state transportation spending, there is a “legacy of bias toward Boston and the needs of the Boston core.” But he said East-West Rail is “as good for Boston as it is for Springfield.”
Boston’s issues are congestion and housing prices. “Nobody can afford to live in Eastern Mass, housing prices are out of control, and no one can get around” because of the traffic and crowded transit, he said.
In Western Massachusetts, “we have the reverse — lower cost of housing and good quality of life” — but the region has seen a loss of jobs and population. East-West Rail would solve problems, if not overnight, giving people in Eastern Massachusetts access to lower-cost housing and a calmer quality of life, while giving folks in Western Massachusetts access to jobs to the east.
He said connecting Western New England, including the Pioneer Valley towns north of Springfield, to Hartford and Boston by rail will have a major environment benefit, taking thousands of cars off the road and helping clean the air, noting that the valley area has a high rate of asthma. Also, as Wray noted, climate resilience may well favor a route away from the shoreline.
“We need the governor of Massachusetts to make this a top priority,” Lesser said. Gov. Baker’s office did not respond to several requests for comment, though MassDOT spokeswoman Judith Reardon Riley forwarded a press release citing the need for more study, coordination with CSX, identification of funding sources and creation of a governing structure to move the East-West rail project off the drawing board and onto the tracks. .
Lesser believes the challenge is not insurmountable. “We built a railroad through the Rocky Mountains during the Civil War. We can do this.”