M8 EMUs at Stamford Btian P. Dorsam

Recently, the State Bonding Commission authorized a $280 million procurement of dual-power locomotives to replace the current diesel fleet serving Connecticut’s inland commuter rail lines that branch off the New Haven Line. It follows closely behind another $300 million authorization for the coaches that these locomotives would haul.

The RFP generated for this bond spans hundreds of pages and garnered no response from any railcar manufacturer. If finalized, these purchases would be, by any standard, two of the most wasteful that The Connecticut Department of Transportation has ever made, as the new trains will be obsolete even before they hit the rails. If we were to simply use the same amount of money differently, this purchase would not even be necessary.

To explain why this order would be misguided, let’s start by explaining what dual-power means. Metro-North and ConnDOT currently operate the Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford Lines, and Shoreline East using diesel locomotives. Although much more efficient and environmentally friendly than any private car, diesel locomotive-hauled trains are suboptimal for commuter railroads. They are heavier, accelerate slower and use much more energy than electric locomotives, let alone electric multiple units (EMUs).

 Moreover, a singular focus on one-seat service risks doubling down on an outmoded and inequitable focus on 9-5 white collar commuters whose decline COVID has accelerated.

Moreover, diesel trains cannot operate in New York City. Since both Grand Central and Penn Station are underground, New York City law only allows electric trains there  –for good reason. As ConnDOT wants to offer direct service from Danbury and Waterbury to the city, it is seeking dual power locomotives that can operate both using electric power, drawing current from a third rail shoe, and diesel, using their own engines. Though labeled as “dual power,” these locomotives would, like Metro-North’s current locomotive fleet, operate almost exclusively on diesel fuel, using electric only for a few miles in New York.

Trouble is, dual-power locomotives are even heavier than conventional diesel ones, meaning they perform worse. They are also much more complex mechanically, and as a result, they require a lot more maintenance and are much more prone to breakdowns and failures. They are a kludge that is virtually unknown outside of the United States.

Thankfully, ConnDOT does not need to reinvent the wheel or come up with any miracle technological solution. Connecticut, in fact, was one of the first places in the world to come up with a better alternative over 100 years ago, electrifying the New Haven mainline back in 1907 with overhead wire. The state should stop trying to build obsolete, ineffective, and slow railroad equipment, and finish wiring their currently diesel lines instead, not least because the Danbury Branch once had it.

Despite ConnDOT´s predictable protestations, electrification is practical and relatively inexpensive. Even at a very conservative cost estimate of $6.5 million per route mile, which is well beyond international norms, the combined cost of $600 million for dual-power locomotives and towed railcars would electrify the Hartford line all the way to Springfield plus the Waterbury and Danbury branches.

Electrifying these three lines would enable ConnDOT to greatly improve current levels of service. Since electric multiple units like the New Haven Line M8s accelerate much faster than diesel locomotives, they would cut travel times on these lines by around 20 percent. They are also much more reliable, further improving service. Use of a single type of equipment would further reduce operating costs.

Finally, it’s not even clear that adding direct service from Waterbury and Danbury to Grand Central Terminal is a good idea. For one thing, trains leaving the mainline for either branch cross the path of New York-bound trains, which makes through service difficult to run. Speedups being studied for Harlem Line service may well outclass the travel times that one-seat Danbury-New York trains can deliver. Moreover, a singular focus on one-seat service risks doubling down on an outmoded and inequitable focus on 9-5 white collar commuters whose decline COVID has accelerated, and

Under this proposal, there are some challenges. For instance, a few stations on the Danbury and Waterbury lines require high platforms in order to service M8 cars. This expense does not have to be onerous one as long as ConnDOT refrains from adding palatial upgrades to current stations. The current M8 fleet is underused, as ridership is still below pre-pandemic levels. Should Metro-North need to order additional cars later, the latest batch of M8s cost about ¼ less per car than the price ConnDOT is prepared to pay for unpowered coaches, and the M8s would not need locomotives to pull them.

Going all electric across Connecticut’s passenger rail system is the right investment. We will get a more efficient, cleaner, faster rail network, with both a smaller investment up front and lower costs down the line. Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars purchasing obsolete technology at inflated prices, it is time for ConnDOT to ditch outdated service models and spend the money they have following best practices.

Robert Hale lives in New Haven.