Finally, some good news for rail commuters in Connecticut: The Department of Transportation has ordered 60 new railcars for service on the branch lines.
To be manufactured by French rail giant Alstom (the folks who built the TGV (the French high speed train and are building the new generation of Acela for Amtrak), these new unpowered cars will bring welcome enhancements for riders.
The cars: The new cars will offer two-by-two seating (vs three by two seating on the M8s), some with work-station tables. There will be overhead luggage racks and the capability of onboard WiFi (which CDOT promises will be installed). There will be USB plugs, automated station announcements, automatic doors and full ADA access. And there will be bicycle racks.
But given the spacious seating, the new coaches will have 20% fewer seats per car than the M8s.
Where will they run? They will mostly serve the Hartford Line between New Haven and Springfield, replacing ex-Shore Line East coaches built by Bombardier and Mafersa. Even older coaches, rehabilitated on a lease from MBTA, will be returned to Boston.
Currently CT Rail runs locomotive-pulled three to five coach trains (supplemented by Amtrak’s two-coach consists) on The Hartford Line.
The new cars are capable of running at 125 mph, but the tracks between New Haven and Springfield are only rated for 110 mph in short stretches. Speed limits on the Danbury and Waterbury branches (where the new coaches may also run) are much lower. The new cars will not run on the mainline, the New Canaan branch or Shore Line East, which are all electrified and operate with M8 cars.
Manufacturing: The Alstom cars will be built in Sahagun, Mexico. Because they are being purchased with state money there is no “buy American” requirement.
Alstom has extensive experience building rail cars elsewhere in the world. But these new cars will have to be built stronger (and heavier) to meet Federal Railroad Administration standards for “buff strength” and fire resistance in case of a crash.
Alstom tells me the first cars in the order will arrive “sometime in 2026.”
The cost: Given the $315 million purchase price for the 60 new cars, that works out to $5.25 million each. The last M8 order from Kawaski in 2016 (for self-propelled EMU cars) came in at $3.85 million each. The new Alstom coaches will require dual-mode (diesel & electric) locomotives being purchased separately.
CDOT also has an option to buy an additional 313 Alstom coaches. The current M8 fleet is over 500 cars, the first of which were ordered in 2006 but not put into service until 2011 due to software issues during testing.
The bottom line: The branch lines have long needed new cars, but ridership there is historically lower than on the mainline (New Haven to Grand Central). And with post-Covid ridership still no better than 70%, fewer seats makes sense (for now). Obviously CDOT hopes these sleek, roomy new cars will attract new riders, but only time will tell.