All the state’s railroad branches deserve new carriages
An order for 60 passenger train cars to be used to feed travelers to and from the New Haven Line to inland and eastern Connecticut worth $300 million was approved on Wednesday The process caused an uproar, as 12 cars slated for the Waterbury Branch were supposedly cut, apparently leaving intact the ones destined for the Hartford Line and Shore Line East.
The truth is that all the branch lines feeding into the New Haven Line deserve high-quality rail transit, and it is a mistake to concentrate the benefits in the relatively wealthy I-91 and Shore Line corridors.
Gov. Ned Lamont and lawmakers must do everything in their power to spread the benefits of these 60 cars to all four branches. The more use the state gets out of its mass transit vehicles, the more pressure is relieved on roadways and the garages where cars park after traveling them.
Make no mistake, there is plenty of reason for outcry. The price paid, $5 million per car, is outrageous, especially for units without their own propulsion. Half that amount should be buying diesel multiple units (DMUs), trainsets with a diesel engine powering each car. DMUs accelerate and brake way more nimbly than traditional trains composed of cars hauled by a diesel locomotive; on lines with lots of curves and stops, such as the Danbury and Waterbury branches, they would save precious minutes on each trip.
The reasons why the state is on track to pay double what it should for inferior equipment need to be investigated.
However, 60 cars, self-propelled or not, should still be enough to increase service on all four branch lines. That is sorely needed; today, trains come every hour or better only during rush hour on the Hartford Line and Shore Line East. One-way trips on the Danbury Branch (South Norwalk-Danbury), Waterbury Branch (Bridgeport-Waterbury), or Shore Line East (New Haven-New London) each take just over an hour with today’s slow equipment.
Three-hour round tips on each of those lines should be easily doable, with New Haven to Springfield and back requiring four hours. Dividing each round-trip time by a frequency of one train per direction per hour gives a total of 13 trainsets needed to give all four branches one train per hour each way. If we add one extra set per branch to total 17 sets, there should be enough cars to give each set three cars. The added frequency should help cancel out the potentially decreased train lengths.
On the other hand, optimal use of the branch line railcars requires sacrifices to keep round trips as short as possible. Going forward, the new diesel trains should only run where more capable electric trains cannot.
Danbury trains should end at South Norwalk, and Shore Line East service should end at New Haven. Most trips already do so anyway!
Connecticut must replace the few Shore Line East and Danbury diesel trains that continue on the main line with longer, more capable electric trains by extending trips that currently terminate at Norwalk or Bridgeport to New Haven. To do so, it needs to free up M8s by hastening main line trip times, tightening turnarounds, and concentrating track and train maintenance at night. Replacing short, slow diesel trains with longer, more nimble electric trains would make better use of each main line slot and likely cancel out the added transfer time. Moreover, the state should proactively iron out the remaining issues with placing M8s on Shore Line East service so that the entire new car fleet can be deployed on unelectrified tracks.
A more fluid main line operation may well entice greater cooperation from Amtrak, which owns the tracks that Shore Line East service uses east of New Haven.
In the state’s branch line car procurement, the stated destiny of the cars is the Hartford Line and Shore Line East services, leading many to speculate retaliation against the Naugatuck Valley and the Danbury Branch. Whatever the true story is, a few changes to CTDOT practices should neutralize hurt feelings by spreading the benefits around the state.
If anything, the high price per car strengthens the case for getting the maximum utility out of them by doing so. Branch line upgrades mean little without cleaning up the main line operation downstream.
The common requirement for all the above changes is for the railroad management to question its operating assumptions and for the state to hold it accountable for doing so.
Robert Hale lives in New Haven.
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