Beyond Springfield: Reconnecting Central New England with the "Inland Route"

Deval Patrick, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, seems to be making a name for himself as a big believer in passenger rail, most prominently with a plan to expand Boston's South Station to allow for plenty of development potential, but most importantly, expanded service and better connectivity.  To the south, Gov. Dannel Malloy, who took advantage of the benefits of passenger service as mayor of Stamford, is pushing Connecticut forward with bus rapid transit between New Britain (and points beyond) and Hartford, along with commuter service between New Haven and Springfield, MA.  Taken alone, these are great things, but working together, governors of two small states can make for a real powerhouse... and there's plenty of potential on that front.

Governor Patrick recently (and rather quickly) reinstated weekend service from Boston to Cape Cod after 25-year dormancy (see the dotted line below). As the Berkshire Eagle reports, he'd also like to see the Housatonic railroad restore service to Pittsfield for the first time since 1971.  Like the Cape, the Berkshires would almost certainly benefit from increased tourism opportunities from New York, and depending on the service, commuting from Great Barrington to Norwalk or Stamford, for example, could become possible.  But since much of the inactive route north of Danbury is in Connecticut, he needs the Nutmeg State's help to do it.  I'll come back to this in a bit.

Today: Intercity and Commuter Rail (including CT's forthcoming projects)
Connecticut is charging ahead with commuter service between New Haven and Springfield (shown above).  Today, there are 19 Amtrak trains per day coming to New Haven from New York (plus 46 - YES, 46 - terminating MetroNorth trains).  All but two of the 19 head for Boston via Providence and the shoreline; two additional Acela trains from New York go to Boston without stopping in New Haven.  Those two non-Boston-bound trains are the Vermonter and a Northeast Regional, ending in Springfield, both via Hartford.  These two Amtrak trains are complemented by four Shuttle trains, operated by Amtrak, between New Haven and Springfield, and they've been getting much better at making seamless connections at New Haven.  In 2016, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield project will increase these four shuttle trains from four to fifteen to Hartford, ten of which will continue to Springfield.  There is one Amtrak train per day from Springfield to Boston and MBTA service ends in Worcester (17 per day).

However, as Kip Bergstrom, Connecticut's Deputy Commissioner for Economic Development, has frequently pointed out, Connecticut's, especially Hartford's, opportunity is not necessarily in connecting New Haven to Springfield, but by transforming itself from being the edge of the New York or Boston metropolitan areas to their center. He says passenger rail (probably an intermediate between commuter and intercity) is the tool to make this happen, which is why it's so important that the New Haven - Springfield route is being upgraded and service is being restored.  Unfortunately, today and as currently planned, the vast majority of southbound trains terminate at New Haven and require a connection to MetroNorth or Amtrak (of which there are several options), and other than one Amtrak train to Vermont, northbound trains not terminating in Hartford (five of them will) will terminate in Springfield, with no meaningful connections to Boston.

from NEC Future (preliminary alternative 14)
How will central New England's service further improve?  Many look at high speed rail, which the Federal Railroad Administration is currently in the middle of thoroughly studying and planning for, as the answer to this question.  FRA is currently narrowing down fifteen preliminary alternatives to a handful of reasonable alternatives to receive full environmental impact statement.  The boldest of these alternatives create a new, additional alignment between Boston and New York (since the existing rail, especially along the coast, is almost completely at capacity).  I'll comment on these alternatives further in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that I think an alignment to New Haven via Long Island and to Boston via Hartford and Worcester would have the greatest impact and, somewhat surprisingly, be the most practical among the bold options.  Unfortunately, any implementation is almost certainly several decades away, if it is ever to come to pass, and will be astronomical in cost (as the transformative projects often are).  So as with everything, then, there must be quicker, more incremental solutions pursued simultaneously.

A prudent and achievable approach, which ConnDOT mentions in general as part of a broader vision, would be to focus on connections between central New England and Boston, be restoring service to what was known as the "Inland Route."  Despite usually requiring connections at New Haven (a one-seat ride would certainly be preferred), there are countless southbound options to New York, and other than some possible MetroNorth extensions to Hartford or Springfield, additional service won't be feasible until additional track space is somehow created south of New Haven.

At the very least, New Haven-Hartford-Springfield service should become New Haven-Hartford-Springfield-Worcester Service.  There are seventeen recently added daily MBTA trains from Worcester to Boston (which have been a huge boon to the city of Worcester), any number of which could be integrated into this expanded Inland Route service.  Even if full New Haven-Hartford-Springfield-Worcester-Boston service isn't possible due to track or schedule capacity, the connection options are still available at Worcester.

Possible Improvements: Berkshire Service to Fairfield County and NYC; Revival of the Inland Route between New Haven and Boston

If Massachusetts needs Connecticut's help to restore Housatonic service from New York City and Danbury to the Berkshires, Massachusetts ought to do its part for Connecticut by helping restore real service between Springfield and Worcester.  Northwestern CT communities like New Milford and North Canaan would certainly benefit from the former, and Springfield would absolutely benefit from the latter, not to mention all those Bostonians looking to get to its new casino or make use of increased access to points south.  This will require the Commonwealth  - and quite possibly the Congress - to work with CSX, the owner of the Boston-Springfield rail, but the fate of central New England depends on it.

In 1999, Amtrak upgraded infrastructure (electrification between New Haven and Boston, along the coast) and introduced Acela service.  As a result, speeds increased and service jumped from eleven to nineteen daily trains (based on Amtrak timetables) in each direction between Boston and New Haven; this improvement led to a 45% increase in ridership in 2000 (revenue up by 77%), alone. The City became better integrated with the rest of the Northeast Corridor and has certainly continued to reap the benefits.  This phenomenon can happen for the Central New England cities of the Inland Route, and be repeated in Boston with restoration of continuous service along New Haven-Hartford-Springfield-Worcester-Boston.

Cities with good passenger rail service will attract people and reap the economic benefits, and those without will likely not.  But in a dense region of small jurisdictions like New England which is often slow to change, such service will require consensus and hand-in-hand collaboration, with a touch of impatience, of the of all elected, appointed, and private sector leadership.