Monday, November 26, 2007

Thames River (CT): what if?

As described in this PDF, Amtrak is in the process of replacing a key bridge carrying Northeast Corridor trains over the Thames River in New London, Connecticut. The New London Day is reporting that Amtrak plans to simply suspend service between New Haven and Boston sometime in May for the four days necessary to remove the old bridge and put the new bridge in place. Understandably, this is causing some concern for passengers. The passengers from Kingston, RI to Boston will be able to take commuter trains, but passengers from the intermediate stations will be SOL, to say nothing of the passengers hoping to go from Boston to Connecticut and points south and west. They'll have to take a bus - and Amtrak won't arrange it for them.

Reporter Katie Warchut gives a number of possible solutions. First she asked the obvious question: why can't the trains from New York turn in New London? Amtrak spokespeople poured cold water on that one: they would have to have an engine on each end, which is impossible. Considering that they already do some push-pull operations, I'm skeptical. ConnDOT offers the possibility of increased Shore Line East service between New Haven and New London. NARP executive director Ross Capon suggested bustitution.

I was intrigued, though, by this sentence in Warchut's article: "Amtrak trains from New Haven will make their normal runs to Springfield, Mass." By "normal runs," I'm assuming that she means Amtrak will continue to run their six diesel shuttles between New Haven and Springfield. But it got me thinking: what if?

What if it were simply unacceptable to have one of the busiest train routes in the country shut down for four days straight? What if Amtrak were committed to keeping some minimal level of service?

The most obvious solution is that the line from New Haven merges right into the old Boston and Albany mainline, which is still used by Amtrak for the Lake Shore Limited. This Inland Route has been regularly used in the past for trains between New York and Boston, as recently as 2004. How many passenger trains a day could CSX squeeze into their schedule? How many freight trains would CSX have to suspend if Amtrak sent all their Northeast Corridor trains to Boston along this route?

The second solution is that the Northeast Corridor tracks connect at New London to the Connecticut Southern Railroad, which hooks up with the CSX line at Palmer. It's not that practical because the junction at Palmer is not set up to allow direct connections in that direction; the Vermonter trains have to make an awkward switch in the opposite direction, and any service from New London to Boston would have to make a similar switch. Also, Palmer is only twenty miles east of Springfield.

There used to be a cut-off line between what is now the Connecticut Southern at Willimantic, CT and the former Milford, Franklin and Providence Railroad into Boston. Sadly, that was abandoned in 1959 and is now partially converted into a rail-trail. Even I recognize that it would be pushing it to displace a rail-trail and re-lay sixty miles of track to avoid four days of interruption. Of course, it would have other benefits too, but it'd be incredibly expensive to do it between now and May.

There are ten trains a day in each direction between New York and Boston. The two alternate routes, via Hartford and via Willimantic, are both single-track for most of the way and shared with freight trains. They have also not received the kind of upkeep and reconstruction that the Northeast Corridor mainline has - no Acela speeds here. Still, they could do for four days. Here's my suggestion:

  1. Run five of the ten round-trips along the "Inland Route" through Hartford.

  2. Run five Shore Line East trains between New Haven (or Stamford) and New London, connecting with the "Inland Route" trains.

  3. Run one additional Vermonter service through New London and Willimantic instead of Hartford and Springfield.

  4. Run two round-trip New York-Boston trains through New London and Willimantic.

It would be a smaller number of trains, and it would be slower and more awkward, but it beats bustitution. And it sure beats nothing, doesn't it?


Ran Barton said...

The Inland Route is slow, misses major population centers, and is full of CSX freight that CSX has no intention of putting on a siding for Amtrak or anyone else. That's a non-starter.

Secondly, the Acela trainsets are just that - trainsets. They are not meant to be dismantled, they don't have the signaling for it, and they require their power cars and the catenary for power. You're never going to see them hooked up to a P42 and its HEP for any revenue service.

Third, Amtrak is short of electrics and cab cars, so the idea of running double-ended trains like this is also a non-starter.

Fourth, this window of time is also being used by the maintenance forces to work on all of the equipment and the ROW while it is idle, so plans to place it all back in service miss the point of this temporary service cessation.

Finally, there are ample alternatives to the trains on the NEC, so it makes perfect sense that Amtrak would not go through the effort of arranging its own bus alternates while this occurs. Bus bridges make sense on long routes or when their is a disruption, but this event comes with sufficient warning that travelers can plan accordingly.

Cap'n Transit said...

I think you're missing the point of the "What If?" posts, Ran. Yes, there are plenty of reasons for Amtrak doing what they did, but they all point to bad priorities. All the following are apparently higher priorities than continuity of Amtrak service:

- CSX freight
- Trainsets - not sure what we get out of having trainsets that's worth so much inflexibility
- The Iraq war, refund checks, highway expansions and whatever else the Administration prefers to fund instead of Amtrak repairs

The point of these posts is to ask, "what if the various agencies involved actually made this a priority?"

The Inland Route is no longer electrified, so it would have to be done with diesels. Amtrak can't run diesels into Penn Station, but if they had enough equipment they could run them from New Rochelle - or even Hunterspoint Avenue - to South Station.