Saturday, June 13, 2009

Being proactive about the Niantic River Bridge

Following up on last year's replacement of the Thames River Bridge in Connecticut, Amtrak has received $105 million in stimulus funds to replace the Niantic River Bridge a few miles to the west. This is good, and will not only allow Acela trains to go faster, but will avoid slow orders that would be required if the bridge deteriorates further. The new drawbridge will also be taller and longer than the current one, meaning that it will not have to open for boats as often, allowing Amtrak to run more trains.

Unfortunately, as with the Thames bridge, this replacement will probably require Amtrak to shut down the Shore Line again. Last time, after objections from passengers, Amtrak agreed to run an alternate train along the Inland Route - but only one.

Let's see if we can do better this time. Stimulus money is already being used to fix broken cars, so Amtrak will hopefully have more equipment available. It would be nice if some of the money could also be used to upgrade the Inland Route. That would allow them to run more trains, not just for this outage but over the long term, serving more communities and providing needed redundancy.

As I've written before, to bring the Inland Route up to the standards of the Shore Line we need more tracks, electrification and high-level station platforms. As far as I know, the old Hartford line and Boston and Albany line never had electrification or high-level platforms, but they did have two tracks for almost this entire route. As I understand it, the second track on the Hartford line was scrapped some time during the 1980s. Some awesome guy has posted track maps for the B & A showing it as two tracks from Rensselaer all the way to Framingham, and four tracks from there to Boston.

How much would it cost to restore the second track? Fortunately, the Connecticut Department of Transportation has done a study of just that, for the always-just-around-the-corner New Haven to Springfield "commuter train." Bizarrely, although the study documents were online just a couple weeks ago, they now seem to have disappeared. Let's see how much of it I can recall from memory.

Basically, they say that you would get enough of a performance boost from double-tracking part of the line, and they recommended not double-tracking the entire line all the way to Springfield right off the bat. On average, it could be done for about $800,000 per mile. I don't think that includes the switches and signals necessary to make full use of the double tracks, and I'll be damned if I can remember what the total was for that whole section of the line. The shortest single-track section east of Springfield is the one between Springfield and Palmer, only about eight miles. It could be completely upgraded for a lot less than ten million dollars.

For a few million, we could get one additional double-tracked section, which would probably be enough to run two trains a day during the outage and any subsequent outages, and permanently increase capacity on the line. Amtrak is planning to spend $100 million of the stimulus funds on replacing the bridge. They should try and get a few more million for double-tracking the Inland Route. They could either upgrade the Hartford line and save Connecticut a few bucks whenever they get around to upgrading service, or they could upgrade the ex-B & A line between Springfield and Worcester, and although those tracks are owned by CSX as part of their Boston Subdivision, an upgrade would improve the running of Amtrak's Vermonter and the Lake Shore Limited trains.

Either way, we should be spending more to mitigate the impact of this outage, and these would be permanent improvements that would benefit the system in the long run.

1 comment:

Richard Stowe said...

Cap'n Transit, I think you literally missed the boat on this story: replacing a movable bridge with a movable bridge represents a once in a 100-year missed opportunity.

Instead that movable bridge should be replaced with a high-level bridge, a bridge that boats can pass under instead of opening & shutting the bridges as is done with drawbridges.

Re-building drawbridges in Connecticut severely limits the future utility of the Northeast Corridor. Check out this link: