Thursday, August 6, 2015

What if Amtrak cared about its Hartford riders?

Welcome to another installment of our "What if?" series, where we ask what would happen if the people who ran our transit system treated it as an essential service that people relied on, rather than a luxury or a charity. In the past we've asked what if New York City Transit gave a shit about passengers at the Smith/9th Street subway station, riders on the #7 train from Woodside to Flushing or the M6 bus, Rockaway subway riders, subway riders in general, or the riders of any bus with onboard fare enforcement.

I've also asked what it would look like if the NYPD traffic brass cared about pedestrian safety, if the LIRR cared about people going through Jamaica, and if New Jersey Transit cared about transit riders or were interested in attracting new riders. I've gone further afield and asked what if the Port Authority of Allegheny County cared about people who want to get dahntahn.

But several of my "What ifs" have been about Connecticut. What if Amtrak cared about riders between New York and Boston crossing the Thames River east of New London, or the Niantic River west of the town? What if Amtrak and Metro-North cared about people traveling between Fairfield and Bridgeport?

Tonight the question is: what if Amtrak and the Connecticut DOT cared about riders between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield? The Hartford line has been neglected since the demise of the Penn Central, and one track has been removed for much of its length. It was treated by Amtrak as part of the Northeast Corridor, and several of the trains from New York and Washington used to go north to Springfield. Some even continued east from Springfield to Boston on the former Boston and Albany main line. When Amtrak introduced the Acela Express service and upgraded the Shore Line through Providence, it rerouted almost all the trains along the Shore, with four connecting "shuttles" running from New Haven to Springfield.

Amtrak and ConnDOT are working on improving service, which means they care, right? The AP says, "Work began Monday on the project that will boost north-south rail transportation from six daily round-trip trains to 17 a day south of Hartford and 12 north of Hartford."

Except if you read the details you'll see that they're destroying the frequency in order to save it. In the previous schedule (PDF) there were six trains a day in each direction; three of them are being bustituted. For two and a half years.

Train numberLeave SpringfieldNotes
1415:55AMThrough train Springfield to DC
552:50PMThe Vermonter - through train St. Albans to DC
4797:40PMNot bustituted

According to Amtrak's monthly report (PDF), between October 2013 and September 2014 there were 370,896 riders on the Hartford-Springfield line, all week long. This does not include the Vermonter, so if we assume that all five other runs have the same number of passengers, and that ridership is the same every day of the week, we're talking about almost 400,000 trips being bustituted over the next two and a half years.

Why are they being bustituted? There is no explanation given in any of the press releases besides "double tracking." Amtrak's website refers to it as "Mid-Day Shuttle Service," which is a funny way of talking about trains that travel s early as 7:10 AM and as late as 6:50 PM. The Environmental Assessment has a bit more:

The project includes replacement of approximately 35 miles of second track removed by Amtrak in the early 1980s. The track, consisting of s sub-ballast foundation, wood or concrete railroad ties and steel rail, will be restored on the previously engineered Amtrak track bed. It will be aligned to support speeds of up to 110 mph. There are five sections of new double track, including one (MP 31.1 to MP 35.1) where the second track physically still remains, but is no longer in service and will be removed and replaced…

I understand that sometimes when you're double-tracking you need to disrupt the existing track, for hours at a time, like in the photo above. I also understand the desire to bustitute a whole bunch of trains for the whole length of the project, so that everyone knows what to expect and nobody gets confused and misses the bus on Tuesday the 17th because they got it mixed up with Wednesday the 18th. And yet, as with all the other Amtrak disruptions in Connecticut, it feels like Amtrak and ConnDOT really don't take Amtrak passengers seriously. I get the sense that they think of their future Commuter Rail passengers as Serious Business People, but the current Amtrak passengers are Recreational Travelers who won't mind sitting on a bus in rush hour I-91 traffic through Hartford or New Haven.

That sense makes me wonder if they're really doing all they can for the riders. How many people are working on this double-tracking project? Does it really take two and a half years? Are we closing all sixty miles of track for just one crew that will be traveling up and down the line, double-tracking as they go? Could the budget be rearranged to add more crews, so that the project could be finished in half the time?


Adirondacker12800 said...

They are being bustituted because the Springfield line is embarrassingly slow. Not as embarrassingly slow as Albany-Boston but slow.

Keep in mind, that to people from outside of metro New York, "congested" means "so heavy we had to slow down to 50" not "the pedestrians by the side of the road were walking faster" Many times it means "the third lane had cars in it! We had to stay in the center lane to go 70"

According to Amtrak's monthly report (PDF), between October 2013 and September 2014 there were 370,896 riders on the Hartford-Springfield line, all week long. This does not include the Vermonter,

The Vermonter isn't being bustituted so the passengers in Connecticut who use the Vermonter will still be able to get on and off the Vermonter. As will the people who use the unbustituted trains.

You want to see how many people get on and off trains at a particular station you probably want to look at

In round numbers Springfield is as far from New York ( and Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC. ) as Albany is from New York. With twice the population in greater Springfield-Hartford. And gets one third the ridership. It's people who don't want to take the faster options. Like driving on congested I-91 and parking in New Haven where there is decent service.

The Sprinfield trains are realllly realllllly slow. This

says that the bus schedule will be the same as the train schedule except at Berlin, Meridan and Wallingford, which will "leave 20 minutes earlier than the respective train schedules"

Berlin had 23,363 passengers boarding and alighting in FY 2014. Meridan had 30,466 and Wallingford 14,331. So it's going to affect some southbound passengers at some stations. The rest of them will either be on a train or the bus will be just as fast.

itineranturbanist said...

I'll add to Adirondacker's comment above: it's not just that it's slow, it's that the service plan doesn't serve the corridor well. This line should see frequent, all-day service at a level that even the current NHHS plan doesn't quite provide. It should be double-tracked and electrified. But with Amtrak as the steward, there was never any shot of that happening. Amtrak doesn't have the funding, and moreover doesn't see providing frequent intrastate service as being in its mission. As far as Amtrak is concerned, the Springfield line is useful for its intercity connectivity, linking up Hartford and Springfield with the NEC, and little else. The current service plan, which I wrote about here (, while imperfect, clearly separates intercity and intrastate trains, and splits responsibility for them. It's about time.

neroden@gmail said...

This is a pretty monumental project. I'm not quite understanding why the costs are so high for the project, but the estimates were high to start with and keep going up.

I suspect there may be a lot of small bridges to retrofit.

It's not just the double-tracking, they're also redoing the signalling at the same time, which probably causes a lot of trouble. And they're redoing the right-of-way in general; the existing single track is actually in bad shape. They're easing curves, raising speed limits, etc.

I can see why they want large, uninterrupted work windows.

neroden@gmail said...

I will add that the plans are raising & lowering bridges and clearing width for electrification. They're not actually planting the poles or putting up the wiring, but the designs all specify that space is to be left for future electrification.

Neil said...

Checking Amtrak's reservation site, trains leaving from Springfield and Hartford get delayed by 30 minutes as well. Why the discrepancy? Oddly, the 4:05 Springfield train is listed as still there while the 7:40 pm one is bustituted. From Hartford, the service wasn't that slow though agree Springfield's service was bad.