Sunday, December 30, 2007

Thames River (CT): Thinking long term

In today's New York Times there is an editorial about the railroad bridge over the Thames river which I've discussed previously. The article concerns commuters from New London who would like to ride the train to work but can't, because there are no commuter trains. The State of Connecticut used to run ten Shore Line East trains a day to New London, and they all had to cross the bridge to turn around.

This caused a problem: the Thames River Bridge is a lift bridge which is normally left open to let boat traffic through, so only about forty trains a day can go across. With the growing popularity of the Acela Express, Amtrak customers wanted more trains to Boston, and Amtrak wanted the revenue. In 2003 the State of Connecticut promised Amtrak that it would stop running commuter trains from New London for fifteen years, allowing Amtrak to increase the number of Acela Express runs. In exchange for this, Amtrak agreed to allow Shore Line East customers with monthly tickets to travel on non-Acela trains (see video) to and from New London.

This is a problem that doesn't happen so much in transit-poor parts of the country. Most places are so happy to have any train service that they don't care if it's Amtrak or something else. Of course, not that many of them use it for their daily commutes. Unfortunately, the rates that Amtrak charges for its Northeast Corridor trips is too high for all but the wealthiest to pay for their daily commutes. Rather than pay to maintain or widen the inefficient I-95 bridges, Connecticut wisely chose to support Shore Line East service. While a ticket from New London to New Haven is $14 on an Amtrak Regional train, it's only $8.25 on Shore Line East. Monthly tickets are $360 on Amtrak and $175 on Shore Line East.

However, the agreement only applies to customers with monthly passes. Amtrak will not honor single tickets from New London, meaning that people who don't travel every day, or want to try the new service, have to pay the higher fare. Another big deal is that Amtrak is reservation-only. New London commuters without monthly passes need to go on line or pick up the phone to reserve each day, an added step that would deter regular commuters. If the train is completely booked one day, they can't get on. No train for them.

As the New London Day reports, many potential commuters are discouraged by this practice. This means that there are lots of potential Shore Line East customers who aren't using the service, and instead are most likely commuting by car, contributing to the traffic jams on I-95.

It's great to see the Times and the Day arguing so forcefully for transit. But why such limited vision? All they're asking for is to have Amtrak sell cheap tickets to commuters between New London and points west without reservations.

Meanwhile, there's tremendous demand for shore line service. It was booked solid the day before Thanksgiving this year. That means demand can only grow, and as James RePass of the National Corridors Initiative told the Day, "Shore Line East doesn't need to go to New London. It needs to go to Providence. ... There are tons of people who would like to go from New London to Boston and back." But there's no room to meet this demand. As the articles point out, the need to open the bridge to let boats through means that at most forty trains a day can cross it. That's how many are running now, and if they're all full, and they've all got as many cars as can fit, there's nothing more to add. The line is maxed out.

In transit advocacy, demand is often very ambiguous, so when the Cap'n sees demand, he wants to see it satisfied. Why doesn't anyone at the Times or the Day ask about upgrading the line? It's two tracks between New Haven and Providence; why not make it three or four? Many of the news articles mention that Amtrak is planning to upgrade the other two major bridges, over the Niantic and Pattagansett Rivers, in the next few years. This is the perfect opportunity to add capacity; if it's proposed after the reconstructions are done it would be hard to justify wasting the money that is now being spent. In fact, it's probably too late; they've already upgraded the bridge over the Quinnipiac River.

However, the point of my previous Thames River Bridge post was that there's more than one way to get to Boston. While many of the Amtrak customers on this route are going to Rhode Island or Route 128, a large number are going all the way to Boston, or to points north and west of Boston. If you can provide an alternate route, you can free up space for local passengers along the shore. I'm not the only one to suggest it; posters on the, On Track On Line and Train Orders message boards have proposed running trains on the old Inland Route through Hartford and Springfield, either temporarily or permanently. A poster on the board even suggested using the old Air Line through Willimantic and Putnam.

Of course, there are several challenges to both ideas. The Inland Route is not in very good shape for passengers. One poster from the Train Orders board said that it took him four hours to get from Boston to New Haven in 2003; the current shore line schedule has two hours 25 minutes for Regional trains and two hours five minutes for Acela Express trains. There are many reasons for this, as enumerated by poster Dutchrailnut: "No high level platforms at 90% of stations, no Electrification, single track, to many freights, not properly signalled." Still, it would be a worthy use of federal and Massachusetts money to rebuild the second track, add a third track where feasible to minimize freight conflicts, electrify the line and upgrade the signals and the platforms. Dutchrailnut didn't mention grade crossing eliminations, so I'm hoping that there aren't too many grade crossings to worry about.

The other suggestion was to reactivate the Air Line; several posters mentioned that it was considered for the service that eventually became Acela Express. It's shorter and more direct than the shore line. The challenge there is that it's now a rail-trail, and it would be politically difficult to take that trail away. All of the bridges that were washed out would have to be rebuilt, and possibly some of the viaducts. All of the track between Portland, CT and Franklin, MA would have to be rebuilt, with electrification and signalling. Any stations along the line would have to be rebuilt with high-level platforms. Grade crossings would have to be eliminated. We're talking a lot of money.

Still, I'm sure either of these ideas would be cheaper and less environmentally destructive than ConnDOT's eternal pipe dream of an interstate highway between Manchester and Providence. It doesn't have to be done all at once, either. Here's my suggested progression:

Inland Route:
  1. Double-track lines; add diesel local service
  2. Add signals and high-level platforms; add more service
  3. Electrify line and straighten curves; add through express service
  4. Add third track where possible; add more trains

Air Line:
  1. Rebuild bridges and viaducts; widen to two-track width and straighten curves where feasible; build trail alongside right-of-way where possible
  2. Replace single track with sidings, signals and temporary stations; add minimum diesel passenger and freight service
  3. Double-track line and rebuild stations with platforms; add more service
  4. Electrify line and eliminate grade crossings; add through service
  5. Add third track where possible; add more trains


Ran Barton said...

I admire your scope of vision - I really do. Long-term I think the US needs to make substantial commitments to transit and rail to permit its citizens to move about without being wedded to their cars, but...

Holy cow, you're suggesting things that will cost a fortune and drive the freights crazy. Progress in these areas will take serious political dedication, and we're just not there yet.

You say "it would be a worthy use of federal and Massachusetts money to rebuild the second track, add a third track where feasible to minimize freight conflicts, electrify the line and upgrade the signals and the platforms." I happen to agree. Do you know how long it took to get the NEC electrified from New Haven to Boston? We live in a day and age when towns balk at the cost of simply installing high-level platforms - no one is going to step forward for what you suggest.

I think relying on DMU equipment and track sharing with the freights is a more feasible starting point, and that's using the existing CSX right of way. The idea that the abandoned Air Line would be put back in service suggests a whole other level of funding. Again, I welcome the day, but I think we need to think of smaller steps while the country changes directions before we suggest such wholesale and expensive changes.

One last comment - the reason roads get built and rails don't is, in part, due to the funding mechanisms. States receive no guaranteed Federal match to rail funds they way they do from the Transportation trust fund. If CT, for example, has $10mm to spend on transportation, all that will buy in rail is $10mm. If they are lucky, they may receive some sort of modest Federal aid - say another few million. If that same $10mm is programmed for road construction, using the 80/20 matching, CT will then have $50mm to spend on roads, and the politicians receive the benefits of pumping $50mm into their local economies and workforces. Until this changes, I see no end to states' addictions to road construction.

Ran Barton said...

There's more on the costs of future rail service in America here:

Cap'n Transit said...

You're welcome to work on short-term solutions, and I'll support them if I think they're worthwhile.

The point of these "Thinking long term" posts is to get away for a few minutes from the negative thinking about how this is infeasible and that is impossible, and think about what we could have if we made these things a priority and spent a fraction of the highway budget on them.

It's now becoming harder and harder for people to afford to drive, and governments are realizing that rail is a much better investment. Maybe the political dedication will get there, maybe it never will, but I think it's worth imagining for a little while.