Chris Powell: Back to the future with CTrail


Within living memory there was frequent passenger railroad service north and south out of Hartford, and the railroad company, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford, known simply as the New Haven, was as famous as any. Thanks to Hartford-born financier and monopolist John Pierpont Morgan Sr., the New Haven practically owned transportation in southern New England for the first half of the 20th Century, having acquired most of its competitors. 

The line north of New Haven to Hartford and Springfield, Mass., was double-tracked to hasten the heavy traffic. But the New Haven was usually over-indebted, went bankrupt twice, was crippled by cars and highways in the 1950s and '60s, and was taken over by the government in 1970. One track north of New Haven was torn up to reduce maintenance costs. Since then the passenger service maintained on the line by the government railroad, Amtrak, has been only nominal. 

Now Connecticut's Transportation Department hopes to revive passenger service frequent enough to serve commuters from Springfield to New Haven, connecting there to the Metro-North commuter railroad system, the busiest in the country, serving Grand Central Station in New York and the whole metropolitan area. Double track north of New Haven has been restored and the new trains (refurbished ones, actually) are running. This is thrilling as it shows that state government still can do something more than pay pensions to its employees, do something of potentially general benefit. 

But it may be a long time before the new train service can be considered a success. For just like the old New Haven, the new service, dubbed CTrail, will lose money -- probably tens of millions of dollars per year -- and each passenger paying $8 per trip between Hartford and New Haven probably will be subsidized by state government by many times that amount for a long time. Busy as Metro-North is, fares still don't cover its costs and never will. State government pays tens of millions each year to keep the line running. 

Of course highways cost money too and are vital to commerce and development. But a railroad can support commuters and development only if its stations have frequent trolley, subway, bus, or van service to connect them to their communities. Such systems are not yet in place for the new line, and when they are they will lose money too. 

Ironically, at the outset the new rail service's biggest beneficiary may be the MGM casino under construction in Springfield, which more easily will siphon Connecticut and New York customers away from the Indian casinos in eastern Connecticut, costing the state still more money. State government has authorized the tribes to build a casino in East Windsor to intercept Springfield gambling traffic but the railroad doesn't go through East Windsor. No one seems to have thought of that when the site for the interceptor casino was chosen. 

Even so, on the whole the new rail service will accentuate Connecticut's excellent position between New York and Boston, especially if, as is contemplated, Massachusetts extends its own commuter rail service from Boston and Worcester west to Springfield. 

After all, nearly everyone in Connecticut goes to New York and Boston sometimes. Now it is easy again for people north of New Haven to go to New York by train and use the time not to stew in traffic but to read, work, or just relax or nap. (If only Metro-North and CTrail trains could be equipped with wireless internet service.) 

So "puff-puff, toot-toot, off we go" -- just, please, not to another bankruptcy. 

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.