Training through the middle of New England

This first ran in Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' column in

New England, unlike most of America, has passenger-train service and with some vision can  soon have a lot more to boost its economy, better protect its environment and make life easier.

Consider the New England Central Railroad, a freight line that runs from Alburgh, Vt., at the U.S.-Canadian border, through the middle of our region and terminates at New London, Conn., on Long Island Sound.  The owner of the line, Genesee & Wyoming (sounds like something from Mark Twain!), has been spending millions to improve the route by putting in new welded rails where needed,  upgrading bridges and road crossings, getting new and refurbished rolling stock and adjusting schedules. It will spend a lot more, supplemented with some federal funds to improve sections of the line.

All the towns and cities along the way will benefit, but particularly New London, with its deepwater port. New London’s mayor, Michael Passero, said: “This is one of the greatest things to happen for New London in decades. An investment in this rail line that goes directly to the state pier is going to allow New London to tap into one of its greatest unused assets.’’ Watch out, Quonset and Providence: It might steal some of your business.

But with the Genesee & Wyoming planning to buy the Woonsocket-basedProvidence and Worcester Railroad, which exchanges freight with the New England Central, we can expect that Rhode Island will also be brought more tightly into this rail system.

The New England Central’s improved service is helping the many communities along its route. It may even boost manufacturing in some old factory towns by cutting the cost of receiving and shipping goods.  The improvements should let interior New England share in more of the wealth now heavily concentrated near the coast. Rhode Island Public Radio quoted Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker as noting:

“Connecticut has the distinction of, on the highway side, three of the top 10 worst congested locations in the nation for truck freight. This {rail-improvement} project is the solution to that problem.’’ Well, “a’’ partial solution anyway by getting more freight off the roads and onto tracks.

But I also want to tout proposed passenger service on the New England Central between Brattleboro, Vt., and New London. The proposed service, to be called the Central (as in central New England) Corridor Rail Line, would run from Brattleboro, Vt., to New London.  This would provide the only  long-distance (by New England standards) north-south service rail service in  the middle of New England except for Amtrak’s Vermonter service.

Backers note that it would provide a rail link between 13 colleges and universities, including the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts, and link up with Amtrak at Brattleboro to take travelers to Burlington, home of the University of Vermont. That means,  among other things,  connecting people working on research and development at those schools, as well as at businesses along the way.

And given the hill, valley and riverine beauty ofmuch of the route, the passenger service should attract many tourists, too, especially in the fall foliage season.

The idea is that initially the rolling stock would be refurbished Budd  Rail Diesel Cars (aka Buddliners), which used to be heavily used by commuters and on spur routes and recall the days of Mad Men in the New York City suburbs. They can go up to 80 miles an hour, a lot faster than you can drive legally in New England. This, again, could be a particular boon to Connecticut by taking many drivers off  its famously crowded and slow roads.

The aging of the population and that young adults drive less than their predecessors are other reasons to get this service going.