A new railroad investment is about to get underway in eastern Connecticut that its backers hope will be a boost for the economy right along the tracks and into greater New England.
Instead of giants scissors, the New England Central Railroad chose a train to cut the ribbon on this new project.
The celebration, held in Willimantic, was two years in the making, and is the result of the state winning an $8 million federal TIGER grant to revitalize this stretch of freight rail.
“The New England Central Railroad runs from the Canadian border, through Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut to the port of New London,” explained Dave Brown of the railroad’s owner, Genesee & Wyoming.
Darien-based G&W owns regional railroads in 41 states. It bought this particular railroad in 2012, knowing that despite its strategic position, there was a huge problem. The aging tracks couldn’t take modern rail cars carrying the industry-standard 286,000 tons of freight.
"In fact, if you’re not 286," said Brown, "you’re just not competitive.”
The fact that companies moving freight must use underweighted rail cars means in effect this stretch of track can’t fully connect to the wider network.
That in turn, has meant more freight on the roads.
“Connecticut has the distinction of, on the highway side, three of the top ten worst congested locations in the nation for truck freight," said Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker. "This project is the solution to that problem.”
The project will lay 15 miles of new welded rails, replace more than 15,000 cross ties and 11 switches, rehab 10 highway-grade crossings, and reinforce bridges along the way.
The hope is that bringing this rail line up to modern standards should attract industries to locate in this part of the state.
“All of these companies that want to be here in Connecticut, but maybe have second thoughts because they’re not sure how quickly they can get goods to market -- they now have an answer,” said Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy.
And in the future, freight may not even be the last word for the New England Central Railroad.
“I’ve ridden this line," said Senator Richard Blumenthal. "It is an exquisitely beautiful line, and I can see a day when it will be not only a cultural corridor, because it connects universities and schools, but also a tourist attraction.”
Meanwhile, the port city of New London, where this track ends, is hoping the investment will help it attract a lot more shipping traffic bringing goods into and out of New England.
“This is one of the greatest things to happen for New London in decades," said Mayor Michael Passero. "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.”
The Windham Chamber of Commerce represents businesses in 16 towns adjacent to this line. CEO Diane Nadeau was one of the driving forces bringing together state, federal, and corporate interests to fight for the grant.
“We don’t have any highway access." Nadeau told WNPR, "So it’s very difficult for us to bring in any company that does any kind of shipping. It should boost the economy all along the rail tenfold.”
Construction on the upgrades is slated to begin in the spring, but Genessee & Wyoming doesn’t yet have a schedule for when the work will be complete.