Will the Future of Rail Travel Include Metro-North?

Aug 27, 2012

There’s talk of Hartford to New York in half an hour. New York to Boston in 90 minutes. Tunnels under the Long Island Sound zipping trains across the region. It’s exciting stuff. But here in Connecticut, many are saying, ‘wait a minute. First thing’s first.’

“We don’t have money today to run the railroad that we operate – or try to operate – today," says Jim Cameron.

Cameron is chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, which represents the interests of the state’s Metro-North riders. He thinks it’s great we’re finally having a discussion about high-speed rail in America. But right now, we’re riding a commuter rail line that’s in desperate need of repair, to the tune of at least $2 billion. Connecticut pays $60 million a year just to maintain it.

“Connecticut gets left holding the bag paying most of the cost for the maintenance of this century-old right-of-way," Cameron says.

How did we get here? First of all, public transit stopped being a priority decades ago when cars and air travel came into the mix. But for Metro-North’s New Haven line, the busiest single rail line in America, there’s another reason: Lack of federal funding.

“The funding has always excluded the New Haven Line," says Metro-North President Howard Permut. And we are now, in that circumstance, paying the price for that.”

Over 38 million trips were taken on the New Haven Line last year, an all-time record. But the tracks don’t get many federal dollars because Connecticut owns most of them. The state made that decision decades ago when the federal government was taking over most of the country’s railroads. Amtrak bought up most of those tracks – with some exceptions.

“As railroads were bankrupt and they were looking for owners and operators, Connecticut chose to own the New York border to the New Haven section of the Northeast Corridor," explains Connecticut’s Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker.

That means the federal money Amtrak gets every year doesn’t go to those tracks.

It also means the hearings the government is holding across the Northeast this month on the future of passenger rail in the region don’t really deal with Metro-North at all. They’re focused on those high-speed projects that more than one state public official has referred to as “pie-in-the-sky,” at least for the time being.

But here’s where things get interesting. Maybe it wasn’t the best decision for Connecticut to own its tracks back in 1976. But now, as the region plans for a future in rail, Connecticut has leverage that almost no one else does, because Amtrak needs those tracks to get its customers from D.C. to Boston.

As Jim Cameron puts it: “Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service is in our hands, so-to-speak.”

So any big plans Amtrak has need Connecticut’s blessing. For instance: its latest proposal to spend more than $100 billion on a completely new high-speed rail line. Riders could get from New York to Boston following the I-84 corridor through Danbury and Waterbury. Here’s where the state could use some of its leverage.

“It’s not as if anyone’s going to give up land to build a super right-of-way for a 225-mile-an-hour train that might not even stop in Connecticut," Cameron says.

Metro-North and Connecticut DOT are also hoping Amtrak might pay more than just the current $15 million a year in rent to use those tracks from New York to New Haven. Maybe Amtrak – or the federal government – would pitch in some of the $2 billion needed to fix century-old wires, signaling systems and moveable bridges that break down regularly and cause passengers hours of delays.

“Whatever this long-term vision is, it’s going to be 10, 20 years before anthing like that is going to happen," says Metro-North's Howard Permut. Even if that were to happen, we’re faced with 20-plus years of Amtrak operating on the New Haven line. And I think that that line has to be fixed up.”

The Federal Railroad Administration is just about finished with its hearings in cities across the Northeast. Over the next few years, it will collect proposals and finish an environmental impact study, along with suggestions of actual new rail service, by 2015. Even though the plans could be incredibly long-range, they’re exciting.

“What we’re finally doing is we’re looking at rail as an equal partner to highways," says Joe McGee, Vice President of Public Policy and Programs for the Business Council of Fairfield County. And that is a really big deal. It’s very exciting, it’s long-range, but it will reshape over the next 30 years the economy and the life of our residents.”

Of course, plans are important. But nothing will happen without the money, and who knows what kind of political climate we’ll have in ten years that would free up hundreds of billions of dollars for new high-speed rail lines in the Northeast.

Still, next to that figure, the $2 billion to fix our current commuter rail system in Connecticut doesn’t seem so big after all.