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Passenger Rail Gaining Steam in New England

February 3, 2014
By Marc Bussanich 

New York, NY—While high-speed rail in California would be the nation’s biggest infrastructure project should it break ground this year, upgrades to and expansion of passenger rail service in New England is building steam.

Last week in Springfield, Massachusetts and White River Junction, Vermont, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Vermont Agency of Transportation held public meetings to inform the public about the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI).

Route showing Inland Route and Boston to Montreal via Springfield

Paul Nelson, manager of corridor planning at the Massachusetts DOT, told LaborPressin an interview that the agency is currently conducting a study to examine the possibilities for faster and more frequent rail service on two existing corridors—the Inland Route between Boston and Springfield and from Boston to Montreal via Springfield.

“We’re now doing a planning study that looks at the project’s feasibility, ridership estimates and identifying some projects along the corridors to improve speed and reliability of service,” said Nelson.

The legislature in Massachusetts just approved an ambitious bill that authorizes the state to borrow up to $12 billion for transportation projects across the state. Nelson said money from that pot would help finance some of the infrastructure work along both corridors but to complete the entire project to allow trains to operate at speeds between 80 mph and 110 mph would require hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The idea is that we want to make this project attractive for some competitive federal grants such as TIGER [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] and from the Federal Rail Administration,” Nelson said.

He also noted that the project wouldn’t just benefit riders in Northern New England communities that haven’t had rail service in decades but for riders in the New York City region who’d want to travel to Northern New England destinations by rail.

“From a ridership and service perspective, we envision all of the trips that go along the Inland Route to proceed to New York City in one way or another where they’ll be able to transfer at New Haven to connect to the Northeast Corridor.”

Nelson said the meetings were well attended, with about 100 people in Springfield and 50 in White River Junction, and that there was a lot of interest to restore passenger rail service. According to a local FOX affiliate that covered the hearing in Springfield, some people said they hoped trains could start running more frequently as soon as possible.

But construction might not happen for awhile because of funding challenges. For example, the $1.1 trillion budget recently passed by Congress includes no additional monies to fund high-speed intercity rail projects around the country.

“I see this [the project’s completion] being 5 to 10 years out,” said Nelson.

But improvements and upgrades are already happening.

The New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Rail Program, which has received significant state and federal investments, calls for laying 27 miles of new double track along a 62-mile route that will help with passenger trains’ on-time performance.

Amtrak’s Vermonter service travels along this route on its way to its northern destination at St. Albans, Vermont. North of Springfield, Massachusetts, however, the Vermonter has to travel eastward before resuming a direct northern route, contributing to longer travel times. But work is already underway to realign the route, thanks to $74 million in federal funds that has already paid for upgrades along the Vermonter's 190-mile route in Vermont.

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