If you live in Connecticut, chances are you run across abandoned or barely used rail lines all the time. Our state has a rich railway history, and we must take advantage of that to reuse what we have and create new, better lines that will connect us with the rest of the country and beyond. Rail, not highways, are our future.
That’s cold comfort in some parts of the state. People in Old Lyme are unhappy with the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) because of a plan that would straighten and move the Northeast Corridor rail line inland. That would allow higher speed trains on the line, but unfortunately the plan slices through the heart of Old Lyme’s historic district.
The FRA is considering several plans to either convert the winding corridor, which was originally designed and built in the 19th century, into a high speed line or replace it entirely. Two of the plans would actually cut diagonally across Connecticut, linking Hartford directly with New York, Storrs, and Boston.
Those plans would be utterly transformative. But they cost hundreds of billions of dollars and would probably run into exponentially more opposition from locals worried about high speed trains cutting through their towns, so we’re likely stuck with the limited plan to straighten the current coastal railway. Arguments from local residents aside, this is the plan that’s going to happen — if any plan happens at all.
Either way, Connecticut needs more rail. In Fairfield County Metro-North is heavily used and very crowded, and straightening and improving the rail line there would make travel to New York a lot faster, safer, and more convenient. Shore Line East running east of New Haven to New London is an increasingly popular service, as well, and the impending Hartford Line, which would make use of existing Amtrak lines from Springfield to New Haven, will go a long way toward knitting the Connecticut Valley together.
But what about Connecticut outside of those services? What about light rail in our cities, and better connections outside of them? What about transit to the suburbs that don’t have it? Believe it or not, most of the infrastructure to get better passenger rail and light rail service up and running already exists. Chances are, you’ve been ignoring it for as long as you’ve been here.
In the Hartford area alone there are three major rail lines that see virtually zero traffic; one that runs from Hartford through Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, and Cromwell before ending in Middletown, another that runs across the river to Manchester with a spur north to Hazardville, and a third, the Griffin Line, that runs through the northern half of Hartford through Bloomfield, ending up close to Bradley Airport.
A line that ran from Hartford to New Britain was repurposed to create the popular CTFastrak service. This was an expensive but worthwhile and flexible reuse of an old rail line, and I wonder if something like it may be possible again with the other lines. Even if not, the rails could be repaired and upgraded for passenger service, allowing light rail cars to run along them. We could build stations and encourage transit-oriented development nearby.
This would tie the region together in a remarkable way and allow people to move more freely without having to resort to cars and clogged highways. But it would also make the whole area popular for employers and young college grads, which, as I argued last week, are vital for our future.
In 2008 I wrote a piece that included a map of local rail lines in Hartford, converted for passenger use. I’m posting that map again. Some of it we’ve done, like the busway. But I believe that the rest needs to be seriously considered.
And what about other uses for old rail lines? One great use for the old Farmington Valley railways was their conversion to a well-loved system of rail trails. If we can’t use our old railways as light rail or busway routes, maybe we can use them as places to walk and ride.
We must not let these precious resources lie abandoned, though. We must push the legislature and our members of Congress to not only wisely build new lines, but to recognize the incredible heritage of rail our predecessors left us, and to use it to make our state more attractive and better connected.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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