A Metro-North rail car. Credit: Contributed photo
Kerri Ana Provost
KERRI ANA PROVOST

Our problem is that we want everything at a finger snap. Our hunger for ASAP has fed into the exploitation of warehouse and delivery workers, and has fueled a myriad of other issues. This is what happens when speed is prioritized over all else. 

Bring up trains at an especially nerdy party, and you’re guaranteed to have at least one person salivating over high-speed rail. 

It’s time to knock our obsession with speed off its pedestal. 

The problem with high-speed rail is not electrifying routes and making travel faster – it’s that starry-eyed devotees of it ignore all other improvements that can and should happen. We see the same phenomenon happening with the broader climate action movement. A contingent fetishizes whatever is viewed as the technological silver bullet of the day, ignoring that significant change requires a broad coalition and a variety of tactics. 

The Connecticut State Rail Plan 2022-2026 does mention high-speed rail, within the context of other improvement goals. 

If zooming at top speed doesn’t do it for me, what does get me excited? More passing sidings. Ride often enough, and you’ll find yourself in a train stopped on the tracks anywhere from a few minutes to quite a while so that another may safely pass. In fiscal year 2021’s fourth quarter, Amtrak reported 599 minutes of delays in Connecticut due to passenger train interference. We thankfully have minimal freight train interruption on the Northeast Corridor; this could be much worse. Adding more of what are essentially passing lanes is among the Connecticut DOT’s stated goals, and something we should be talking about more. 

Trains being delayed by other trains may seem like a small matter, but that’s in addition to weather-related service disruptions, slow order and signal delays, and miscellaneous issues including locomotive failure. Slow orders are given when track conditions are degraded or there is construction; these caused 6,610 minutes of delays in that same period. On the New Haven Line, slow orders reduced speeds by 42% since 2018. Signal delays, though not the top cause for lateness, feel alarming because communication failures involving heavy, fast-moving objects can have consequences worse than a delayed arrival, potentially. Who else has been on the Hartford Line when the train has come to a stop at an at-grade road crossing while a railroad employee clad in a hi-vis vest hopped out to deal with the issue? It’s not like waiting for a freight train out West to pass, but it tacks another five minutes onto a trip that may have started twenty minutes late as it was. 

What else can we do besides fixating on getting our trains to go faster than speeding bullets? If you’ve traveled from Hartford to Penn Station, you’ve experienced the awkwardness of the diesel-to-electric locomotive switch at New Haven’s Union Station. It confuses unexpecting passengers, cuts the lights and WiFi, and takes about fifteen minutes to complete. 

Another way to speed things up without accelerating? Add more train trips to the schedule. Having more options means that if you miss one train, there’s a relatively short wait for the next. The delay becomes less irritating than what one encounters when trips are spaced out by hours. 

The language used to express this, though, is needlessly confusing. You’ll hear this referred to as “headways,” which means the amount of time between trains headed in the same direction. Increasing headways means adding time between trains. 

The plan states a goal to “Increase morning Hartford Line headways from Penn Station, as well as headways throughout the rest of the day.” That can’t be right. Is this a typo? 

Increasing frequency is what increases ridership, and what they propose to do elsewhere by adding more trains in the morning on Shore Line East to Grand Central and for Amtrak and Metro-North on the New Haven Line. They aim to improve frequency of service for inter-Connecticut trains on Shore Line East and New Haven Line.

If these plans come to fruition, all these changes will add up to make for considerably smoother, more predictable, and yes, faster service. There remains space for other improvements which were not addressed, like reducing boarding and alighting times for popular trains where the crowded platform adds minutes to trips. Maybe safety and schedule improvements aren’t as sexy as high-speed rail that looks ripped from the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but these changes are needed and useful, and deserving of at least a double take. 

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Kerri Ana Provost

Kerri Ana Provost is a Hartford-based writer who also publishes at RealHartford.org.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.