The talk about the return of passenger train service to Cornwall and beyond is mainly just that: talk.
When Governor Ned Lamont announced a new plan to invest in Connecticut’s aging rail system a couple of months ago, he indicated to everyone in the Northwestern part of the state what his priorities in public infrastructure spending are about. The program, called “Time for CT,” aims to improve service, including reduced travel time and increased train frequency, and invest up to $10 billion in taxes only into the main transportation corridors along the Connecticut River, the coast and its branches to New Canaan, Danbury, and Waterbury.
Recent discussions about the Connecticut State Rail Plan 2021-2025 seem inspired by the same agenda. Whatever interest in bringing passenger train service back on the old tracks running through Cornwall might exist, it doesn’t sway anybody in Hartford. Fifty years after service was abandoned (see the first part in our Cornwall Chronicle web exclusive “The End of a Line”) the commercial rationale has not changed. And neither has the framework of running passenger rail. It doesn’t function without public subsidies. And therefore taxpayer money should go where it has the greatest impact.
The main reason for lack of movement in this issue? The tracks between North Canaan and New Milford are owned by the state of Connecticut. Any passenger service could only come after an expensive upgrade of the existing line. The cost of which is hard to predict. A regional lobbying group based in Great Barrington, called Train Campaign, likes to lowball the expected outlay and talks about $1 million per mile to refurbish the track. Projections listed a few years back in the Connecticut State Rail Plan 2012-2016 calculated an amount north of $3 million per mile. Why? A fixer-upper would need not only new tracks, but acceptable crossings, overhauled culverts, and quite a bit of work on some bridges. To be added to the mix: at least one maintenance facility that could handle the amount of traffic the Train Campaign dreams of. Which would be eight scheduled trains per day in either direction, all of them connecting to New York, as Karen Christensen, its founder, has said.
The existing line is used by a freight train operator who can afford to move cargo slowly on old tracks. Much faster passenger service requires the upgrade of everything: tracks and crossings, culverts and bridges. And the creation of platforms and parking spaces. Photo: Juergen Kalwa
A second look reveals that the lobbying effort is essentially a Massachusetts vanity project. Not only do people in Northwest Connecticut already have a practical solution in place (the MTA Harlem Line that connects Wassaic and New York with 13 scheduled trains on a regular weekday in each direction), the economic benefit from a reestablished Berkshire Line would go to…the Berkshires and its tourist destinations. A study projected an effect of propping up business activity by $100 million annually.
Not surprisingly, Massachusetts really means business. In 2014 its Department of Transportation bought the 37-mile stretch from the Southern border to Pittsfield for $12,130,000. Since then more money has poured in to replace old rails with new ones. Every now and then this effort is celebrated by a media drumbeat that knows only one tune: “After nearly a half-century break from providing passenger service, the Housatonic Railway could soon serve as a passenger line from Pittsfield to New York City, with potential stops in Lenox, Lee, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Sheffield,” wrote the online publication Berkshire Record last year, for example, when regional state Representatives announced that lawmakers in Boston want to establish a working group on the benefits of passenger rail service between Pittsfield and New York City. A distance for which the proposed train would take an estimated 3 hours and 55 minutes. One way.
The official Connecticut position vis a vis its northern neighbors was articulated in 2015 by then-Governor Dannel Malloy who said, “the state of Massachusetts will have to pay more than its share of the tab to upgrade freight tracks to passenger train quality.” A position he explained to the Berkshire Record: “The numbers of people that get served really is driven by Massachusetts traffic, and there is no way to afford to do that project if this is ‘they take care of their side of the map and we take care of our side of the map.’”
There are priorities on “our side of the map”. Number one on the list in the corridor along Route 7 is a short, but sensible extension of the Danbury branch to New Milford. Last year a $400,000 federal grant was announced to finance a study about that idea. Something the U.S. Department of Transportation sees as a “catalyst for growth.” Another grant was awarded in 2019 to look into the reopening of the old Maybrook rail line between Danbury and Metro-North’s Harlem Line in Southeast. The feasibility study is paid for by a federal grant and a contribution from Putnam County in New York State. If refurbished the connection could channel rail traffic faster in and out of New York than through Norwalk, where the Danbury branch connects with the New Haven line. It is, by the way, the Train Campaign’s favored solution.
As for the time frame for any plan to be implemented down the track? If Connecticut stays firm and spends public transportation mainly in places where the bang for the buck produces greater results, nothing will happen soon around here. No matter what press releases and newspaper stories insinuate. Which might be just as fine for those in our area who would actually rather like to see a totally different solution. Because it actually wouldn’t cost a lot to rip out the worn out tracks and turn the line over to recreational use.
📷: Featured image courtesy of the Cornwall Historical Society