This week’s FROM WALLINGFORD was written by Stephen Knight
As published in the Record Journal, Sunday August 7, 2011
I have been a student of the railroad industry for my entire adult life; as a student in graduate school, as a keenly interested observer, and as a professional transportation consultant. So I write this column with considerable angst, because it is my conclusion that the proposed New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail project that will run through Wallingford is a boondoggle of fantastic proportions. My inherent predisposition to support this project is overwhelmed when confronted with the 1) downright mythical speed and service projections, 2) wildly optimistic ridership projections and 3) blindly underestimated capital and operating expenses.
Speed and service projections: In a May 9 press release, Gov. Malloy stated that these trains would reach “speeds up to 110 miles per hour.” I say: only if you catapult the trains from every station like they do jet fighters off an aircraft carrier. Why? First of all, there will eventually be 11 stops in the 62 miles between New Haven and Springfield. That’s an average of less than six miles between stops. So where exactly will these trains do 110 mph? And — are you ready for this? — the service will commence with hand-me-down equipment from Shoreline East. According to their latest schedule, those trains, making all the stops, move between New Haven and New London averaging less than 50 mph, and do so on the most advanced, best maintained railroad track in America. Secondly, this speed in a corridor with thirty-eight grade crossings? Really? So calling the NHHS project high speed rail is utterly fictitious.
Ridership projections built on the sentiment “Build it and they will come”: in calculating potential ridership, the numbers presented assume a) many more daily Amtrak trains running on the line; b) enormous numbers of passengers feeding the line from the so-called “Knowledge Corridor” line in central Massachusetts which has yet to be rebuilt; and c) thousands upon thousands of people willing to live in this corridor and work 2 ½ hours away in New York City. In other words, the number of commuters between New Haven and Springfield that is supposedly the driving force behind this project could never, ever justify the price tag, so numbers assuming a complete northeastern United States rail system build out are used to puff up the stats.
Capital and operating expenses: The price tag for rail line and station construction alone is $647 million, and the project is counting on huge support from the feds. Here is the latest fed response: State of Connecticut request — $227 million. Fed grant: $30 million. Result: the project has already contracted to providing trains only during peak commuter times. And how much money is allocated to purchase rolling stock — the stuff you ride on? Zero. As mentioned above, the plan is to use the existing Shore Line East equipment until, well, who knows?
As for operating expenses, somehow the project is making revenue estimates, but they haven’t even set the fare schedule. How do you do that? But even assuming (do you see that word a lot here?) their revenue and ridership projections are accurate, there is an inherent, unavoidable, inevitable huge annual cash subsidy. This is not unusual. This is the norm, but could someone in Hartford admit that?
So here’s the rub. Even more than I love railroads, I love the truth. The unvarnished, straight up, tell-it-like-it-is, we can take it truth. And we aren’t getting it. We are being fed pretty pictures, fantastic blue-sky fuzzy numbers and gauzy descriptions of an idyllic life in a future northeastern U.S. economy that seems farther from reality every single day.
If these words seem harsh, they spring from disappointment.
Disappointment that this project is not a practical, financially sensible fit for the market in which it is to operate, and disappointed that you and I are, yet again, being treated like proverbial mushrooms: kept in the dark and covered with . . . well, you know what I’m saying.