Letter: Northeast Rail Corridor – Still Alive?

In August 2017, in response to pressure brought from environmental groups, historical societies and citizens concerned with the destruction of the Connecticut River’s estuary and the preservation of their towns and cities, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) dropped a proposal for a high-speed rail line that would have built a new bridge across the Connecticut River, bifurcated the bucolic town of Old Lyme and made a straight line to the Rhode Island border.

Amtrak’s tracks, between Old Saybrook and the Rhode Island border, meander along the coast, following its dips and curves. Their plan would have produced a straighter line, but at a cost of potentially destroying the River’s habitat, devastating some of southeastern Connecticut’s most treasured villages, abandoning others and destroying forests, farms and parks north of the coast. With the proposal dropped, news of the FRA, as it pertains to southeast Connecticut, went quiet.

That was, at least, until Connecticut’s junior Senator Chris Murphy spoke before a crowd of two hundred at the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce on May 31 in Groton. He argued, “…if we continue to let the northeast rail corridor atrophy, then Connecticut’s economy will atrophy.”  “Every year,” he went on, “we always argue whether we’re going to give Amtrak $1.2 billion or $1.4 billion when you need $100 billion for this type of project.” The first step, he said, is to modernize commercial rail infrastructure in eastern Connecticut. He likes, he admitted, “big ideas.”

The FRA’s 2015 proposal never made sense. First, because it was destructive and impractical. And second, because it was supportive of a bygone mode of long-haul passenger travel, while ignoring one of the most innovative transportation developments of the 21st Century – autonomous vehicles.

The tidelands of the Connecticut River have been designated one of the “last great places of the Western Hemisphere” by the Nature Conservancy. Building another bridge across the river or tunneling under it would risk the fragile nature of the wildlife that abounds its waters and shores. As well, every year there are fewer New England villages that remain reminders of our shared past. Lyme Street in Old Lyme is one. To tear it up would be a desecration of that history.

Today’s rail tracks now pass through towns and small cities like Niantic, Waterford, New London, Groton, Mystic and Stonington. These towns rely on beaches and waterfronts for much of their commerce. The meandering nature of the rail line prevents trains from reaching the high rates of speed that Senator Murphy and others deem critical. Do new plans call for trains to stop at each of these towns? If so, how long would it take to travel the thirty-two miles from Old Saybrook to the Rhode Island border? If the purpose is to increase rail speeds and shorten travel time from Washington to Boston, the small, coastal towns of Connecticut would be bypassed. That was their original plan, but that didn’t appear to be the message Senator Murphy conveyed. The old plan was dropped. Or was it?

The on-going revolution with autonomous vehicles is ignored by those like Senator Murphy who advocate for high-speed passenger rail lines. Yet, self-driving cars and trucks are coming. It is no longer a question of “if,” it is a question of “when.” In the 1997 James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Pierce Brosman operates a self-driving BMW with a smart-phone device. In 2002, the Department of defense sponsored the first 150-mile autonomous vehicle race in the California desert.

Three years ago, the Federal government promised to spend $4 billion over the ensuing decade on autonomous vehicles. Development will not be in a straight line, any more than was the transition from horse-drawn carriages to hose-less ones. For example, the question of safety must be addressed, though Stanford Law School has estimated that 94% of auto-related deaths are due to human error. As well, highways will have to be reconfigured for purposes of efficiency. But our roads and bridges are already in need of repair. Coordinating that needed work with the revolution in autonomous cars should be the focus of Congress and the State of Connecticut and would do far more to help the local economy than spending $100 billion to upgrade train tracks, and only get the haunting whistle of a train bypassing our beaches and parks in return.

We are still many years away from having a fleet of such cars and trucks, but they are coming. Ford, Honda, Volvo, Daimler Toyota, Renault, BMW Fiat-Chrysler and Tesla all expect full automation by the mid 2020s. Self-operating vehicles would reduce highway congestion, while allowing far higher speeds. The result would be a boost in tourism.

While rail accounts for only 10% of the weight of all goods shipped into New York City, there is no question that there is – and probably always will be – a need to transport commercial products by rail, and to aid those commuting into large cities like Washington, New York and Boston. But the idea that small towns will be revitalized by passenger trains passing through at two hundred miles per hour, or that slow-moving trains will bring hordes of tourists to our shores is a pipe dream.

It is okay to like “big ideas,” as does Senator Murphy, but he should look to the future, not to the past, and it is the automotive industry that is radicalizing the future. Like all in government, he should consider the cost and what realistic returns on investment would be, not simply advocate for “shovel-ready” projects designed only to put people to work.  

Sydney M. Williams
Essex, CT