Despite push, high-speed trains face roadblocks in the region

By Stephen Singer
Associated Press / October 18, 2010

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HARTFORD — To passengers looking forward to riding high-speed trains in New England, planners have a message: Not so fast.

Washington is spending $8 billion in federal stimulus money to establish high-speed rail corridors nationwide. But in populated areas of New England where city streets and railroad tracks intersect and trains must negotiate curves, hills, and tunnels, travel at speeds as high as 150 miles per hour is out of the question.

In rural New England, cattle crossings halt high-speed trains, said John Zicconi, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

As early as this decade, passengers will instead board trains that move at between 65 and 80 miles per hour. That’s slower than high-speed trains and even further short of the 220-mile-per-hour bullet trains planned between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Still, trains moving at one-third that speed should accomplish their main goal: drawing motorists from gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting cars in stop-and-go highway traffic, planners say.

“High speed is kind of a loose definition,’’ said Robert Kulat, a spokesman at the Federal Railroad Administration. “What we’re looking at is reduced travel times.’’

In Vermont, the issue is not speed, but extending service to more areas, Zicconi said. The state is seeking $70 million from Washington to add passenger service from Rutland to Burlington, and state officials are feeling heat from residents in the south, he said.

“We have people screaming throughout Vermont for us to extend passenger rail so more people will use it,’’ Zicconi said.

Passengers will be satisfied even with slightly higher speeds, not necessarily high speeds, and avoiding driving into New York City, fighting traffic, and looking for parking, he said. Increasing train speeds by 20 miles per hour, to 79 miles per hour, could shave 90 minutes from the nine-hour trip between Burlington and New York City, he said.

That’s good enough for Ken Mennonna. On a recent afternoon, he waited at Hartford’s Union Station with his daughter, Renee, who was returning to Burlington, where she is a freshman at St. Michael’s College.

“It’s overdue,’’ Mennonna said. “We don’t pay much attention to trains.’’

Driving from their home in Sherman, Conn., to Burlington takes about 5 1/2 hours, quicker than the 6 1/2-hour train ride, Mennonna said. The train ride would still be longer even at the higher speed, though.

Intercity rail connecting cities to promote economic development is an important, though less sexy and overlooked requirement of the federal rail program that instead draws attention for its high-speed initiative.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont have received $160 million in federal economic stimulus money for track improvements to link higher-speed trains from New York City to New Haven and north to Hartford, Springfield, Vermont, and Montreal.

Connecticut is expected to receive an additional $220 million in federal money, matched by $260 million in state funding, to upgrade train service the width of the state, from New Haven on Long Island Sound north to Springfield.

Kulat said federal legislation in 2008 defined 110 miles per hour as high speed. Federal transportation officials look to states to reduce travel time rather than reach the 110-mile-per-hour threshold, he said.

“In the future we do want them to get to that goal,’’ he said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.’’

Lines capable of reaching 110 miles per hour are planned for Chicago to Detroit and Chicago to Milwaukee; St. Louis to Kansas City, Mo.; Charlotte, N.C., to Washington, D.C.; New York to Buffalo; and Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pa., to Pittsburgh.

A 150-mile-per-hour route is planned for Portland, Ore., to Seattle, eventually extending to Eugene, Ore.

Amtrak last month unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year vision for a high-speed rail line on the East Coast. It would reduce travel times along the congested corridor using trains traveling as fast as 220 miles per hour.

Amtrak’s Acela trains already run as fast as 150 miles per hour, but they encounter problems in the Northeast. South of New York, Acela runs at 135 miles per hour at its fastest because of curves, tunnels, and additional station stops, spokesman Steve Kulm said.

Tom Maziarz, chief of planning for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, is adamant that federal and state money will draw passengers in New England to faster, if not high-speed, trains by improving tracks and stations, reducing travel time, and increasing frequency of trains.

“More people will be choosing to use the train, period,’’ he said.

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