Passenger rail to UConn is not a good idea… yet

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A railroad in Connecticut. There has been a plan in the works to build the Central Corridor Rail Line, which would stop at several places in CT, including the University of Connecticut. Courtesy of Wikimedia

If you have ever had to drive to Storrs, Connecticut, from anywhere further away than the surrounding towns of Bolton or Willimantic, you surely know that it is a bit of a hassle. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a railway that could take you to UConn directly? 

Luckily for you, there is a plan which has been in the works for years now – the Central Corridor Rail Line. 

This line would begin at New London, linking up to Amtrak and Shore Line East before moving northward – first to Mohegan Sun before passing through a few more minor stops to UConn, then north again to Palmer and Amherst (home of the University of Massachusetts), and finally to Brattleboro, Vermont, where it would link up with Amtrak once more. 

The tracks are largely already in place – they’re controlled by freight carriers such as CSX Transportation — so the largest expense would be the acquisition of locomotives and the construction of stations and/or platforms. 

But no matter how many times Connecticut or Massachusetts rewrites their feasibility studies, this rail line is not a good idea – at least with the current state of passenger rail in Connecticut. 

If we go back to the beginning of the 20th century, public transport in Connecticut was far different than today. Larger towns were connected by rail, smaller towns were connected by jitneys (privately owned car transport whose routes were regulated by the state, much like combis in Mexico today), and trolleys were used to get around within cities. 

A train car owned by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. This railroad began a program of replacing their less successful rail lines with buses. Courtesy of Wikimedia

In 1925, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad —Connecticut’s largest — began a program of replacing their less-profitable rail lines and trolleys with buses, according to The Hartford Courant. Sure enough, there were no more trolleys left by 1945, and cities like Torrington and Willimantic were served by buses only if you had more sentience than a shipping container. 

The rail lines which survived, namely New Haven to Springfield; New York to Boston (via New Haven); and branches to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury. These lines, the last of their kind in the 1940s, have limped on since then. 

Sure, the construction of a rail line between New London and Brattleboro via Storrs is an investment in public transport in Connecticut. But is it the best investment to be made? 

According to Massachusetts’ feasibility study for the Central Corridor plan from 2017, the rail line would cost around $376 million. Sure, that is less than many transport projects, but the study also estimates that only around 400 riders would use the route daily. (Massachusetts DOT Feasibility Study

Is 400 riders really enough to justify an entire rail line? Even if they hold far fewer people individually, having a few nice, modern buses take the same route would be far cheaper. 

If we want to invest our money in rail transport in Connecticut, there are far better places to start. The rail link between Waterbury and New Britain has been severed for decades, even if the towns are only a few dozen miles apart. Alternatively, if we want to serve the UConn area, restart the 19th century New York-Boston Air Line! (In this case, “Air Line” is referring to a type of express rail line, not to airplanes.) 

The fact is that if the Central Corridor restarted today, it would be woefully underused. If you are a UConn commuter living in Norwich, the line would be a blessing, but how many other people would it actually help? 

If you live in the Connecticut River valley — as most people in Connecticut do — you would still have to take a bus to go east to the new line or take a multi-hour, winding semi-circle down to New London by train. 

The Central Corridor Rail Plan is not an inherently bad idea, but it does need more passenger rail lines to support it. Having east-west lines across the state would allow the line to be of far greater use than if it confides itself within the studies of its plan. UConn would be better with passenger rail, but a single line to Brattleboro is of far too little benefit to justify its costs when compared to bus routes.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Here, I fixed it for you.

    If you have ever had to drive to Storrs, Connecticut, from New London, you surely know that it takes less than an hour. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a railway that could take you to UConn in more than 2 hours at 3x the cost? The rest of you who come from every other direction, are going to have to suck it up and keep driving. No slow train for you!

  2. Seth, URI has a rail-trail to the beach? Wow, I’m impressed -NOT. The rail I would do before the Central Corridor would be the MIDLAND Line from Hartford to Willimantic. You could have UConn students (who are going to East Hartford (for football games) or Hartford (for basketball/hockey games) use the commuter rail and also G&W (the owner of Providence & Worcester, New England Central and Connecticut Southern) could use it for freight. It could be a rail with trail. The Central Corridor and a revised Midland would help Willimantic and at Mansfield Depot you could have a small yard for the Waterbury, New Britain, Hartford and Willimantic Commuter rail.

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