Conn. mayor wants to upgrade train rail to Brattleboro

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BRATTLEBORO -- A Connecticut mayor is seeking support for a proposal to upgrade more than 100 miles of passenger rail between New London, Conn., and southern Vermont.

Despite some concerns from the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, Mayor Martin Olsen of New London is advocating for improvements to 110 miles of the Central Corridor Rail Line to use existing freight tracks for passenger trains into Brattleboro.

Olsen told The Day the upgrades will serve as an economic booster for the region and create new tourist stops along the line.

"That will give the elected officials some juice, and it will show people this is important. I think that the rail service is going to become a more and more important means of transportation in general," he told the New London-based newspaper.

The city has no official position about the proposal at this time and the issue has become a hot topic for groups pushing for transportation (and transit stations) changes. The mayor also presented the railway project as a "college run" for students on campuses along the line.

The proposed route would go from New London with new stops at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Norwich, Willimantic, Mansfield, Storrs (home of the University of Connecticut) and Stafford Springs before heading into the Massachusetts towns of Amherst (home of the University of Massachusetts) and Palmer and ending in Brattleboro.

Passenger lines used to run local trains nearly a century ago, but more recently, the Amtrak’s former Montrealer would go through Vermont to New London.

Any new passenger line would not necessarily be operated by Amtrak. It could run through the tracks’ owner, New England Central Railroad, or a different operator.

"The tracks are the New England Central Railroad (NECR), and the reason that is interesting is that is a Vermont railroad," said Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network. "What it would mean is an additional route for Vermont, and an additional source for passengers coming to Vermont."

While the communities along the line would benefit economically from an upgraded rail service, improvements to the network would favor freight as well because it encourages a southern outlet.

"The corridor is a very important freight corridor, the business is growing and it’s going down to the south end of the NECR. I think it has a lot of possibilities," said Charles Hunter, assistant vice president of government affairs for RailAmerica, Inc., owner of the New England Central Railroad. "What we hope to do is get the route opened up to heavier freight cars ... in order to connect to the rest of the corridor, we need Brattleboro-South upgraded as well."

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Joe Flynn, rail director for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said VTrans met with interested parties from officials in Amherst and Palmer in 2010 to review the concept of the Central Corridor Rail Line.

"At that time, VTrans felt the project needed further clarification on funding sources and certainly should have local and state support in both Massachusetts and Connecticut," Flynn said. "VTrans did ask to be kept informed of developments as they unfolded."

The cost estimate from NECR for upgrades to the tracks is about $50 million.

The proposal to extend the passenger line in southeastern Connecticut comes as transportation officials continue the push for an improved high-speed rail through the center of the Nutmeg State.

Last summer, a 20-year transportation proposal to renovate more than 500 miles of passenger rail running through Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont was designed to improve connection times and spark economic growth throughout the Northeast.

The regional vision to connect major cities and airports, including Bradley International in Windsor Locks, Conn., would include expanding ridership on the Amtrak Vermonter line operating from Franklin County down to Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin joined with other governors from across the Northeast urging the federal government to increase the high-speed rail investment to the region.

Eight governors of Northeastern states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, requested an increase for the nation’s most extensive high-speed intercity passenger rail network. The objective of the ambitious project is to spur economic growth through engineering and construction jobs, as well as improve reliability by reducing congestion on the region’s packed highways, according to advocates.

The proposed projects are located on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) network, linking four passenger lines connecting areas from Portland, Maine, Boston and New York City to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

Calls to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments office were not returned before presstime.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.


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