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A trip to Boston in half an hour?

(The Concord Monitor posted the following story by Amy McConnell on its website on February 2.)

CONCORD, Mass. -- Picture a trip from Concord to Boston this afternoon: Rows of taillights stretch ahead and behind you. You spend nearly 90 minutes on Interstate 93, pay the tolls, navigate the city's ceaseless construction projects and spend $20 to park for just a few hours.

Now picture a better route: The landscape whizzes by as you ride a bullet train that will connect with the subway at Boston's North Station in just over half an hour.

For a $12 fare - and many millions of dollars in capital improvements - that second vision may become a reality in a mere decade or two, as New Hampshire works with Vermont, Massachusetts and federal officials to rebuild the historic rail link between Boston and Montreal through Concord. Proponents say the rail line, which could ultimately allow rail travel at speeds of 100 miles per hour or more, would relieve the region's growing traffic congestion and boost economic development along the entire route.

But whether local communities would support train travel remains to be seen, according to New Hampshire Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray.

"High-speed rail works, and it's been demonstrated in other parts of the country that it works," Murray said. "The question is, when you go out into the community and start talking about high-speed rail, do people want it coming through their community?"

Rebuilding the region's - and even the nation's - rail network has long been dismissed as a pie-in-the-sky notion. Rail was too slow and too expensive to attract many riders or to justify the multimillion-dollar investment and possibly the continuing subsidies required to build and run it.

But that was before gridlock in southern New Hampshire, as in other bedroom communities outside large cities, became nearly intolerable as the population surged over the past decade. And that was before new technology made it possible to run high-speed "bullet trains," between major cities at speeds of 100 miles per hour or more.

Now, supporters of rail, from state and local planners to environmental groups, are finding increasing support from a public grown weary of sitting in traffic.

Initial interviews with members of the public suggest that a rebuilt Boston-to-Montreal line could attract a following - for the right price and at the right speed, according to Kit Morgan, administrator of the state's bureau of rail and transit.

The project's first phase of study, which has just been completed, showed that the potential riders would continue driving their cars to Boston and Montreal if the train ran at speeds of 60 miles per hour, Morgan said. But if the train traveled at 90 miles per hour or more, he said, the study showed that the train would win over enough drivers and attract enough new travelers to be financially feasible.

The fare that brought in the most revenue was about 20 cents per mile - about $24 for a round trip to Boston - which would likely be the fare, according to the study. Four trains would run per day, with stops in Nashua, Manchester, Concord, West Lebanon and several towns along the Interstate 89 corridor through Vermont to Montreal.

Freight trains and commuter trains also could use the track, according to planners.

Funding for the second phase of the study, which would determine exactly what improvements need to be made and establish a cost for those improvements, remains uncertain, according to Morgan.

On the federal level, the Senate has included about $500,000 for the study to continue, but the House has not included funding in its version of the budget. And in New Hampshire, a cash-strapped budget might make the state's $165,000 match a hard sell.

"The governor loves rail, and he certainly supports the establishment of the Boston-to-Montreal railroad," said Gov. Craig Benson's legal counsel, Kelly Ayotte. "He's dedicated to finding the money (for the project), but at this point he can't guarantee he'll find the money because of the current budget crunch."

If funded, the project's next phase will establish what improvements need to be made and what they will cost. But nearly all of the track along the 325 miles of existing railroad right-of-way between Boston and Montreal must be rebuilt with new rails, new ties, new drainage and new ballast - the stone that holds the railbed in place, Morgan said.

Although planners don't know the cost of building the project and running the railway, he said, they're almost certain that fares can't cover expenses.

"You can pretty well bet that cost is going to be greater than revenue," Morgan said. "But just because something costs money isn't necessarily a reason not to do it."

The benefits, proponents say, are not entirely financial. And the financial benefits aren't always obvious.

A rebuilt track, they say, would support something like the JetTrain, which has been successfully tested in high-speed runs between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., according to the manufacturer.

The JetTrain uses a modified 5,000-horsepower jet engine that runs on conventional diesel fuel but is lighter than a regular diesel engine, allowing faster acceleration and braking.

The JetTrain, according to company literature, can be used on existing rail tracks at current track speeds.

As the track and signals are upgraded, the train can be run at speeds of 150 miles per hour or more, the company says.

Inside the train, seats lie back farther than coach airplane seats and have enclosed overhead compartments, electrical plugs for laptop computers and multiple radio stations for headsets. It offers food, movies and bar service.

With that speed and level of comfort, the manufacturer says it could draw enough riders to change the region's transportation habits, reducing current greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent along a typical 700-mile corridor.

Using a diesel engine would largely offset the environmental gains made by taking cars of the road and reducing emissions, according to Nancy Girard, director of the Conservation Law Foundation. But the foundation - along with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Audubon Society, New Hampshire Public Interest Research Group and the Sierra Club - supports rebuilding a full, heavy-gauge rail system along the existing railbed. (The state Department of Transportation has said light rail, which could not carry freight, could be part of the proposed expansion of Interstate 93.)

Locomotives' air quality emissions could eventually improve, Girard said. Meanwhile, trains could shoulder some of the freight now transported by trucks, lightening the damage to highways and improving public safety.

Few people likely would get off the train to eat dinner or shop in Concord instead of Boston or Montreal, according to Concord's Assistant City Planner, Stephen Henninger. But the train could be promoted as a way to sample tourist attractions around New England over two or three days, he said.

Canterbury Shaker Village could be one attraction, he said, and others could be developed in and around Concord.

"If the train station was within the downtown area, or walking distance from downtown, you could develop some interesting things around Concord," Henninger said.

A rail link between Boston and Montreal would encourage tourism and help attract manufacturers who want to ship goods by rail, said Peter Griffin, president of the New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association.

The state also needs a rebuilt train system - and not only along I-89 but also north of Concord along I-93 - simply to give travelers more choices, he said.

"If you were going to a restaurant, would you go to a restaurant with one thing on the menu? Do you wear the same thing every day? When you invest, do you buy just one stock?" Griffin said.

"Then why are we mandated to choose one mode of transportation?"

What should happen and what will happen, however, might not ever correspond, Griffin said.

"There's a horrible double standard when it comes to trains in New Hampshire," he said. "The prevailing sentiment among the power brokers is, 'Yes, we should spend $400 million plus for the widening of I-93,' but when it comes to investing in a rail system they balk at making the investment."

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

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