Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's administration unveiled an $8 billion to $10 billion plan Monday that aims to reduce commuter rail times from Connecticut to New York City by as much as 25 minutes by 2035, while pledging in the meantime to make the trip from New Haven to the Big Apple 10 minutes faster as early as 2022.
The announcement came on the same day Metro-North Railroad returned eight trains to the New Haven Line, as demand for commuter rail service increases as the region emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Another service increase is planned in August.
“Connecticut is coming back from COVID-19. Commuters are returning to the rails,” said Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, during a news conference held at the Stratford Train Station to announce the Time For CT plan with Lamont and other officials. “So it’s critical that we continue this momentum by investing in world class rail service. Time For CT moves us in that direction.”
While much of the initiative is dependent upon passage of a massive federal infrastructure bill in Washington, state Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti said the state has already received enough federal funding to embark on some of the work needed to alleviate long-standing slowdowns along the rails. That includes improvements to signalization systems and movable bridges, as well as the creation of new sections of track that allow trains to pass one another. Giulietti said a lot of deferred maintenance was also completed during the coronavirus pandemic when ridership was low, including work on catenary wires along the New Canaan Branch that can sag in the summer and often delay trains.
“You’re going to see at least ten minutes next year,” Giulietti said of the projected time-savings, noting how the necessary funding is in place. “We’re going to be able to start running some express trains that are going to take out 10 minutes of travel time and that will be real. That will start next year. And beyond that, it’s going to go in segment by segment.”
But Giulietti stressed that more federal funds will still be necessary.
“Washington is an important piece of the funding puzzle. We can’t rebuild Connecticut infrastructure without a federal infrastructure bill, and we can't improve Connecticut’s rails without federal partners,” he said.
Representatives from both Metro North and Amtrak, who were on hand for the news conference, lauded the latest effort to try and speed up commuting times along a section of rail line that's been plagued for years by slowdowns. Prior to the pandemic, Metro North was the busiest commuter rail line in the U.S., carrying more than 40 million passengers annually.
“Public transportation is the lifeblood of our economy, and we at the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) and at Metro North support improved intercity and commuter rail service for the benefit of all Connecticut residents,” said Metro-North Railroad President Catherine Rinaldi. “Time For Connecticut is exactly what we need to promote economic growth that will see us through the pandemic recovery and will set the state up for success for decades to come.”
Lamont has been pushing for faster trains since first taking office. However, there wasn't enough support for his initial 10-year, $21.3 billion transportation proposal that invested $6.2 billion in rail improvements, including new cars and locomotives. His predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, also worked to improve commuting times and the frequency of trains. He had proposed a massive 20-year, $100 billion transportation improvement plan that included investments in rail that did not gain enough support either.
Jim Gildea, chair of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council and a “boots in the ground, real rail commuter,” said he supports the latest initiative.
“I feel like I speak with real credibility when I tell you that other than safety, the single most important thing to the everyday commuter is spending less time on the train,” Gildea said. “Simply put, we do not want to be on the train more than we need to.”