Since the dawn of the steam engine, rails and trains have run through the city of Hartford. But today, the commuter rail corridor in central Connecticut is not so robust.
If you’re trying to get from Hartford to New Haven or Springfield via train, you might find yourself waiting for a long time -- sometimes for a few hours.
Standing at a rail construction site hidden from public view in the North End of the city, Amtrak project manager Tim Sullivan looked across the yard of working men, surveying the project that will serve as a foundation for commuter rail restoration in central Connecticut.
The temperature was creeping over 90 degrees. The workers that day were putting together track panels – long beams of steel rail hammered into large blocks of concrete that will eventually span the distance of the new Hartford Line.
"It’s very hot, but the work is starting to pick up here. August was a good month," Sullivan said.
September proved even better for the future of the Hartford Line. A heated dispute between the state and Amtrak over budget overruns and construction delays was said to be resolved. And mid-month, the state received a $700,000 federal grant to study transit-oriented development along the line.
The political rancor between the state and Amtrak did not cast a shadow on the work on the Hartford Line that day. There was a job to be done: a new track had to be constructed in order to get enough trains on the line to sustain a more frequent commuter service.
Nearby, a rail tunnel crosses under the busy Albany Avenue. The date "1871" is etched into the overpass. Additional tracks used to run there; they were removed sometime in the '80s, Sullivan said, in the midst of a commuter rail decline.
"Right now, the Springfield Line is more or less a single track with the exception of a few sidings within the limits of it," Sullivan said.
The success of the Hartford Line relies on the frequency of its trains, DOT Assistant Rail Administrator John Bernick said. According to Bernick, 30-minute train frequency is the "sweet spot" for luring commuters to rail. Right now, the Hartford Line is aiming for a train every 30 to 45 minutes at peak, and hourly during the rest of the day.
"Right now, you don’t have a commuting option," Bernick said. "The service is so infrequent, even though some people do use it, it doesn’t offer the type of frequency that really fosters high ridership."
Bernick said the new service will provide Hartford-area rail travelers the connectivity to ride to Stamford, New York, Philadelphia, and even Washington, D.C. "That's the key, to get down there and back by rail, without driving to New Haven," he said.
Bernick said the population density in the Hartford corridor will supplement ridership. The fact that people have to schedule their commute around a limited train schedule deters a good share of riders, he said. And if the state reconstructs the I-84 viaduct in Hartford, which crosses the rail line in two different locations, it will be even easier to run trains through Hartford.
"You can relocate the rail line north of the I-84 alignment, you can shove I-84 a little south and you shove the rail line a little north and they’re both untangled, and you can reduce both to grade… you can get a lot of land for transit-oriented development," Bernick said.
Back at the rail yard, it’s business as usual. Sullivan said the rails on the panels they’re building today will eventually be changed out with continuous welded rail later in the year. Later on, a track construction machine will plow in the ties and thread the rail on.
Sullivan said he’s happy to be a part of this project.
"There’s certainly a long history of railroading and the construction and to be a part of the regeneration or the next generation of it is very exciting and rewarding," he said.
Amtrak and the DOT hope to have passengers on trains by the end of 2016.
Stations in New Haven, Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin, Hartford, Windsor, Windsor Locks, and Springfield will have access to the service at launch. The Wallingford, Meriden, Hartford, and Berlin stations are being upgraded with high-level boarding platforms, Bernick said.
Stations to be built in North Haven, Newington, West Hartford, and Enfield are still in design phases, Bernick said. Dedicated parking for Amtrak passengers will also be added to the stations along the line.