Hope, Concern for High-Speed Rail in Region

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y STEPHEN SINGER, Associated Press Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ To passengers looking forward to riding high-speed trains in New England, planners have a message: Not so fast.

Washington is spending $8 billion in federal stimulus money to establish high-speed rail corridors nationwide. But in populated areas of New England where city streets and railroad tracks intersect and trains must negotiate curves, hills and tunnels, travel at speeds as high as 150 mph are out of the question.

In rural New England, cattle crossings halt high-speed trains, said John Zicconi, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

As early as this decade, passengers will instead board trains moving at between 65 mph and 80 mph. That’s slower than high-speed trains and even further short of the 220-mph bullet trains planned between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Still, trains moving at one-third that speed should accomplish their main goal: drawing motorists from gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting cars in stop-and-go highway traffic, planners say.

“High speed is kind of a loose definition,” said Robert Kulat, a spokesman at the Federal Railroad Administration. “What we’re looking at is reduced travel times.”

In Vermont, the issue is not speed, but extending service to more areas, Zicconi said. The state is seeking $70 million from Washington to add passenger service from Rutland to Burlington, and state officials are feeling heat from residents in the south, he said.

“We have people screaming throughout Vermont for us to extend passenger rail so more people will use it,” Zicconi said.

Passengers will be satisfied even with higher speeds, not necessarily high speeds, and avoiding driving into New York City, fighting traffic and looking for parking, he said. Increasing train speeds by just 20 mph, to 79 mph, could shave 90 minutes from the nine-hour trip between Burlington and New York City, he said.

That’s good enough for Ken Mennonna. On a recent afternoon, he waited at Hartford’s Union Station with his daughter, Renee, who was returning to Burlington, where she is a freshman at St. Michael’s College.

“It’s overdue,”  Mennonna said. “We don’t pay much attention to trains.”

Driving from their home in Sherman, Conn., to Burlington takes about 5 1/2 hours, quicker than the 6 1/2-hour train ride, Mennonna said. The train ride would still be longer even at the higher speed, though.

Intercity rail connecting cities to promote economic development is an important, though less sexy and overlooked requirement of the federal rail program that instead draws attention for its high-speed initiative.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont have received $160 million in federal economic stimulus money for track improvements to link higher speed trains from New York City to New Haven, Conn., and north to Hartford, Conn., Springfield, Mass., Vermont and Montreal.

Connecticut is expected to receive an additional $220 million in federal money, matched by $260 million in state funding, to upgrade train service the width of the state, from New Haven on Long Island Sound north to Springfield, Mass.

Kulat said federal legislation in 2008 defined 110 mph as high speed. Federal transportation officials look to states to reduce travel time rather than reach the 110-mph threshold, he said.

“In the future we do want them to get to that goal,” he said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.”

Rail at 110 mph is planned for Chicago to Detroit and Chicago to Milwaukee; St. Louis to Kansas City, Mo.; Charlotte, N.C., to Washington, D.C.; New York to Buffalo, N.Y.; and Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pa. to Pittsburgh.

A 150-mph route is planned for Portland, Ore., to Seattle, eventually extending to Eugene, Ore.

Amtrak last month unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year vision for a high-speed rail line on the East Coast. It would reduce travel times along the congested corridor using trains traveling as fast as 220 mph.

Amtrak’s Acela trains already run as fast as 150 mph, but it encounters problems familiar in the Northeast. South of New York, Acela runs at 135 mph at its fastest because of curves, tunnels and additional station stops, spokesman Steve Kulm said.

Tom Maziarz, chief of planning for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, is adamant that federal and state money will draw passengers in New England to faster, if not high-speed, trains by improving tracks and stations, reducing travel time and increasing frequency of trains.

“More people will be choosing to use the train, period,” he said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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