Invest in Amtrak safety, technology, not a bypass

Invest in Amtrak safety, technology, not a bypass


Following is testimony submitted Monday to the Transportation Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly by Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons on a bill opposing the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposed Amtrak bypass of southeastern Connecticut and southwestern R.I.

I thank the chair, co-chairs, vice chairs, ranking member and members of the Transportation Committee for holding this meeting. I also thank them for their service to the people of Connecticut.

Today I speak in support of H.J. No. 54, which is a resolution objecting to the so-called Amtrak bypass which slices through the coastal towns of southeastern Connecticut including my hometown of Stonington. I also support any other bills which object to this disastrous project and only regret that because of scheduling issues I cannot appear in person to express my displeasure over this “harebrained” scheme.

Let me begin by saying that as a state representative [1991-2001] and ranking member [1995-2001] of the Connecticut Joint Committee on Transportation and as a member of Congress [2001-2007] serving on the House Transportation Committee, I have always been very supportive of rail transportation and Amtrak. For example, in Hartford I was instrumental in extending Shore Line East to New London and sustaining that route over several years of tight budgets in the Rowland administration. And, in Congress, I joined a group of about 20 members from the Northeast who placed all of their district transportation allocations at risk by voting to support an Amtrak supplemental amendment out of the House Appropriations Subcommittee.

Historically speaking, my town was the terminus of the nation’s first interstate railroad, built in 1836 from Providence, R.I., to the steamship docks of Stonington, Conn. My father and grandfather commuted to New York City by train. And more recently we allowed catenaries to be placed along our beautiful shoreline from Pawcatuck to Mystic as part of the Acela High-Speed Rail Project. Trains are a part of our history. Generally speaking, we like trains.

This being said, I am adamantly opposed to the so-called Amtrak bypass. It runs through the heart of my historic town and destroys the gateway to Connecticut’s biggest tourist center at Exit 90 in Mystic. It bypasses the existing stations in Westerly, R.I., Mystic and New London, Conn.; and then adds a New London/Mystic station in the town of Groton! It promises to disrupt traffic on I-95, which is already at historically high and dangerous levels. It will cost billions of dollars, take years to complete and will add little if anything to improve train service in southeastern Connecticut. What is the value of trimming 10 minutes off a ride from New York to Boston?

The town of Stonington serves as host to almost 1,000,000 visitors a year who go through the gates of the Mystic Seaport and Aquarium. Our police chief estimates that an additional 1-1.5 million visitors come for our restaurants, historic sites, maritime recreation and seasonal vacations. Last year we hosted 330 weddings, 90 percent of which were out-of-town or state couples. Who is going to risk a vacation in Stonington if Amtrak is building a massive bypass on top of I-95 past Exit 90? No one! Our local economy and tax revenues will simply disappear. And for what? For 10 minutes of travel time between Boston and New York?

Years ago, Amtrak and the FRA promised that the Acela project was state of the art. The train would use passive “tilt” technology to deal with the curves. They would improve service. It would be safe and affordable. The catenaries would be of Swedish design and very beautiful. There would be no adverse impact on the host town. That being said, why is it that Stonington still has two crossings at Elihu Island and Walkers Dock where there are no loop detectors and we are blasted with horns 176 times per day? The FRA calls this a “Quiet Zone” but it is far from quiet. We can deal with the horns, but what about the safety of our citizens?

A driver with his or her aged parent in front and a baby in the back has between 6-12 seconds from the first horn blast to get out of a vehicle stuck on the tracks. Is this safe? The driver is confronted with Sophie’s Choice — who will live and who will die? And the engineer was no warning from a loop detector that there is a problem. Nor does he or she have an adequate line of sight of the crossing even in full daylight to do anything but blow the horn at the last moment. Yet, for a mere $900,000 Amtrak can equip both crossings with appropriate safety devices and the “Quiet Zone” can be properly established. This is the kind of safety issue you need to be working on to improve rail service in New England — not a bypass that does no good for us and promises lots of damage to our local communities.

Our region, legislative representatives and congressional delegation are all united against this bypass project regardless of party affiliation or ideological leaning. We are united in support of “fixing what we have!” The old bridges need repair or replacement, and we have been doing this. Parking for the stations needs improvement, and we have been doing this. We need more service from Amtrak and Shore Line East into Mystic and Westerly, R.I., and we have been advocating for this.

Last fall, Vice President Biden called for new Acela trains called Avelia Liberty that will employ “active tilt technology,” and we strongly support this. After all, the cost of “tilt technology” has been going down over the years and it is working very successfully in Europe along old rail lines like ours. The Amtrak bypass is not straight, so it will never be really high speed. But we may well recover 6-8 minutes of time with tilt technology on the existing tracks at a fraction of the cost of the bypass.

On a related matter, I have long been supportive of the Springfield, Mass., line and as a congressman I actually got money for a station in Enfield, Conn. So we do support this aspect of the NEC Future.

But the bottom line is that we are adamantly opposed to the southeastern bypass and will fight it every way we can. The future of our historic towns cannot be negotiated away for a few minutes of convenience for the Boston to New York traveler who will not even get off for a visit. I believe that if their ride is comfortable, affordable, on time and equipped with Wi-Fi, they could care less about a few minutes between Boston and New York.

Thank you for considering my views.

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