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A slow train excursion along the Thames and Yantic rivers, through woods starting to turn brilliant colors and alongside major commercial facilities, could be a nice fall day off from work.
But this was a business trip.
Fifty business and college representatives and politicians boarded five historic passenger rail cars Thursday morning at Union Station in New London for a ride along the New England Central freight rail tracks, north to Norwich, Willimantic and points in Massachusetts and Vermont.
The Central Corridor Line Rail Coalition, the sponsoring organization, hoped passengers would note the economic and tourism potential of the proposed $150 million Central Corridor Rail Project, a plan to upgrade the existing New England Central Railroad tracks from New London to Brattleboro, Vt., to handle heavier freight traffic and add passenger rail cars.
The luxury of train travel of a different era hit passengers as soon as they stepped into the Congressional Car or the Pennsylvania Railroad president's own private car Thursday. Bennet Levin, owner of the President's Car, told his guests that this very car carried the body of Robert Kennedy home after he was assassinated in 1968.
The Congressional Car at the opposite end of the train served congressmen and senators on trips from Washington, D.C., to Boston, owners Bryan and Deborah Belliveau of Newington said. On Thursday, dining tables bore white tablecloths and vases of flowers, and silver trays beneath the windows held bowls of candy.
"This is the Central Corridor Express," Todd O'Donnell, co-owner of Union Station, jokingly told the crowd before they boarded the train. "We're going to be moseying up the trail pretty leisurely."
And mosey they did, enjoying views of the Thames River as the train approached Mohegan Sun casino at a pace of about 25 mph. The train slipped past the mostly vacant former Shipping Street industrial district in Norwich, a top city priority for redevelopment. Norwich Harbor was next, and the train slowed to a crawl as it approached the jagged rocks at the historic Uncas Leap area in Norwich.
Robert Mills, executive director of the Norwich Community Development Corp., told a short version of the legend of how the victorious Mohegan tribal warriors routed the Narragansett army and sent the fleeing foes careening over the cliff to the deadly, rocky gorge below.
The train continued north, paralleling busy Route 32 through Franklin, passing the former Franklin Mushroom Farm property — another potential benefactor of the plan to upgrade freight rail capacity along the tracks, proponents said.
Standing on the rear balcony of the President's Car, Charles Hunter, assistant vice president for RailAmerica Operations Support Group, talked with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten — a state Senate candidate — and Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut about the funding needed.
Hunter said the Central Corridor Rail Project would cost about $150 million and would tackle projects such as upgrading 110 miles of track and building train stations where necessary. Stations already are in place at some key stops, including New London and the new Norwich Transportation Center — although a pedestrian bridge would be needed over the narrow west branch of the Yantic River.
The project is nearly completed in the northern end of the route. The stretch from the Vermont-Massachusetts border to the Canadian border cost $85 million and used a combination of federal grants and New England Central Railroad matching funds.
Hunter said a similar combination could work for the Connecticut-Massachusetts portion of the track, with state support added. Supporters applied for a $10 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant last year but did not receive funding.
The TIGER grant is among many programs embroiled in congressional funding battles, Courtney said. The House of Representatives "zeroed out" funding while the Senate kept the program intact, Courtney said.
Support from municipalities along the route and even from neighboring towns off the New England Central tracks is growing. The Groton Town Council added its interest in a passenger rail service expansion this week with a resolution in support of the Central Corridor Rail Coalition and Palmer Rail Coalition, two entities promoting the project.
Electric Boat has about 1,600 employees who live in the towns along the proposed New London-Norwich rail corridor, said Robert Hamilton, spokesman for EB.
Courtney said the funding request for TIGER grants would come through Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office. State Sen. Andy Maynard, D-Stonington, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, said he tacked a large map of the New England Central Corridor line on the wall in the committee's conference room in Hartford.
Specific legislation has not come before the committee, but Maynard said his own support for the project has grown.
"I was intrigued by the possibility a year ago," Maynard said. "Now I'm excited about making it a priority in our rail plan."