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Could Amtrak be leaving?

The good news about Amtrak's 30-year vision for new express train service on the East Coast, with projected Boston-to-New York travel times of 90 minutes or less, is that the new trains may not come anywhere near southeastern Connecticut.

The bad news is that they may not come anywhere near southeastern Connecticut.

Amtrak staged an elaborate debut of its high speed rail dreams this week in Philadelphia.

It unveiled an ambitious $117 billion plan that would unfold over 30 years and create an elaborate new rail system that would accommodate trains traveling up to 220 mph.

No funding is in place. Specifics, like the exact route of new rail lines, remain vague at best. The earliest things might begin to take shape would be 2015, Amtrak said.

Yet there were enough details disclosed to sound some alarms around here.

One new route apparently under consideration for the New-York-to-Boston run would go through New Rochelle, Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford, Amtrak told the Providence Journal. It would bypass Providence and stop instead in Woonsocket, R.I., before going on to Boston. It would also bypass all of southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut.

In the event such a new inland high speed route were constructed, Acela and other regional trains would continue to run on the existing shoreline rail bed, Amtrak officials told the Rhode Island newspaper.

And yet I wonder, with a projected 50 to 70 high speed trains departing daily in each direction, would Amtrak and its customers still be interested in running and riding the old shoreline route through southern Connecticut, poking along at 20th century speeds?

How long would it take for the railroad to eliminate the Boston-to-New York service that includes stops in southeastern Connecticut?

What would happen to the zeitgeist of downtown New London if you could no longer board a train here bound for Boston or Washington? Of course, commuter service to New York might get better with fewer long distance trains using the Amtrak lines.

I suggested that the idea of an inland high speed train route is good news, because so many people around here wished for that a dozen years ago, when Amtrak was busy upgrading and electrifying its tracks here, preparing for the high-speed Acela.

Amtrak critics said then that effort and money would have been better directed at creating an inland route - away from the constrictions of the tight and curvy shoreline route - on which trains could logically travel must faster.

Those critics may have a $120 billion I told you so coming their way.

Still, I think moving the best Northeast corridor train service away from southeastern Connecticut would be sad. In that sense, Amtrak's announcement this week was bad news indeed.

Amtrak is envisioning a funding formula for its big plans of more than $4 billion a year over the next three decades. That's a tall order in a country that's used to spending its transportation infrastructure money on highways and bridges.

At the height of Amtrak hating around here, back at the dawn of the 21st Century, then Congressman Rob Simmons of Stonington balked when the national rail carrier proposed a new $12 billion infrastructure investment over 10 years.

"Amtrak as we know it today needs to be grabbed by the collar and shaken," Simmons said then, channeling a lot of the local anger toward the railroad.

The vision Amtrak unveiled this week, though, has already generated a lot of positive press and excitement. What's not to like about a train system that would cut travel time between Washington and New York from 162 minutes to 84 minutes?

The project would create about 44,000 construction jobs over 25 years and 120,000 permanent jobs, Amtrak said. The added ridership would generate almost $900 million a year in additional revenue, the railroad said.

It will reduce highway congestion and air traffic.

I think the political will might eventually be found to build it.

That's bad news for southeastern Connecticut, as far as I'm concerned.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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