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Some worry Amtrak plan would cut out region's rail

New London - The co-owner of Union Station is warning that a long-range plan by Amtrak to improve its inland high-speed rail service will have serious consequences for the southeastern part of the state.

Todd O'Donnell, who leases space to Amtrak, has raised concerns about an estimated $151 billion plan Amtrak unveiled in July for its Northeast Corridor. Part of the project calls for new high-speed service between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Trains eventually would travel at speeds up to 220 mph, cutting travel times considerably. For instance, an Amtrak vision report said that a trip in 2040 between New York and Boston would take 94 minutes - less than half the current 217-minute trip on Amtrak's Acela Express trains.

The plan for the high speed line does not call for any stops in Connecticut. A second-tier line, planned for implementation between 2030 and 2040, would stop only in Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford.

O'Donnell said he agrees the inland Amtrak upgrades and infrastructure improvements are needed, but he said the plan would cut shoreline rail service considerably. Tracks along the coast will not support the proposed high-speed trains.

"This will have a major impact on the economic vitality of southeastern Connecticut going forward," O'Donnell said.

Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, called the Amtrak proposal conceptual, although he said the state finds it intriguing. He added that few details are known at this point and that public comment on the project could be a decade or more away.

The plan calls for the addition of a third track near Palmer's Cove in Noank and a Connecticut River bridge replacement in Old Saybrook.

O'Donnell sent a letter to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments on Aug. 21 pointing out the plan's potential ramifications. Officials from 20 local towns comprise the regional planning agency, which briefly addressed the topic at a meeting Wednesday. Members plan to seek more information about the project.

The council of governments has made an effort to support another rail project - the Central Corridor Line. This project would improve freight and passenger rail service in the eastern part of the state and beyond by using about 100 miles of existing track. It would start in New London and run through Massachusetts before ending in Brattleboro, Vt.

Supporters of the Central Corridor project said the improved passenger rail would be an attraction for tourists and especially college students. Stops would include Mohegan Sun Casino, Norwich, Willimantic, Mansfield, Storrs and Stafford Springs. Stations in Massachusetts would include Palmer, Amherst and Millers Falls.

So far, efforts to secure funding for the estimated $150 million Central Corridor project have been unsuccessful.

O'Donnell said the potential loss of Amtrak service in the area makes it all the more prudent to push for projects such as the Central Corridor Line. Local officials and supporters of the project are planning an exploratory run on the line Oct. 4.

New London is served by Amtrak in its Northeast Corridor run and by Shore Line East, the commuter rail between New London and New Haven. Amtrak set a record for annual ridership in the most recent fiscal year and the state DOT reported earlier this month that since 2006, Shore Line East has seen an increase in ridership of 33.9 percent.

The increase was attributed in part to commuters turning to rail service instead of spending money on gasoline to fuel their cars.


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