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OP-ED | Passenger Rail Boosters Tell Malloy To ‘Train Up!’

by | Feb 6, 2015 6:29am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Business, Opinion, Transportation, Canaan

Terry Cowgill photo
You’ve got to admire tenacity and passion in the face of 30-miles-an-hour winds and some of the coldest temperatures we’ve seen this season. But such is the stuff railroad buffs are made of.

Almost 100 people turned out at the historic train depot in Canaan last Saturday to urge Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly to embrace the idea of restoring passenger rail service to northwestern Connecticut. Ironically, passenger service through the region was discontinued in 1972, 100 years after the vintage station was built.

State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, sees an opportunity here. When confronted with the idea of spending tens of millions of dollars — or perhaps hundreds of millions — to upgrade the deteriorating Housatonic Railroad freight line up to passenger rail specs, the Malloy administration essentially yawned, and mostly for good reason.

Like just about everyone in state government who’s looked at the situation, Malloy and his Transportation Commissioner, James Redeker, say they like the idea of passenger rail all the way up to Pittsfield. Massachusetts last year purchased the rail right-of-way from Housatonic Railroad for some $12 million and set aside more than $100 million for the passenger rail project, but Connecticut, which already owns the tracks from Danbury to the state line and whose cooperation is essential, has other priorities.

For an incomplete refresher course on the state’s transportation expenses: we’ve just completed a $570 million busway that connects New Britain and Hartford; we have an ancient but crucial train bridge in Norwalk that keeps getting stuck in the closed position; a New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed commuter rail line, which is currently under construction and to which the state has committed hundreds of millions of dollars. This is say nothing of our bridges and roads, which the White House recently judged to be the worst in the nation.

So spending big bucks to become flyover country for rich New Yorkers traveling north to spend money in the storied Berkshires and enjoy Tanglewood and Canyon Ranch hardly makes sense in the current economic environment.

But Willis and railroad enthusiasts in the Berkshires such as Karen Christensen of The Train Campaign, are convinced they’ve hit upon a winning strategy and I, too, think they’re on to something. The tracks on the current freight line operating from Danbury to Sheffield are in poor condition. Indeed there have been several derailments over the years. Willis, along with Rep. Cecilia Buck-Taylor and Sen. Clark Chapin, both Republicans from New Milford, have filed separate bills in the current legislative session that address the track north of Danbury.

Willis says her district would also have much to gain from passenger rail — not only from the obvious standpoint of increased tourism, but from the effect better rail infrastructure will have on employment and commerce. Becton-Dickinson, whose sprawling Canaan plant makes the lion’s share of the world’s syringes, is also one of Housatonic Railroad’s biggest customers and is in an expansionist mode. Ditto Specialty Minerals, whose giant rock processing plant in Canaan produces tons of limestone every day. So investing in viable freight service is vital to the region’s economy.

Willis has been my my state representative since 2001. Over the years, we’ve both personally witnessed some of the several derailments caused, no doubt, by Housatonic Railroad’s poor rail infrastructure. Consequently, one of the goals of Willis’ bill, according to its language, is “to protect environmentally sensitive areas that this railroad runs through by improving the infrastructure to prevent derailments.”

The economic and environmental incentives for the state to rebuild the railroad are powerful. The tourism case? Less so. There simply aren’t as many cultural attractions in western Connecticut compared to the Berkshires. And it’s clearly more expensive to rebuild the track for passenger rail compared to freight.

Malloy himself acknowledged this last summer when asked about passenger rail to the Berkshires, telling a group of Democrats in Cornwall, “If we’re going to go down that road, some negotiations are needed to decide who pays for what. It would appear that although it would be nice for us, it would be great for them.”

Maybe, just maybe, the new administration of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker would be willing to entertain the idea of paying for some of the passenger rail upgrades (beyond freight) needed in Connecticut (e.g. stations, additional tracks) in order to get the people-trains rolling up to Great Barrington and Lenox?

As one sign at the Canaan rally declared emphatically, “Train Up!” Just a thought, governors . . .

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(8) Archived Comments

posted by: art vandelay | February 6, 2015  6:44pm

art vandelay

Rail money would be much better spent on high speed rail service from New Haven to GCT.  Let the rich liberals who want to attend concerts at Tanglewood drive their Rolls Royces up through the Berkshires.  No need for passenger rail service to Pittsfield or for that matter Springfield.

posted by: SocialButterfly | February 6, 2015  8:46pm

Let’s not go overboard.  The problem is finding federal and state money to fund this restoration, and neither Obama, Malloy, Congress or our slip-of-the tongue merchant’s Blumenthal and Murphy offer any necessary funding solutions.

posted by: art vandelay | February 6, 2015  9:49pm

art vandelay

Here’s were we have to part ways.  I’d like see my federal & state tax dollars spent on a high speed rail system on the Northeast Corridor like the bullet train in Europe.  Hard earned tax dollars going toward a weekend Orient Express to Tanglewood from NYC is a total waste of money.

posted by: Terry Cowgill | February 7, 2015  8:55am

Terry Cowgill

Gentlemen, no matter whether you think passenger rail up the Housatonic Valley is a good idea (and I’m not sure it is myself), maintaining those freight lines is critical to the local economy. The state will have to at least find money to rehab those tracks for freight.

At that point, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to passenger specs. If the commonwealth of Massachusetts is willing to pay the difference, then I could be persuaded to support this project.

posted by: shinningstars122 | February 7, 2015  10:44am


I think it is a interesting long term goal to develop tourism in NW Connecticut but unless the Feds kick in serious money its a long shot in this GOP dominated era in Congress.

If you are looking to develop more industrial freight possibilities I think expanding two tracks north of Waterbury to Torrington is a smart move.

Thomaston already has a tourist attraction for train rides and I think with the work already planned from for between Bridgeport and Waterbury this a natural progression.

I agree with Art that the high speed bullet train between NYC and Boston, which Amtrack has already proposed, running along the I-84 corridor has to start within the next 5- 10 years.

It would be an economic boom for our state with planned stops in Danbury, Waterbury, Hartford, and maybe Storrs.

posted by: SocialButterfly | February 7, 2015  4:37pm

@art vandelay: You know our hard-earned tax dollars have been squandered away by ObamaCare and Obama’s bad economic policies producing a two trillion dollar deficit. The federal piggy bank is empty fo our deteriorating rails, and “the orient express” for our state is not in a realistic crystal ball.
@shinninstars122: Please get real. Don’t pass the buck to the Republicans in Congress as there is no money for our railways as Obama already robbed the bank, and there is no real money left except for printing up more paper money to add to our mind-boggling national debt. China won’t lend us any more money and we already owe the Social Fund double the money we have borrowed from China, so we can’t borrow any more money from Social Security. Please accept the fact that “United States is in hock way past the hilt.” .

posted by: shinningstars122 | February 8, 2015  1:41pm


@SocialButterfly enough with your non-sensical doomsday predictions about the US economy and blaming it on a typical conservative narrative, once again devoid of any facts to support your position.

Yes the deficit is a major problem but why don’t you chew on this data for a bit.

Since 9/11 the US has spent $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security.

These figures do not include the $1.26 trillion to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan either and if you have not nocticed we are now spending close to $7.5   million a day dealing with ISIL, that is over $1.8 billions so far.

Imagine if only a third of this money was spent domestically on infrastructure projects?

That would employs hundreds of thousands of Americans who would put these higher paying wages right back into the economy.

We as a country have to make a decision if our reaction, or over reaction in my opinion, to the war on terror is what we as a people need to spending so much of our tax dollars on.

We clearly are reaching an impasse where we will need to prioritize what will actually positively impact the majority of American lives.

Clearly the status quo is not working and this path is not sustainable.

This WSJ link also provides insightful data on both positive and negatives areas of Obama proposed FY 16 budget.

posted by: SocialButterfly | February 8, 2015  10:05pm

@shinningstas 122:  I stated facts in the fact that we owe our Social Security Fund over double the amount we owe China , and China will not lend us any more money.  If that sounds like a doomsday prediction to you, that’s your call.

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