Amtrak’s Role in Rail-Straightening Plan Questioned

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

The Federal Railroad Administration has proposed the straightening of Northeast Corridor tracks, from Washington, D.C., to Boston. The new railroad path would cut off an estimated 45 minutes of travel time between New York City and Boston, but both public and private property in southern New England could be impacted, including some sensitive areas.

Politicians, the public, and various agencies and organizations have expressed concerns about the NEC Future proposal. With a final record of decision on the project expected as soon as this month, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, for one, has reached out to the National Passenger Rail Corporation (Amtrak) as the agency prepares to inherit the Federal Railroad Administration’s controversial plan to build new high-speed rail routes through coastal towns in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The Connecticut Trust sent a letter to Amtrak that asked the agency to clarify and reconsider its role in the controversial plan. Since early 2016, when the public and legislators first became aware of the impacts of planned bypasses through southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has faced withering opposition across a broad political spectrum. Project opposition has spread from Branford, Guilford and Fairfield County to Westerly and Charlestown, R.I.

“Eighty miles of new bypasses may be the Federal Railroad Administration’s dream for rail travel through Connecticut, but I fear this portion of the NEC Future plan will become Amtrak’s nightmare,” Daniel Mackay, executive director of the Connecticut Trust, wrote in the May 4 letter. “If the Record of Decision contains proposed bypasses from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, RI or in Fairfield County, Amtrak will be risking decades of opposition from Congressional leadership, communities, and potential customers in Connecticut and Rhode Island.”

An Amtrak spokesman and its director of business development attended a Jan. 10 meeting in Charlestown to discuss the proposed Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass. The public meeting gave the agency a preview of the anger that NEC Future has generated in southern New England, as more than 400 residents packed the cafeteria of a local school. Person after person voiced unanimous, and at times fiery, opposition to the plan.

“Amtrak officials took the blame for the plan when FRA officials wouldn’t attend,” said Gregory Stroud, director of special projects for the Connecticut Trust, who spoke at the January meeting.

Stroud also noted that Amtrak supported an alternative route, without either the bypasses or the planned expansion between Guilford and Branford, in its earlier comments on the draft proposal.

“This isn’t Amtrak’s preferred plan, but it is the one Amtrak and taxpayers will be stuck with for the next 40 years,” he said. “We’re hoping that Amtrak will advocate for removal of the bypasses.”