Even if the state can get construction of the troubled New Haven to Springfield commuter rail project back on course, there will still be a critical question lingering: Who is going to run the trains?
The answer is virtually certain to affect fares, service quality and possibly timetables on a project that several Connecticut communities are counting on to spur residential and business development near their rail stations.
The state transportation department in April began seeking proposals from prospective contractors, but it’s not clear that anyone is stepping forward to bid. The DOT on Thursday declined to say whether it has received any formal proposals.
The most likely candidate would be Amtrak, which already holds the contract to operate Shore Line East for Connecticut. More important, Amtrak owns the entire 62-mile rail line between New Haven and Springfield, and currently runs a limited schedule of intercity trains.
But last month it was revealed that Amtrak is locked in an acrimonious dispute with Connecticut over who will pay to upgrade the line to accommodate high-frequency commuter service.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wrote to top federal transportation officials that Amtrak has mismanaged construction and impeded efforts to control costs, concluding: “The result is that the project is grossly over budget and significantly behind schedule.”
Trains? How quaint. Why don’t we build a dedicated busway between Hartford and Springfield? Or even better a monorail! These are needed because it is almost impossible to get to and from those two cities now….(sarcasm off).
at 7:36 AM July 06, 2015
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The other seemingly obvious contender is Metro-North, which runs trains from New Haven to New York City under contract with Connecticut. But the railroad’s president, Joseph Giulietti, said that Metro-North hasn’t submitted a proposal and isn’t working on one.
“What Connecticut has put out is that they’d like to have a bid operation,” said Giulietti, whose railroad is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a New York-based quasi-public corporation that operates mass transit in New York City and surrounding areas.
Unlike private contractors, Metro-North doesn’t typically bid on service contracts. Its arrangement to run trains on the New Haven line is based on a cost-sharing agreement between New York and Connecticut, not on a fixed-rate system.
“I’m not saying that we’d never bid on anything. … It would require a lot more examination,” Giulietti said.
Connecticut officials say they wouldn’t be surprised if Metro-North doesn’t get into the competition, particularly since it already oversees a large network of operations and is in a rebuilding campaign.
Over the winter, Transportation Commissioner James Redeker told state legislators that the New Haven to Springfield contract might be an opportunity for Connecticut to explore working with private rail contractors. Many states, counties and cities in the country hire private companies to operate their trains, light rail lines and bus fleets, with varying degrees of success
Anticipating a big cost increase from Amtrak, Texas and Oklahoma last summer explored bringing in a new operator to run daily service between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. But that apparently went nowhere, and the states are now running on a month-to-month contract with Amtrak while trying to reduce operational costs.
The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority hired Keolis, a private company with contractors across the nation, to run its commuter rail lines last year. The operation was dogged by late trains and cancellations all winter. The MBTA fined Keolis $900,000, the governor pressed an oversight board to resign and one rider this spring attempted to launch a class action lawsuit against Keolis on behalf of all passengers who bought monthly rail passes during the winter.
Creating high-frequency commuter service along the Springfield to New Haven corridor has been planned for more than a decade, and Malloy has made the project, called The Hartford Line, a cornerstone of his statewide transportation revitalization.
Communities such as Enfield and Meriden have been lobbying hard to get the project going, with hopes that convenient rail service will create demand for new housing and businesses around stations.
“Like the I-95 corridor across southern Connecticut, the I-91 corridor through the center of Connecticut is a vital artery for economic development and jobs growth,” Malloy said when the state began seeking service proposals in April. “Enhancing commuter rail service between New Haven and Springfield will benefit commuters and their employers, and will reduce traffic congestion by taking cars off the road, with the added bonus of reduced pollution.”
The plan is to operate trains every half-hour between Hartford and New Haven during weekday rush hours and every hour during the rest of the day. Less-frequent service would be available on the northern end of the line from Hartford to Springfield.
Stations already exist at New Haven, Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin, Hartford, Windsor, Windsor Locks and Springfield, and more are planned, for North Haven, Newington, West Hartford and Enfield. Malloy has said he wants trains to start running at the end of 2016, but acknowledged in his complaint about Amtrak that the schedule is in jeopardy because of cost overruns and delays.