A View from Glen Hill: Riding the rails into the future

I’ve returned to my New Haven commute now that the new academic year has begun. So once again I regularly pass through the commuter tunnel under the South Norwalk train station as I move between trains on the Danbury line and those on the main line. Much to my surprise, while I’ve been away in Maine over the summer a fascinating display has emerged in this formerly dingy tunnel!

Making its appearance is an array of almost life-size painted figures, some 40 strong, lining the tunnel’s sides. Striking different poses and “moving” in different directions, the figures are dressed in period costume from various eras over the past two centuries: from Civil War soldiers, to turn-of-the-20th-Century immigrants seeking a new life in America, World War I doughboys, 20s flappers, 50s civil rights marchers, 60s flower children, and contemporary young people. Similar displays appear in multiple stations around the country. The installation of this display in the South Norwalk tunnel is sponsored principally by the City of Norwalk. It creates a bright spot for many, like me, during what are otherwise mundane commuting times.

Train service is a key to Wilton’s — and indeed our whole region’s — prosperity. Without it, many family bread-winners working in New York City, like myself in earlier times, would never have been able to locate here. At a 90-minute commute into New York City, Wilton is at the outer limits for many of a reasonably comfortable commuting distance there; yet still 18% of our employed residents make that daily commute. It’s actually not a bad commute for working, sleeping, reading, or video-viewing, especially in the very welcome new cars that have been coming on to the New Haven line over the past year or so. Our state senator and representatives as well as our town officials have been diligent in pressing for ever-better service from Wilton’s stations, and in fact we have seen additional trains added, especially at off-peak times, and also an upgrade in cars and diesel engines on our Danbury-South Norwalk branch line. Suffice it to say,train service is a significant driver of economic activity throughout this area.

Now along comes Amtrak with a new plan for implementation 25 years from now of very high-speed (220 m.p.h. maximum) service from Boston to New York City. In its newly announced plans, however, that high-speed service would entirely bypass the coastal route now used by Amtrak (whose payments for track usage help to support New Haven line commuter service) and go on a northerly inland route that takes the high-speed tracks through Hartford, Waterbury, and Danbury, not New London, New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford.

These speeds would permit a one-hour travel time (versus three-plus hours now) between Boston and New York City (three hours all the way from Boston to Washington, D.C.) and dramatically shift commuting options. There is no question the proposed routing is somewhat shorter in distance, but it also requires significant right-of-way acquisition and attendant costs to be incurred over use of the New Haven line right-of-way now in operation for Amtrak service between Boston and New York City. Even though Amtrak assures that its service on the coastal route would continue, one can easily anticipate if these plans come to fruition, that service will be a much weakened version of what now runs the rails for Amtrak on this coastal route.

While the ticket cost of the new high-speed service may make it prohibitively expensive for many daily commuters, the fact is that the new rail lines will also permit the introduction of new commuter services with presumably lower speed but still very fast trains covering the same route. The result of that could be a dramatic shift over time in choice of residence, with towns and cities more northerly than Wilton benefiting most. Of course, there will be a lot of hurdles for any new service introduction to leap, including intense opposition from Connecticut’s coastal cities, and in fact that opposition is already taking active voice in New Haven, and also presumably in the other cities most negatively affected by this proposed shift.

For now, there are more active commuter rail needs for Wilton and the whole Danbury-South Norwalk branch line to address, as well as needs on the main line itself. Nevertheless, as planning goes forward by Amtrak along these lines, it will be one more thing for our elected officials — and, indeed, all of us — to keep a careful eye upon.

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.