Editorial: Worthy rail idea remains on the siding

Published: 7/26/2016 9:48:13 AM

Supporters of travel by train would have been encouraged to see this headline in Thursday’s Gazette: “$1.2B Northeast rail expansion aired.”

Let’s break that down, though.

Choo-choo fans may want to sit down for this.

The $1.2 billion cost is an estimate of what it would take to improve (or in some cases introduce) more regular rail service from New Haven, Connecticut, to Montreal, Canada, and to open a new “inland” route of service from New Haven to Boston, through Springfield.

That means track, station, crossing and signal repairs ($721 million) and the purchase of train equipment ($527 million).

Those facts are contained in the newly released report of the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative, a study that got going in 2013 and pulled into Springfield’s Union Station with its findings Wednesday. The officials who briefed the public on this came by car. To their credit, they fessed up to the inconvenient truth that intercity rail travel in New England remains a goal.

And a distant one at that. Plenty of dollar figures dot the report, a 13-page summary of which is available online by searching for the initiative’s name. One figure that’s not there, though, is the total of federal, state or private dollars so far committed to making this dream a reality.

So we’ll add it here: $0.

As of today, the only money committed to the notion of greenhouse gas-reducing rail travel of this magnitude around New England is the $700,000 it cost to conduct the study.

The report summary concludes by noting that funding would need to be folded in with any participating state’s “capital investment planning and project selection.” Translation: get in line.

To be sure, a hoped-for rail revival has seen some success in the Valley, thanks mostly to federal stimulus spending nearly a decade ago that is not likely to return.

The rise of the car culture in the last century really did a number on passenger rail, so much so that the cost today of resurrecting old lines is frighteningly high. The report notes that many at-grade rail crossings would have to be fixed. The sorry state of existing rail infrastructure, which the stimulus money did help address in a limited number of locations, discourages ridership. That’s true even on portions of the new service that comes through Northampton.

Nonetheless, the desire among the public for an alternative to crowded highways is there — and that’s perhaps the biggest contribution this report makes. Many people would welcome an alternative to driving to Boston, if it is within their means financially, partly because they want to avoid use of fossil fuels linked to climate change.

In other words, if someone builds it, they will ride. The report calculates that adequate ridership would exist in 2035 to support eight daily round-trips between New Haven and Boston on the “inland” route, opening up Springfield as a major departure point for western Massachusetts and retroactively helping to justify the $88.5 million invested in the overhaul of that city’s Union Station. The report calculates that the inland route service would attract 429,000 riders a year.

That’s encouraging, but other numbers related to that service aren’t so optimistic.

Even if multiple states were able to coordinate and agree to needed track, station and grade improvements, the cost of operating the inland route would be $33 million a year. However, revenues from ticket sales would be $18 million, the report calculates, leaving a $15 million yearly gap that would have to be covered by a subsidy. If this were a business proposal, the interview with a lender would be brief.

Lawmakers, in other words, would have to agree to do more than dig deeply into public resources to pay for the capital expense. They’d have to commit to covering the shortfall in operational expenses.

All that suggests that despite this being an exciting idea, getting a complex cast of players all to say “all aboard” seems remote.

The study team has done its part. The initiative’s website is loaded up with reports, meeting minutes and session agendas. But the link to “upcoming meetings” says a lot by saying very little: “No meetings are scheduled.”



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