NEW HAVEN — The cars are 30 years old with no internet and no bathrooms, but no one was complaining Friday as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, lawmakers and rail workers took an inaugural ride on the state’s newest rail line.
”This is a day to remember,” Malloy said as he cut the ribbon on Track 3 at Union Station. “This is an exciting new chapter in transportation and economic development. We need to modernize rail in America and I’m very proud Connecticut is showing how to do it.”
The CTrail Hartford Line train bound to Hartford picked up passengers along the way. In Wallingford, Malloy greeted state Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, North Haven First Selectman Michael Freda and Wallingford Town Councilor John LeTourneau.
”It’s been a long time coming,” said LeTourneau, a Republican. “I think it’s a good thing for Wallingford. It’s close to New Haven… It’s going to be an easy sell. We have good housing stock. It was needed.”
The bright orange and black locomotive carrying four cars moved about 80 miles per hour out of Union Station and through North Haven, but slowed as it approached grade crossings and stations. The Hartford Line is the first passenger service rail line to open in Connecticut since 1990.
In Meriden, the train was met by state Rep. Emil “Buddy” Altobello, D-Meriden, who said he remembered taking the train with his mother to Hartford as a child. Former state House Speaker Christopher Donovan, of Meriden, also climbed on board. Donovan recalled his lobbying efforts to get the train going more than 20 years ago.
”It’s like the story about the little engine that could,” Donovan said. “I lived in a commuter city and put in a bill every year to put in a train. I worked on that with (former governor M.) Jodi Rell, and then (former President Barack) Obama wanted to help with the Recovery Act bill. (Former U.S. senator) Chris Dodd and (U.S. Sen.) Chris Murphy jumped in and we started negotiating with Amtrak. It’s now a reality, and coinciding with the worst traffic on (Interstate) 91 that I’ve ever seen.”
The $770 million rail line meant double tracking the existing rail from New Haven to the Hartford border. The federal government paid about $200 million.
The state Department of Transportation and Amtrak added new signals and equipment at grade crossings. Meriden, Wallingford and Berlin received new train stations. About 25 new positions were created to operate the trains, said DOT Commissioner James Redeker.
”It’s a system that has wide connections in the region,” Redeker said. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent in economic development around the train stations.”
The lack of bathrooms on the trains was a last minute snag caused when the Federal Railroad Administration withdrew an exemption for not having handicapped bathrooms. As a result, the rail line had to lock all the bathrooms. Compliant bathrooms should be completed next winter, according to a DOT spokesman.
Once in Hartford, the governor and lawmakers met with officials from Massachusetts who rode the Hartford Line from Springfield. About 250 DOT employees, state and federal lawmakers and the media attended a dedication at the Great Hall of Union Station in Hartford.
”This is because of the courage of your governor,” said U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of western Massachusetts. “There are too many people who want to go to the ground-breakings and ribbon-cuttings but don’t want to commit to the spending.”
Massachusetts recently spent $94 million to renovate Union Station in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley is improving its track line to the Vermont border. But getting commuter rail service from Springfield to Worcester is a steep hurdle because of rail ownership issues and opposition from local bus companies.
Neal told the crowd Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has finally agreed to fund a study that looks at the benefit of an east-west service through Massachusetts “that will greatly benefit Connecticut.”
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin told the crowd that most of Hartford’s employees live outside the city and between CTfastrak and the Hartford Line, they can find alternative ways to travel.
“This is a project that involved an awful lot of people,” said former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. “There was a time the U.S. led the world in ideas like this. Then we sort of gave up on this idea and we let other people take the lead. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back in my beloved state to see us once again in Connecticut leading the way in the country.”
Dodd and other speakers talked about the opportunities for economic development in the town’s and cities along the 63 miles between New Haven and Springfield.
Freda boarded the train in Wallingford and attended the ceremony in Hartford. Initial plans called for new stations in North Haven and Newington, but those are on hold pending stabilization of the state’s Special Transportation Fund.
“We’re still committed to it,” Freda said. “The last three years we’ve been working with the DOT and design consultants. I’m encouraged by the meetings.”
Other improvements to the line include double-tracking from Windsor to Springfield, and adding three tracks and a new station in Hartford. That work will follow completion of work on the Interstate 84 viaduct in Hartford, Redeker said.
Freda said a North Haven station would be off State Street at the Route 40 connector and would be the first stop out of New Haven. The town has introduced Pfizer and other companies to the area and generated economic development near the proposed site.
“I’m optimistic,” Freda said. “The first stage has been funded.”
Tom Mik, a Meriden native, left his job with a freight operator to work for the CTrail. He is now a transportation supervisor overseeing the train operations.
“It went great as far as I was concerned,” Mik said about the inaugural run. “Most of us came from freight rail and the equipment is different.”
The crew is ready when the public is allowed to ride the trains today, he said.
“That will be easy,” Mik said. “Today was the hard one. I think this is going to be nice for everyone.”