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Get On Board: Grand Opening Of New Commuter Railroad

Get On Board: Grand Opening Of New Commuter Railroad

Hartford Courant, June 14, 2018

By Matthew Ormseth

There was a whistle — a short one, not very loud — before the cars slid out of New Haven’s State Street station, a nearly decade-old dream wrapped in silver and red, gliding toward Hartford.

On Wednesday, three days before the line opens to the public, the state Department of Transportation allowed The Courant aboard a Hartford Line car traveling from New Haven to Hartford. The train — a black locomotive and four silver cars — eased out of the State Street station Wednesday morning, onto a latticework of tracks that routes trains east to Old Saybrook, north to Hartford and Springfield.

It is 46 minutes from New Haven to Hartford, a route that slices through Wallingford, Meriden and Berlin, along a track built atop concrete ties that makes for a smoother, faster ride than a traditional wood-tied track. Wetlands and lily-padded lakes flash past in Meriden, an unfinished station and new apartment buildings in Berlin, warehouses and then the Capitol’s golden dome as you near Hartford’s Union Station, halfway to the terminus in Springfield.

Beginning Saturday, seventeen trains will run between Springfield and New Haven each day, with stops in Windsor Locks, Windsor, Hartford, Berlin, Meriden and Wallingford.

 “Seventeen trains a day — that’s more than any other recent high speed rail project in the country,” said James Redeker, the DOT commissioner, who rode the new line Wednesday. “This is bigger than what most people imagined was possible.”

The rail line’s kickoff is not without controversy — some of which sprung Tuesday, four days before its grand opening. An advocacy group, Disability Rights Connecticut, filed a complaint last week with the Federal Railroad Administration arguing that bathrooms on Hartford Line cars are not accessible to people with disabilities.

The cars, which DOT purchased from Massachusetts, were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, and the federal railroad group had previously exempted DOT from making bathrooms on the cars comply with the disability regulations. But on Tuesday, the group reversed its decision, forcing DOT to close bathrooms on half of the Hartford Line trains until they’ve been retrofitted to meet ADA requirements.

Retrofitting needed back to top

Redeker said it will take until November to modify two of the four Hartford Line trains to meet disability requirements. It could take until February to retrofit the other two.

“The law says equal access for everybody,” he said, “and the interpretation is, ‘If not everybody can use it, nobody can.’ ”

The timing of the complaint “is a little awkward,” he said, “but so be it. It’s not the end of the world, and we just have to change gears.”

Inside the cars, blue leather seats are spaced wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Each train has four cars, with seats for 100 passengers per car. Glistening black locomotives thrust the trains at speeds around 80 mph.

“There was a little bit of age to them when they came from [Massachusetts],” said Mark Bastien, a conductor, of the rail cars, “but we’ve been working with them since February and they’re very smooth, very quiet.”

Eight of the 17 trains that travel along Hartford Line tracks each day will be CTrail cars; the other nine are owned by Amtrak. Despite the different operators, a Hartford Line ticket is valid on both CTrail and Amtrak trains.

The ticket sharing agreement took 15 months to negotiate with Amtrak, Redeker said. It was difficult, he said, agreeing on a system to first pool and then divvy up ticket revenues, and navigating the railway behemoth’s servers and security systems. But the result is that passengers can board any train that stops along the line (except for Amtrak’s Vermonter line) with one ticket, for one price — $8 from Hartford to New Haven, $6 from Hartford to Springfield.

On Friday, 27 months after construction began, and 21 miles of track, 27 drainage culverts, 21 bridges, 105,000 ties and $768 million later, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will christen the line many have come to see as his legacy. In December, when he froze or diverted millions in transportation funding, money flowed unremitting to the Hartford Line — mostly, Redeker explained, because they’d taken federal grants to build the line and were legally obligated to see the project through, but also because Malloy was determined to see the line built.

Apartment complexes and storefronts have already sprouted along the route, developers salivating at the transit hubs’ pull over young people looking to live within walking distance of the train — and, by extension, Hartford, New Haven, even New York City.

There’s been $408 million in development around Hartford Line stations, Redeker said, “and that’s before we’ve even opened.”

Though the train was all but empty Wednesday, the conductor still announced the stations as it sped north, past crews pressure-washing platforms and polishing handrails in Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin. The train slipped into Hartford along the CTfastrak route, past the brick hulks of Parkville warehouses, Aetna, The Courant’s Broad Street building and the Capitol and into Track 1 of Union Station, where the conductor said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Hartford.”