Connecticut rail tracks considered weak link in 390-mile freight rail system in New England

From the port of New London on Long Island Sound north through Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and into Canada, a 390-mile freight rail system linking New England to the rest of the Northeast lacks a key element: a 21st-century rail line in Connecticut.

Elected officials in Connecticut, backed by regional business owners and Genesee & Wyoming Inc., owner of New England Central Railroad, are lobbying federal transportation officials for $8.3 million to upgrade railroad tracks to accommodate heavier freight and move more products to market. New England Central is contributing $2 million.

Officials say it would be the first north-south heavy rail capacity corridor in Connecticut and could lead to expanded passenger rail service in eastern Connecticut.

"You can see point-blank the rail line is rusty, bolted together, not that stable in terms of bearing weight," said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., one of several elected officials lobbying for the federal money.

The New England Central Railroad moves commodities such as lumber, panels, plywood, newsprint, printing paper, compressed gas, chemicals, fuel oil and construction debris. The Great Recession hit New England hard, but business is returning, said Charles Hunter, assistant vice president of government affairs at Genesee & Wyoming. Rail also looks attractive in comparison with truck transport, which relies on rising gasoline prices, he said.

"The interest seems to be gathering," he said.

State officials say the rails on the Connecticut portion of the New England Central Rail corridor do not support the rail freight carload standard of 286,000 pounds, falling short by about 23,000 pounds.

Andrew Clark, owner of Limb-It Less, a North Franklin logging company, said increasing capacity of rail cars will help him ship more logs and lower his cost of doing business. He moved his business from Essex to North Franklin for its access to rail transportation, he said.

"If we upgrade, we're going to be able to attract more business," he said.

State officials are pushing the economic development potential of replacing 19 miles of track in eastern Connecticut communities described as "economically distressed." Improving the freight rail line would particularly help redevelop vacant industrial sites, some of which were polluted by previous manufacturing uses, state officials say.

Increased freight rail also could bring more business to the New London port, Connecticut's easternmost outlet to Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

Massachusetts also is upgrading a rail line from the Vermont line to Springfield in a project initially costing $73 million that's intended to accommodate higher speed passenger trains and higher capacity freight service.

The town of Palmer, Massachusetts, is backing the rail upgrade in eastern Connecticut as part of a drive for a regional north-south freight rail line, Town Manager Charlie Blanchard said. Calling itself "The Town with Seven Railroads" because of its railroad heritage, Palmer is home to businesses that distribute products delivered by rail and would benefit from an upgraded freight line, he said.

And Vermont's segment of the line has been upgraded using nearly $80 million in grants and other sources, said Dan Delabruere, rail program director at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. The rail line extends from Massachusetts to St. Albans and a $9.8 million grant will replace a freight rail line before the winter from St. Albans nearly to Canada, he said.

"We're virtually all new line, border to border," Delabruere said.