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June 17, 2007

"Next Stop Penn Station?"

Will Connecticut rail commuters someday be able to travel directly from Fairfield County to New York City’s Penn Station? Someday… but not anytime soon.

As with many good ideas that seem so obvious, this one also has been studied thoroughly and found to be problematic in a number of respects. But once again, Governor Rell is challenging the Connecticut Department of Transportation to explain why good ideas like this can’t be implemented. Here, Governor, are a few of the reasons:

INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT: As any commuter on Metro-North can tell you, we don’t have enough seats for existing service to Grand Central let alone expansions to new stations. But now the Canadian rail-car manufacturer Bombardier, having lost the bidding war for the new M8 cars to Kawasaki, is lobbying Hartford to fund railcars we never asked for… double-decker cars with push-pull electric locomotives. They’d be perfect for new express service to Penn Station, they claim. Those cars may work in New Jersey, for which they were designed, but were long ago rejected by the Connecticut DOT for good reasons.

Now, I’m all for getting more rail cars. (Full disclosure, I’m a Canadian by birth). But why are we turning to a rail car vendor to tell us what kind of equipment we should run, and where?

ELECTRICITY: Our existing fleet of MU cars cannot take a left turn at New Rochelle and head over the Hells Gate Bridge onto Long Island, then hang a right, in through the tunnels into Penn Station. The cars’ overhead power catenary system operates under a different voltage than Amtrak. And in third rail territory on Long Island, our cars use a different kind of shoe to contact the third-rail power source. The proposed 2009 experimental direct train from Connecticut to Giants Stadium in New Jersey that was announced with such fanfare last week will actually be run with New Jersey transit railroad equipment.

CAPACITY: Even if we had the cars with the right electrical equipment to make it over the Hells Gate Bridge and through the tunnels to Penn Station, there’s no room in the station. For years now, the MTA has stalled our discussions about direct service to Penn Station, claiming there is no capacity… that the station is full-up serving Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad and NJ transit. Only if and when the $6.3 billion East Side Access project bringing some Long Island Railroad trains into Grand Central is completed many years from now, says the MTA, will there be room for any Metro-North trains to access Penn Station.

Once again, Connecticut is being told by the New York MTA what its transportation future will be. And Connecticut still has no say in the matter nor voting seat at the table, either on the MTA or the Metro-North boards. Connecticut may be the MTA’s largest customer, hired by CDOT to operate Metro-North trains in our state, but when it comes to important decisions, like expanding rail service to Penn Station, the MTA is clearly in control.

Years ago Governor Rell acknowledged the inequity in this position, and promised to fight for a seat on the MTA board. One might ask… what happened to that fight? Why, Governor, is a New York agency still in charge of Connecticut’s transportation future?

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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