Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, the nation's busiest passenger rail line, has long been envisioned as a pioneering transportation network designed to ease traffic on Interstate 95 between Washington, D.C., and Boston, and to provide a more economical alternative to air travel.
While service has for the most part been reliable it has never quite fulfilled the promise of a true high-speed rail, even with the introduction of the Acela Express in 2000.
This week Amtrak outlined plans for a $151 billion rail upgrade to the corridor, including construction of a third track for a four-mile stretch in Groton between Palmer's Cove in Noank and the Thames River bridge, as well as replacement of the rail bridge over the Connecticut River.
This newspaper, which has always been on board as a supporter of mass transportation, favors the ambitious initiative in hopes that it will encourage more riders to leave their cars at home instead of clogging the highway.
We also are pleased that it appears to firm up Amtrak's commitment to its existing shoreline route rather than veer off inland, which would have reduced service to passengers traveling to and from southeastern Connecticut.
The addition of an extra track in Groton also is good news, in that it will allow more trains to pass through the region.
Related to that initiative, Amtrak is also seeking to add 40 more passenger cars to the Acela Express trains to increase seating capacity by 2015. Presently, some 2,100 passenger and 50 freight trains travel through the Northeast Corridor daily.
As for the rest of the proposed project, the new track, stations and systems between New York City and Boston are scheduled for the last phase, not expected to be running until 2040.
It makes sense that Amtrak would seek to upgrade the most profitable, heavily used section of its national rail network, since revenues generated by the Northeast Corridor help support less-well-traveled routes in more sparsely populated parts of the country.
Increased ridership, we hope, eventually will reduce fares, one of the main drawbacks of Amtrak service.
Savvy rail passengers from this region know enough not to take Amtrak from New London to New York City, since a round-trip ticket costs $94 on the regular train and $163 on the Acela Express, which only saves about 20 minutes.
Instead, most New York-bound passengers will either take the state-subsidized Shore Line East to New Haven and switch to Metro-North for the rest of the way to Grand Central, or drive to New Haven and buy a $29 round-trip, off-peak ticket to New York.
Until Amtrak's prices are reduced, the service amounts to a luxurious mode of transportation rather than a reasonable alternative to driving. As evidenced by the perpetually congested I-95, most travelers appear to be willing to put up with heavy traffic rather than shell out a lot of money to get to and from cities in the Northeast Corridor.
Trains have a big advantage over airplanes in that they can deliver passengers directly to downtown districts, instead of outlying airports.
The upgraded plans under consideration should allow for high train speeds and make rail travel even more appealing.
The report released last week revises the alignment of Amtrak's proposed new 438-mile high-speed corridor, with the high-speed segment between New York and Washington running by about 2030 and the route between New York and Boston by 2040. Eventually, trains could rocket along at 220 mph.
With such a long lead time, and with no money set aside yet, it's difficult to get too excited about any of the plans, but we recognize that such large-scale projects require considerable planning and will try to be patient.