story & photos
by Jon Persson
The train-with-no-name pulls out of New London’s Union Station and heads northerly on a passenger route that does not exist beyond the bookends of memory and vision. Once this was an active railroad line carrying people from New London to Canada, Chicago… and America. Freight trains ride these rails today as in the past, slow-moving cars laden heavy with the bulk material of basic industry, pulled by multiples of diesel engines. And there are new visions for these heavy trains as well, as the presentations on October 4 outlined in detail.
A short presentation inside the architecturally historic Union Station in downtown New London precedes the passenger train ride. Todd O’Donnell, co-owner of the building, explains that the revitalization of the New England Central Corridor rail line will help strengthen the economy all along the route. He asks the passengers to take note of the “many boarded up buildings along the way, and think about all the things that could be done with those buildings.” His audience is both attentive and influential, and includes elected officials from area towns to federal levels of government.
True to railroad tradition, the presentation concludes as scheduled at 8:15 a.m., and passengers are asked to board the train, which waits on Amtrak’s main line. There are numerous styles of passenger cars, all vintage and all restored, some plain and others opulent. These distinctions are further accentuated from on board: the basic coach with spartan seats contrasted against cars finely appointed with private tables and fresh flowers. These are the rail cars of another era, now privately owned, each with millions of rail miles and claims to chapters of history unique to each.
As Todd promises, passengers are treated to a moseying pace on the “Central Express.” Quietly, New London’s Parade Plaza and War Memorial disappear from view. A succession of sights pass by the train windows like a rolling slide show, from bucolic to rustic, scenic to sadly decayed. There are important centers of activity, the State Pier and Sub Base, the Coast Guard Academy and recycling center. Along a particularly scenic stretch of the Thames River, State Representative Chris Coutu enthusiastically declares, “I can see this becoming an excursion ride. I would definitely bring my family out here.”
This morning trip has been billed as an inspection of the rail line from New London to Brattleboro, Vermont, a chance to see firsthand the potential for a future made better by the vision of present day leaders. The train rolls on at its casual pace on this clear autumn day, the changing foliage lending a calendar image to the scene, as leaves fall and are scattered along the route like rose petals before a regal entourage.
At the back of the train a historic car rides in solemn reminder of past hopes and visions. The car, named Pennsylvania, is now elegantly appointed and expertly restored by owner Bennet Levin, but was in 1968 tasked to carry the body of Robert F. Kennedy to his final resting place after his assassination.
Elsewhere on the train, discussions spring up in small groups, often with elected decision makers at their center. New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio holds court in the coach car, while U.S. Representative Joe Courtney holds an informal congress in the dining car. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal tours the train with frequent stops to chat. Asked about the perception that New London County has been left behind where railroad infrastructure funding is concerned, Senator Blumenthal replies, “that’s why I’m on the train. We need to focus more on this part of the State.”
As for the potential for higher speed passenger service on the New England Central line, he says, “I think the rails need replacing. That’s the challenge.” Indeed, amidst the low buzz of conversation, numbers like “120 million” and “150 million” are occasionally heard, the realistic costs of rebuilding the 120 miles of rail and infrastructure that lie between New London and Brattleboro, Vermont.
Captain Marc Denno, Commanding Officer of the Submarine Base in Groton, offers that many sailors at the base lack readily available transportation, adding that “Amtrak is too expensive” for routine use. This is a sentiment often heard, alongside admonitions that convenient and affordable transportation is a critical component of development and economic revitalization. For the Central Railroad, this includes upgrades to the rail line that will both raise speeds for passenger service, and weight capacity for freight traffic.
That such investment in both the rail system and the surrounding areas is needed is apparent as the train continues its relaxing journey upward across the state. Along some stretches the train leans noticeably, while secondary tracks rest on visibly deteriorated wooden ties. In each of the towns, numerous industrial buildings with boarded-up windows stand vacant or under-utilized, awaiting the investments of human energy, innovation, and capital needed to create the next chapter in the region’s history, the restoration of prosperous times.
Indeed, this is in many ways a tour of introspection, a review of past events and decisions which have led to these empty factories beside a worn-down rail line in America’s wealthiest state. For the leaders present today, the weight of challenges and decisions before them is lightened, perhaps, by new opportunities.