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Improvements To Eastern Conn.'s Outdated Freight Rail Could Boost Economy

Rhonda Miller

Eastern Connecticut is the weakest link in the New England Central Railroad, which is made up of nearly 400 miles of freight rail from the Port of New London to the Canadian border. That’s about to change with a federal grant of more than $8 million to bring eastern Connecticut’s portion of the tracks up to national standards.

The state expects the improvements to create $130 million in economic benefits over 30 years from heavier loads of freight and new business.

At New England Central Railroad in Willimantic, a 20-car freight train sets off northward on its morning run to Palmer, Massachusetts. Charles Hunter is assistant vice president for government affairs for Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, which owns New England Central.

“We move quite a bit of lumber out here; utility poles, logs going to other states or, actually, up to Canada,” Hunter said.

New England Central will put in $2 million dollars, in addition to the $8.2 million federal grant to improve the railroad.

The current rail that’s out here is quite old. It goes back to probably the 1950s. This will be new rail, and it will be welded. It comes in quarter-mile strings, so it eliminates the, we call them joints, where the bolted rail comes together, and currently there’s a joint about every 39 feet out here on the track. The joint is the weakest spot in the track, so you’re constantly maintaining that,” said Hunter. “once the welded rail is installed, it will be a seamless track and you won’t hear the 'clickety-clack' anymore.” Hunter said.

The project can be an economic engine for the port of New London and the entire rail corridor. Hunter says it puts the Connecticut rail system back on the national network.

“It’s a great thing for eastern Connecticut because the existing businesses that are out here are going to be able to eventually take advantage of the heavier-weighted cars. Right now we can handle 263,000 pounds gross weight. After the project is completed, we’ll be able to handle 286,000-pound cars, which is the national, North American standard." he said.

At C.C. Lounsbury in South Windham, a forklift is unloading stacks of wrapped plywood off a railcar. Anthony Boucher owns the company.

“We are a transload. We unload lumber, plywood, utility poles off railcars and we deliver it by truck.”   Boucher said.

Boucher says C.C. Lounsbury will benefit from heavier weights on the railcars. The company has two rail spurs on its property that connect to the main line.

“I’m going to have to upgrade my tracks to accommodate more weight, but in the long run it’ll be beneficial because the more weight comes in the more we can send out, which in turn means more money.” he said.

When asked if it's a big expense to upgrade the company's rail spurs, Boucher said, “It is a big expense, yes. I haven’t heard about any funding for that.  I was hoping the grant could probably send a little my way, but we’ll see how that goes.”

Farther north in Willington, the Track Nine Diner sits next to the New England Central Railroad crossing. Joanne Noch works at the diner and says every time the train goes by, customers run to the window.

“All ages, and even me. I’m 76 and I love to run to the window and 'look, oh, the train, the train.'  And all the flashing lights, the traffic stops right out here and everything and the conductor will toot for us ‘cause he likes our restaurant.” Noch said.

Construction on the rail project is expected to begin in spring 2015 and take about two years. New England Central doesn’t have passenger service, but the upgraded tracks could lay the groundwork for passenger rail. The Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont departments of transportation launched a study on passenger service in March. They’re looking at the feasibility of trains filled with riders rolling through eastern Connecticut to colleges, casinos, and the coast.