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Poor rail system in Conn. ties up entire Northeast

Connecticut’s poor stewardship of its rail system slows travel throughout New England every day — and now has thrown it into chaos. On Friday evening, a commuter train on state-owned tracks in Fairfield, Conn., derailed, colliding with another train. Thankfully, no passengers were killed. But the accident shut down travel in both directions. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service shares the same tracks, so all through service between Boston and New York ground to a halt, too. Trains between South Station and Manhattan are not expected to resume until at least mid-week.

The accident happened on a stretch of the route that is a familiar irritant to regular Amtrak riders. Trains from Boston zip through Massachusetts and Rhode Island, only to slow down after passing New Haven. That section of the corridor is owned by the state of Connecticut, which does not maintain it to high-speed standards.

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The tracks where Friday’s accident happened use old-fashioned “jointed rail”: much of the route in Connecticut also uses an electrical system from 1907 to power locomotives. In other parts of the Northeast Corridor, including in Massachusetts, trains run on continuously welded track and use a modern electrical system. The section where the crash occurred actually contains two more sets of tracks, which could have been used to reroute trains after the accident, but they are out of service, part of a repair project that has been limping along since 1991.

The cause of Friday’s accident is still under investigation, though the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a broken rail found near the crash site. But the consequences of Connecticut’s management of the corridor are already plain to see. The state needs to speed up repairs to the line, and cooperate in adapting it to high-speed rail. The Northeast Corridor is a critical regional asset, and has to be managed that way.

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