Northeast Eyes Trains To Unclog Airports

A TRAVELER between Boston and New York who doesn't want to drive the busy interstate has two transportation options these days. He or she can fly from Boston's Logan Airport to New York's La Guardia Airport. Both rank among the most congested in the country, with inadequate parking facilities, heavy automobile traffic, and frequent flight delays.

Or the traveler can take the train, a 4-1/2 to 5-hour journey that involves a 25-minute stop in New Haven, Conn., to change from a diesel to an electric locomotive. After that, says Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), ``you bump into New York City,'' because the track conditions are so poor.

The Coalition of Northeastern Governors (CONEG) wants to ease airport congestion by giving travelers a better alternative to flying. It proposes a high-speed rail line that would cut the travel time between the two cities to three hours, and says the plan can be put on a fast track, if Congress and the administration agree.

According to Governor Dukakis, 30 percent of the traffic at Logan Airport is people flying to New York, while 20 percent of the people flying out of La Guardia are headed for Boston.

``The best way to decongest Logan in a hurry is a three-hour train to New York City,'' Dukakis says.

CONEG, which includes the governors of the six New England states plus New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, proposes a high-speed rail line using ``dual use'' locomotives capable of running on both diesel and electric power. It would also use tilt-technology rail cars that tilt as the train goes around curves so the passengers don't fly around the car.

The plan also calls for upgrading the rail bed between New Haven, Conn., and New York and improving the signals along the Connecticut portion.

Congress will be asked to provide about $40 million for the locomotives, while private-sector financing will be sought for the cars. The states have already applied to the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration for a $90 million grant to finance the rail bed and signal improvements.

Six governors presented the plan to US Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner during a recent meeting in Ogunquit, Maine. Mr. Skinner came to discuss the Bush administration's proposed national transportation strategy, which would shift more of the cost of upgrading transportation systems to the states.

Skinner says the Transportation Department is studying the future of high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. A line already exists between Washington and New York City. He expects the study to be finished by the end of the year.

``We'll report to the governors and to the administration on what we think makes the most sense,'' Skinner says. ``There will be no decision until then.''

The governors' effort could be sidelined, however, by state and federal differences over just what kind of line should be built and how soon. CONEG's plan could be implemented as soon as grants and funding are supplied by the administration and Congress. ``I think we can advance [the timetable],'' Dukakis says. ``We've already done a lot of work.''

Amtrak reportedly would prefer to electrify the entire Boston-to-New York line. It also wants to explore using mag-lev (magnetic-levitation) trains on the run. Mag-lev is a technology being developed in West Germany and Japan in which a train ``floats'' on a magnetic field above the rails.

``We're saying mag-lev is terrific but is the technology of the future,'' Dukakis says. ``It's not appropriate for the present. We have no objection to electrification between Boston and New York City, but it's an expensive proposition and our proposal is not a hindrance to it.''

Electrification of the entire line does figure in the governors' proposal, Dukakis notes, ``but many states have higher capital-investment priorities.'' He says the CONEG plan should be implemented in the meantime.

The governors say they are encouraged by their meeting with Skinner. ``I'm happy about a secretary who really knows about transportation,'' says New Jersey Gov. James Florio (D).

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