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August 20, 2018

How one contractor helped design and build the state's $769M Hartford rail line

Photo | Contributed
HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan Robert S. Yirigian (left), assistant vice president at WSP USA who oversaw planning and development of the Hartford rail line, with the state Department of Transportation’s Richard Andreski.

The new Hartford Line barreled out of the station in June to strong initial ridership numbers, with the high-speed, New Haven-to-Springfield train service tallying more than 21,000 passenger trips during its first two weeks.

While early revenue figures aren't available yet, rail officials say the $769 million rail line — among the largest investments in intercity train service in the nation — is off to a promising start.

But efforts to get the eight-year project over the finish line were exhausting and complicated, and while the state Department of Transportation has been the face of the service since its launch, there was another, behind-the-scenes player that did a lot of the heavy lifting.

WSP USA, an engineering firm headquartered in New York, along with major partners STV and 13 specialty sub consultants, received $58.6 million to date to oversee development of the Hartford Line, a project that included laying down 27 miles of new double track, creating a new signal and control system, repairing or rehabbing numerous bridges and culverts, among many other projects.

While there were challenges in designing the line and laying a second track connecting Hartford to Springfield — in addition to a late-in-the-game controversy surrounding the use of 30-year-old, out-of-commission trains from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority   — the project largely ran on schedule, and was buoyed by consistent communication across stakeholders, said Rob Yirigian, who oversaw the project for WSP.

What is now the Hartford Line used to be just a portion of a train route built in 1844 that ran from New Haven to Boston, according to Speedlines. Amtrak acquired it in 1976, and pulled up one of the two tracks between Hartford and Springfield.

Decades later, in 2009, an initial $120.9 million in federal funds became available for a project to reestablish that stretch of track for the Hartford Line. DOT officials hired WSP to oversee the project the following year.

The firm assisted in everything from raising funds to pay for the train service to overseeing design and construction.

It helped DOT apply for various federal grants, including from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the controversial stimulus program passed by the Obama administration in 2009. Ultimately, the project was granted $204.8 million in federal funds, and $536.7 million from the state.

When WSP started work in late 2010, designing and replacing the second track presented immediate obstacles, Yirigian said.

“In some areas we were at the top of an embankment, some areas it was at the base of a trough of a hill, and we needed to deal with some structural and geotechnical issues,” Yirigian said.

Environmentally sensitive areas in Windsor, Windsor Locks and other locales also limited the distance the two tracks could be spread apart.

Slope stability analyses were performed to figure out how much space workers needed to leave between the tracks, Yirigian said. Some track needed extra support because of the terrain.

WSP also took care of the train schedules, using a Rail Traffic Controller algorithm software that allowed designers to factor in things like the number of Amtrak trains already running on the tracks and train speeds and conflicts.

But the largest challenge was coordinating the nearly 1,500 DOT and Amtrak staffers, contractors and consultants who toiled on the project, Yirigian said.

“Coordination is paramount because that's where you end up with problems; things don't get communicated properly and slip through the cracks,” Yirigian said. “We made it a point as corporate managers to really push that issue.”

That meant monthly coordination meetings across multiple groups on the senior-management and working levels, Yirigian said. WSP also held quarterly meetings with top brass from the Federal Railroad Administration, DOT and Amtrak, which still owns the track.

That kind of frequent communication was necessary during construction, when certain trains on the Amtrak schedule were cancelled, Yirigian said, which allowed for a larger daytime window for crews to work. 

“As part of this effort, our communications team worked tirelessly to ensure that the public was informed well in advance of any changes to service,” Yirigian said.

A hiccup

By 2015, the design phase was complete, after about 3½ years of work, Yirigian said.

As track was being laid according to design, WSP ran into a snag when it came to finding trains to run on them.

Under the original plan, the Hartford Line was supposed to take 16 diesel trains from the Shoreline East rail line, which was set to receive a new fleet, Yirigian said. But in the intervening years, Shoreline East's rail service increased enough that it couldn't spare any equipment.

After a nationwide search, they decided to lease 16 trains — each about 30 years old — that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had taken out of commission. 

The deal sparked concerns among state legislators, culminating with lawmakers demanding answers from DOT about why they were using such old rail cars for a new service.

“They're all service ready, they all meet [Federal Railroad Administration] requirements,” Yirigian said. “If they didn't, we wouldn't be able to run them on the line.”

DOT plans to replace the leased rail cars with new ones that will be used on the Hartford, Shore Line East, Waterbury and Danbury lines, said Rich Andreski, DOT's bureau chief of public transportation. He expects the first of those cars to be delivered as soon as 2022.

Looking forward

Passenger service between Hartford and Springfield consists of seven Amtrak trains, one Vermonter and four CTrail round-trip trains. There are 12 daily round trips from Hartford to Springfield and 17 between New Haven and Hartford.

Initial rider numbers are strong, Andreski said. If they continue at around the pace of the first couple of weeks, ridership may exceed forecasts of 1,950 trips per day.

From Yirigian's perspective, continued public interest in the line seems likely.

“This program always was something that the public embraced, and people were looking forward to,” Yirigian said.

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