Ris­ing sea level threat­ens our rail­roads

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - Jim Cameron

What fol­lows is a pub­lic apol­ogy. Not to you, dear reader, but to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

“To my grand­chil­dren: I’m sorry we left you with this mess. We should have done more, when we still had time.”

What am I re­fer­ring to? Not the na­tional debt. Not even global ter­ror­ism. No, this apol­ogy is about coastal flood­ing that threat­ens the North­east Cor­ri­dor’s rail lines.

I won’t even get into the de­bate about what’s caus­ing sea-level rise. Whether it’s man-made or nat­u­ral, it is hap­pen­ing and we have not been plan­ning for its in­evitable ef­fects.

Sure, when the tides are high and the winds are from the East, we al­ready see a lit­tle flood­ing along the Con­necti­cut coast­line.

“Look dad, the beach park­ing lot is un­der water,” chil­dren would say. But the tides and winds sub­sided and we’d for­get about it.

Aside from pretty beaches and ex­pen­sive homes, what else is along Con­necti­cut’s coast? Our rail­roads: Metro-North, Shore Line East and Am­trak.

Ac­cord­ing to a long hid­den re­port, those tracks, and the trains that run on them, are be­ing threat­ened by sea level rise.

Bloomberg re­cently wrote about a three-year study — Am­trak NEC Cli­mate Change Vul­ner­a­bil­ity As­sess­ment — that was fin­ished in 2017, but never re­leased to the pub­lic. Bloomberg used a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest to ob­tain a redacted por­tion of the study, and its find­ings are fright­en­ing.

The North­east Cor­ri­dor of Am­trak runs 457 miles from Washington to Bos­ton and car­ries 12 mil­lion pas­sen­gers a year on 2,200 daily trains.

Those tracks serve Am­trak’s in­ter-city trains and also many com­muter rail lines, like Metro-North and Shore Line East. The ris­ing sea level is al­ready lap­ping at its edge, where in some ar­eas those tracks are just feet from the ocean. By 2050, the water may be two feet higher.

When it was orig­i­nally built in the 19th cen­tury, the coast­line made per­fect sense as a lo­ca­tion for the rail­road tracks: the coast is where the ma­jor cities were and the ter­rain was flat, per­fect for trains. Sure, there were storms (even hur­ri­canes) that caused short-term flood­ing, but noth­ing that was per­sis­tent. Un­til now.

So what can be done? Am­trak and the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion have no plans to raise the tracks. They’re al­ready fac­ing $40 bil­lion in un­funded projects just to keep the darn trains run­ning. As for build­ing a “wall” to keep out the sea water, even a tem­po­rary ver­sion erected be­fore a storm would take 12 to 30 days to as­sem­ble and cost $24 mil­lion a mile.

Keep­ing this all in per­spec­tive, Am­trak re­minds us the cities they serve along the coast are also in danger of flood­ing, so what are a few damp rail­road tracks when your city­cen­ter looks like Venice?

What’s most con­cern­ing is that this study was sup­pressed by Am­trak and the FRA be­cause, as Bloomberg wrote, “The dis­clo­sure of that in­for­ma­tion could pos­si­bly cause pub­lic con­fu­sion.”

I’m not con­fused, are you? Maybe en­raged, but not con­fused. I may not be around to see these pre­dic­tions come to pass, but I do feel some sense of obli­ga­tion (guilt) to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to whom I can of­fer lit­tle more than an apol­ogy.

Sorry, kids. We left you with a mess. We should have done more.

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