This line, known as "The Air Line" was envisioned as a direct route between New York City and Boston. Built to bypass the still-active Shoreline Division east of New Haven (which follows the coast of New England), the Air Line at its completion connected to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H or simply the New Haven, NH) Shoreline Division at Cedar Hill Yard in New Haven, CT, where it then continued on to Boston. The line contained many feats of engineering, thanks to mountains, valleys, and numerous rivers along the route, though its curves and steep grades both expensive and controversial to build, would later lead to its downfall and abandonment.
It opened in 1873 as the New Haven, Middletown and Willimantic Railroad. At its completion, the line was 25 miles shorter than the Shore Line. After the failure of its parent company in 1975, it was reorganized into the Boston and New York Air-Line Railroad, and later, the New York and New England Railroad (NY&NE).
The NY&NE was a fierce competitor to the NH, whom at the time, held a virtual near-monopoly of Connecticut rail traffic. Eventually, it would become part of the NY&NE's mainline from Poughkeepsie, NY and Boston. One of the most memorable and most famous trains of the NY&NE over The Air Line was the "Ghost Train." Created to attract wealthy travelers, the luxurious Pullman cars were painted white with gold trim, and the staff of the train wore white uniforms. The service started in 1891, but ended in 1895 due to the cost of cleaning the white cars. To make the trip shorter than the Shore Line, water pans were first used on the Air Line before any other railroad in the United States. These investments proved to be worthwhile, and shaved several hours of the trip off the Shore Line.
Success didn't last very long, and after disputes with its rival, the NH, the NY&NE could no longer get access to New Haven, which sent the railroad into bankruptcy. By 1898, the NH purchased the line, for which spelled doom.
Immediately after the NH acquired the line, most passenger traffic was rerouted to the Shore Line, thanks to the Air Line's curves and steep grades, which limited trains in size and speed. In the early 1900s, the NH upgraded the line, including the raising of bridges, and the filling in of the massive Lyman and Rapallo viaducts (named after former Air Line presidents).
While New York-Boston through trains ended in 1924, passenger service began a steep decline on the line, ending just short of the start of World War II, in 1937. By this point, most trains used the Shore Line, with the Air Line being used for mainly for a few oversized and heavy freight trains.
In 1955, the bridge over the Quinebaug River was washed out, severing the line just west of Putnam. The financially strapped NH could not justify the cost to repair the bridge, and thus abandoned the line from Pomfret to Putnam in 1959. Interestingly, according to photos taken on the NERail website, rails in this segment remained until the early 2000s, when they were removed to make way for the rail-trail.
As traffic on the remaining segments dwindled away, and the NH entered bankruptcy again, the NH sought to raise cash by resuming its abandonment of its unprofitable lines, a mission it had halted since the Depression. In 1962, the NH abandoned the North Windham to Pomfret segment, and by 1964, abandoned the Portland to Willimantic segment. In 1968, another bridge was washed out, this time over the Blackstone River. By 1969, the NH sought to abandon the Blackstone to Putnam segment. In 1970, the NH was merged into the Penn Central. The remainder of the line was gone early into the PC years.
Today, the portion of the Air Line from New Haven to Portland is still in use by a shortline railroad, the Providence and Worcester Railroad. The portion north of Franklin, MA is now in use by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) as the Franklin Branch. The vast majority of the right of way is now in use as a rail trail, with the Connecticut portion known as The Air Line Trail, and the Massachusetts portion known as the Southern New England Trunkline Trail. In numerous places where they formerly paralleled the tracks, one can find roads and streets named "Airline," "Railroad," and "Depot."
An interesting note, as rail traffic and congestion began to increase on the northeast corridor in the 1990s, the government researched the possibility of rebuilding the Air Line and relaying track. However, just like when the line was first built, the costs associated with rebuilding and upgrading the line for modern trains with its curves and steep grades ended the idea, with federal funding going towards electrifying the portion of the Shore Line from New Haven to Boston.
- Joseph P. Schwieterman, When the Railroad Leaves Town, 2001
- Ronald Dale Karr, Lost Railroads of New England, 3rd edition, 2010
Thanks to Aaron M. for contributing information about this route.