IN THE REGION — Over the last two years, ridership on Shore Line East has fallen 25 percent as commuter service has been disrupted by an extensive undercutting project to prevent gravel from burying the tracks. By May, the average number of weekday riders had fallen to 1,340 and on weekends to just 767. For comparison, a single 10-car Metro-North train carries 1,000 passengers.
“Once you’ve lost a rider because you’re not providing train service or the bus substitutions are not reliable or slow, it is hard to gain that rider back,” said Jim Cameron, the founder of the Commuter Action Group and a former member of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council.
The regular Shore Line East schedule is set to resume this Monday, August 5. However, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) has yet to advertise or publicize the renewed service.
“I’m surprised I’m hearing it from you,” Cameron said. “They should be doing more PR. They should be reaching out to the media… fare promotions, try the train days, something, if the service is going to come back.”
The disruption in service began on April 23, 2018 with bus service replacing curtailed commuter rail service. Although the first phase of the undercutting project – and the busing – concluded on October 26, 2018, Shore Line East did not resume a full schedule during the winter and busing resumed on April 14 of this year.
“Connecticut DOT did not resume full service due to several reasons including some equipment reliability concerns and the possibility of the undercutting project impacting Shore Line East service in the Spring of 2019,” said Kevin Nursick, spokesperson for the CTDOT. “The undercutting project did return and did once again impact service.”
Several commuter advocates expressed frustration that the Amtrak trains appeared to be receiving priority over Shore Line East, but Nursick said that both train lines were forced to alter their schedule.
“Both Amtrak and Shore Line East had to adjust their schedules. Amtrak trains can travel at a higher speed than Connecticut-DOT-owned equipment and that can possibly be a factor in when a train gets scheduled through the single-track section,” Nursick said.
“The buses are problematic because they are not as reliable. They get stuck in traffic just like cars,” said Sam Gold, the executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Council of Government.
In addition to the undercutting project, many of the locomotives required repair, leading additional delays even when track capacity was available. According to CTDOT, $7 million was spent this past year to send six GP-40 locomotives for a top deck overhaul. These six locomotives were returned in March, but six additional P-40 locomotives are still being repaired. These new locomotives can benefit all the train lines: Hartford, Danbury, Waterbury, Metro North and Shore Line East.
“The first 6 P-40 locomotives are at Beech Grove, Indiana but are not due back until 2020, however this will not see us gain equipment because when two pieces of equipment return, two other engines currently in use will be sent out to be overhauled,” Nursick said. “The complete overhaul of the 12 P-40s will cost $39 million.”
This is not the first time a construction and repair project has disrupted Shore Line East service.
“We had a similar issue five to ten years ago. The same thing happened, they were doing track work, trains were delayed and the number of riders dropped,” said Edwin Schroeder, a member of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council who has been commuting from Clinton to New Haven on Shore Line East since 1991. “Gradually over time the riders came back, once the confidence in the reliability was restored. Right now, I understand why people don’t have confidence.”
Part of the problem, Schroeder said, is communication. If CTDOT better explained the reason for the delays, riders would be more understanding, Schroeder explained. And winning them back will also require better communication, both Schroeder and Cameron agreed.
“On the council one of the questions we are asking DOT is what’s their plan to get people back,” Schroeder said. “They should be reaching out to major employers like the university and hospital to advertise to their employees that the service is back and the track is repaired. I would love to see them reduce the fares, but I’m skeptical they would.”
Schroeder is right to be skeptical. Today, for every ride on Shore Line East from New London to New Haven, the customer pays $10.25 and the state pays $49 in subsidies.
“If you are a Shore Line East rider on a daily basis you are being subsidized by the state almost $100 a day,” Cameron said. “You can cut that subsidy in half very easily, just double the passengers.”
But as ridership continues to fall, as it has each month since the start of the undercutting project in 2017, the subsidy will only go up.
Despite the amount of commuter frustration, both Schroeder and Cameron do not blame CTDOT or Amtrak for the construction project.
“They are not doing this work just to annoy you, they are doing it because it’s necessary for safety,” Cameron said. “Amtrak is trying to play catch up just like Metro-North is with its infrastructure…and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”