New London viewed from the railroad (Credit: CT Examiner/Stroud)

Fewer Options for Shore Line East Commuters as Amtrak Opts Out

For fifteen years, Lourdes Haynes has taken the train to work in New Haven, first from Old Saybrook, and since 2012 from New London. Like other commuters on rail lines with limited schedules, she’s been helped by an agreement between the Connecticut Department of Transportation and Amtrak to honor tickets between services on the line.

But Amtrak opted out of that agreement in May 2020 for riders between New London and New Haven, and with life after the pandemic returning to normal, has not announced a clear date, if any, for its return.

For Haynes, who works from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Yale, that means her Shore Line East pass, which costs her $215.25 each month, no longer allows her to choose between a 6:20 a.m. Shore Line East train, arriving at 7:23 a.m., and the 7:45 a.m. Amtrak on route to New Haven.

Returning home, if she can’t make the 5:25 p.m. Shore Line East, there won’t be another commuter train leaving New Haven until 9:25 p.m. Haynes can still hop a 7:37 p.m. Amtrak on route from New Haven to New London — but for an additional $20 ticket each ride.

So with Yale now calling workers back to campus, Haynes is left with few good answers.

“They’re telling us we have to return to work in the next little bit. I can’t do it with that schedule,” she said. “I don’t have a second car, so we’re out of luck.” 

In the past, a Shore Line East passenger who buys a monthly pass from Connecticut Department of Transportation for commuting to and from New Haven also gains the right to ride on a select number of Amtrak Regional trains, explained Jason Abrams, Public Relations Manager for Amtrak, in an email Tuesday. 

“We’ve historically allowed SLE passriders to travel on only a select few Amtrak Regional trains, and only on a limited number of stops in Connecticut – Amtrak reserved the right under contract to remove trains or station stops from this cross-honoring relationship as we experienced changes in demand, or changes in operating schedules which resulted in less available seating for potential use by commuter cross-honoring.” 

Abrams said that Amtrak has continued to accept tickets on the Amtrak Hartford Line, but has suspended cross-honoring agreements with Shore Line East, as well as Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) and Virginia Railway Express. 

Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for Connecticut Department of Transportation, said the department is anticipating a return to the agreement on the Shore Line East service in the next few months. Nursick said the agreement was an accommodation between the department and Amtrak given the number of bridges east of Old Saybrook left open for recreational boaters.

Jim Cameron, a transportation advocate and columnist, explained that the bridges between Old Saybrook and New London remain open unless there is a train coming — and the tracks are owned by Amtrak. 

“They’re only allowed a certain number of slots per day for X number of trains. Amtrak went to the DOT several years ago and said, ‘Listen, you guys are sitting on vital slots, like landing slots at LaGuardia at rush hour, so we will protect your passengers on our trains if you give us your slots.’ That’s how they were able to reduce the number of Shore Line East trains from New London by having Amtrak protect those trains.”

But Cameron could not say why Amtrak won’t honor the agreement given that ridership is down. 

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t have the capacity to be able to pick up this small number of people that actually commute out of New London every day,” he said. 

But for Haynes, the change shows a lack of care for the people of southeast Connecticut.

“The current state of affairs makes it difficult to make plans to return to work. It rather feels like a big step backward, environmentally, economically. It demonstrates a lack of interest, of commitment, to southeastern Connecticut, on the part of state transportation planners, and Amtrak.”

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