A Brighter Future for the Shore Line East Rail Line


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A couple of weeks ago, rail advocates celebrated that Shore Line East, the commuter rail service that connects New London and New Haven, finally started operating using electric trains.

It is worth going over why switching over from locomotive-hauled diesel trains to M8 electric multiple units is quite a big deal. Electric trains are not just cleaner and much less noisy than their diesel counterparts, but accelerate and brake much faster. In a curvy line with frequent stops like Shore Line East, this means potentially shorter travel times, cutting schedules by a good 10 to 15 percent. Electric motors also have much fewer moving pieces than internal combustion engines, so they require less maintenance and are much more reliable.

All in all, with this switch commuters using this line should see faster, more efficient, more reliable trains moving forward, with a much smaller carbon footprint. This is what Connecticut needs moving forward. Or at least that would be the case, if Shore Line East provided a good service to the region, which is sadly not the case.

Let’s start with a challenge. Try to remember the following string of numbers: 532, 645, 743,850, 1010,1121, 1220, 246, 358, 530, 630, 750, 850, 1131. Then, try to memorize this one: 450, 555, 650, 815, 1025, 1224, 328, 428, 525, 646, 727, 945.

If you cannot find a pattern, don’t worry, there isn’t any. And this is a problem, as those are the schedules for trains from Old Saybrook to New Haven and back during regular weekday service.

Most regional rail services across the world use something called a clock face schedule.Trains depart from a station on a fixed pattern that repeats all day long; for example, a train leaves fifteen minutes past the hour every hour. For passengers, this means that travel is easy and predictable; they do not need to memorize random strings of numbers or plan their day around a somewhat bizarre, if not completely erratic rail schedule. Shoreline fails at this basic principle, making it far less useful than it should be.

Besides predictability, clock face schedules have the advantage of providing good service to all kinds of people, not just 9-to-5 commuters. For the many workers with jobs with erratic or variable schedules (from retail to healthcare) using the train is not even an option. And it is not just about going to work, however. Someone from Clinton, or Westbrook cannot take the train mid-morning for a lunch meeting in the city, go to the doctor, or to run some errands, and come back before the afternoon commute. For those that do not or cannot drive, these non-standard trips are essential; they depend on public transit, but it is not there most of the day. Shore Line East is just providing comfortable commutes to well-off office workers, but little else.

Running a clock face schedule is not expensive. It does not require buying more trains; Shore Line East runs (somewhat) hourly during peak times, so their fleet is already large enough. Off-peak trains can be shorter two-car consists to save on crew, instead of the longer four-car trains that they run now, that do not even fit in most platforms. And track capacity is there; if Amtrak can accommodate hourly trains during peak, they surely can do so in the middle of the day.

It is a shame that Shore Line East service is not better, because the potential ridership is there. The seven towns served by Shore Line East add up to more than 125,000 residents, which is plenty to sustain a rail line like this. Adding in-fill stations in East Haven, Old Lyme, and Niantic could boost ridership even further.

If anything, the population numbers underestimate the line’s potential. Many of the stations along the line have very little development around them, with low density housing or commercial buildings nearby. This is of course intentional; shoreline towns are notorious for their restrictive zoning practices, and with very few exceptions, they have actively worked to block any kind of development in their towns, especially if it is anywhere close to affordable.

As a result, we have this very efficient, very clean, high-capacity transportation infrastructure that remains woefully underused because the towns along it block anyone from taking advantage of its existence. Instead of having potentially thousands of people living within walking distance of the rail station in Westbrook, Guilford or Madison without needing a car, we have empty trains, an acute housing shortage, and people wondering why Connecticut is so expensive.

The good news is that fixing this problem is significantly cheaper than adding more lanes to I-95. The Q-Bridge replacement project has a $2 billion budget, or about sixty years worth of Shore Line East operating subsidies. Upzoning around the stations, changing how the line is run, and moving more people by rail doesn’t really cost money. It also takes very little space; the one nice thing about dense, walkable neighborhoods is that you can accommodate hundreds of people in just a few acres of land, after all. The only thing we have to do is stop towns from banning new housing construction and buildings that are more than three stories tall,  and run the trains we have a bit better.

Filling the Shore Line East trains with eager passengers will need more than additional mask enforcement, higher gas prices, cheaper fares, or extending service to Rhode Island. It requires taking transportation policy seriously by adopting best practices from elsewhere on the rail side, and letting people build housing and live close to rail stations. It is not hard.