Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed cuts to service on Shore Line East could put an end to the struggling train line according to transportation advocates, but state officials say the cuts are justified given that the funding next year would be based on ridership, and Shore Line East’s numbers are the lowest of the state’s three rail lines.
“On Shore Line East, after years of decline pre-dating the pandemic, ridership is at 30 percent of pre-COVID levels, and is supported with service levels of 44 percent [in FY24],” said Josh Morgan, spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation, in an email to CT Examiner.
Shore Line East is currently operating at 66 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Jim Gildea, chair of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, who called the budget reduction to 44 percent “catastrophic.”
In fiscal year 2025, state funding will support the line’s service levels at 70 percent, compared to 80 percent in fiscal year 2024 and 100 percent in fiscal year 2025 for the New Haven Line, and 100 percent in each year for the Hartford Line, according to CTDOT.
Transportation advocate Jim Cameron, a transportation columnist and founder of Commuter Action Group which advocates for mass transit in Connecticut, said that ridership on Shore Line East has dropped because service has been cut to well below pre-pandemic levels. Cameron predicted that the scant level of service would have dire consequences for the commuter line serving southeast Connecticut.
“What concerns me about this proposal from the Governor is there’ll be a further reduction in service, which could lead into what the transit folks call a ‘death spiral,’ less service, less reason to take the train, fewer riders, higher deficits,” which could mean the demise of the line, warned Cameron.
State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, chair of the Transportation Committee, said that while she supported full restoration of service for Shore Line East, the state’s fiscal spending caps are a limiting factor, and that there was not enough money to fund the entire $29 million needed to ensure full service.
A look at the numbers
Current ridership and recovery levels
|Service||March 2019||March 2023||Total Ridership Recovery|
|New Haven Line||3,275,812||2,310,837||70.5%|
|Shore Line East||50,684||16,634||32.8%|
Projected ridership and subsidy levels of New Haven Line, FY 2023-FY 2025
|FY 2023 (Projected)||FY 2024 (Projected)||FY 2025 (Projected)|
|State Subsidy per Passenger||$5.38||$4.98||$5.10|
Projected ridership and subsidy levels of Hartford Line, FY 2023-FY 2025
|FY 2023 (Projected)||FY 2024 (Projected)||FY 2025 (Projected)|
|State Subsidy per Passenger||$58.99||$60.16||$60.43|
Projected ridership and subsidy levels of Shore Line East, FY 2023-FY 2025
|FY 2023 (Projected)||FY 2024 (Projected)||FY 2025 (Projected)|
|State Subsidy per Passenger||$131.87||$95.02||$99.13|
Data provided by Connecticut Department of Transportation in an email to CT Examiner.
Advocates weigh in
Gildea, chair of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, told CT Examiner that no other line was required to prove ridership in order to justify additional service.
“I would say probably the most basic principle when it comes to riders is that frequent service builds ridership. There is nothing truer than that. And for whatever reason, the Shore Line East is the only line where they’re saying, ‘Hey, get some riders and we give you service.’ Everywhere else they just gave them the service without the riders.”
The New Haven Line includes the Waterbury, Danbury, and New Canaan lines, some of which had lower ridership levels, according to Gildea.
Shore Line East once had excellent ridership, said Gildea, a fact evidenced by the state purchasing M-8 electric trains for the line last year, and that cutting back service undercuts the state’s investment.
“At one point, the line was vibrant pre-COVID. At one point, it was a bustling line. The numbers were good. The truth of that is the state committed millions upon millions of dollars and effort in the area … to bring the M-8’s to the shore,” he said. “Strategically and from a long term vision perspective, it does not make sense to spend all that money on M-8’s to just cut the service.”
Cameron, founder of Commuter Action Group, said the cutbacks for Shore Line East could be a cautionary tale for Metro North and public transportation statewide.
“Service reductions might be happening on Metro North as well unless they find a way of getting ridership to come back, or raise fares,” he said. “So this is a kind of a warning to the rest of the state that we’ve got to find a way of maintaining if not increasing the service to give people a reason to take the train.”
He said that the less service and higher fares discourages ridership and adds congestion to the state’s highways – something that Cameron said contradicts the state’s green goals.
“It’s definitely not in keeping with any air emissions initiatives and endeavors in trying to make the state greener that the Lamont administration may be paying lip service to. This is just the opposite of that,” he said.
Shore Line East has by far the highest per-rider subsidies of the three train lines, but Cameron argues that increasing ridership will lower the subsidy. Reduced service, he said, will likely increase it.
“You can cut a subsidy in half by doubling the number of riders. The subsidy really speaks to the fixed cost of providing the service, whether it’s one passenger or 100 passengers. That number for the subsidy is scary because service for Shore Line East is still reduced and if you reduce the service further, the subsidy is going to get higher,” said Cameron.
‘If you build it, they will come’
Cohen said that in addition to Shore Line East operating at only about 60 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, its schedule is at odds with the other lines, and Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto has been working with a team to correct the problem.
“They’re really trying to work on optimizing schedules so that the trains arrive in connection stations like New Haven station within the optimal amount of time to hop on an express train to New York, say,” Cohen said.
One key is to provide the connectivity that commuters need, Cohen said.
“It’s one of those things, ‘if you build it, they will come,’ as the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ states. It’s really a similar situation. We need to build the schedule back up and give commuters the confidence that they will have connectivity in a consistent way going forward,” she said. “They need to be able to get to where they’re going, mainly work, on time and efficiently.”
Cohen said that if service is not restored, then the subsidy will skyrocket because riders will not have confidence in the line.
“It’s the only rail line that really hasn’t seen a complete restoration in the state of Connecticut. And if you do not fully restore service, folks are not going to take these commuter rail lines. They need connectivity, they need to be able to get where they’re going in an efficient, timely manner. And so that’s not able to happen when you’ve cut back the schedule to the extent that it’s been cut back,” she said.
Cohen said that full restoration of Shore Line East is one of the issues she hears about the most from constituents and a top priority for her.
“We are not where we should be in the budget and we are continuing to work with the budget leaders on this in negotiations and see what we can do to get a more full and robust restoration of the Shore Line East schedule,” she said.
“But given the new projections and the surplus that just came in I’m fighting even harder to ensure some of those dollars are put towards the Shore Line East rail service,” she said.
Town officials speak
The problem of Shore Line East’s ridership, according to New London Mayor Michael Passero, is the state doesn’t provide robust enough service to create the needed scale to support the service.
“There’s a chicken before the egg type of thing. They’ve just got to commit to giving us a commuter rail service that is as robust as Metro North,” said Passero.
Passero said that towns east of New Haven deserve just as much commuter service as those west of New Haven.
“Those trains run a half hour or an hour at a time, both ways. You can come and go. You know you’re not going to be stuck at work waiting for an afternoon train if you go to New Haven from New London. It’s just not useful, and that’s why we don’t have the ridership,” he said.
Passero said the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments is currently studying the expansion of commuter service to Westerly, Norwich and points north.
“Once again, we’re engaged in the process of trying to advocate for a system of commuter rail in eastern Connecticut, and Hartford is just continuing to not support our efforts,” he said.
Passero pushed for connecting Shore Line East to the commuter system in Rhode Island. “If we had reliable commuter rail, we’d be able to get a train in New London and go to TF Green to get a flight.”
Peggy Lyons, first selectman of Madison, said the line’s reduction in service limited passengers’ options and meant fewer riders.
“When they reduced it, it made it almost impossible for people to really schedule their lives around the trains, they’re so infrequent,” she said. “I don’t think people are going to come back unless they don’t have to wait three hours for the next train… if you miss a train, you’re out of luck on some days, you have no way to get back to Madison.”
Lyons said the state’s messaging has always been about encouraging the use of public transportation, investing in transit oriented districts, and getting cars off the road.
“Cutting train service just seems to conflict with that, so we would obviously like to see service restored.”
Lyons said she wrote a letter to Lamont urging him to fund Shore Line East.
“I understand he is totally supportive of public transportation overall. And I know that this state has to sometimes pick winners and losers. But I think when it comes to public transportation, you can make something a winner if you invest in it.”
She said Hartford is currently showing support for transit oriented development and that Madison has worked to make itself a transit-friendly community.
“And yet, if you don’t have transit to offer people, it doesn’t really make sense. We’re promoting a lot of walkability to the train station. We’ve done a lot of public improvements in downtown Madison to make the train station more accessible. So, we would love to see service, at a minimum, go to the level that it was pre-pandemic and then in the long run, see more frequent service.”
In Guilford, First Selectman Matt Hoey said the town currently has three housing projects underway within ½ mile of the station, one of which will be 100 percent affordable housing.
“With the statewide push for Transit Oriented Development, particularly for affordable housing, limiting access to rail transportation seems to be in conflict with the benefits of TOD,” he wrote in an email.
Carl Fortuna, first selectman of Old Saybrook, told CT Examiner that he was disappointed in the 40 percent and 70 percent service levels, but as long as the service is completely restored over the next few years, he was hopeful.
“I’m encouraged that they’re talking about working back to 100 percent, so I’m gonna take the optimistic point of view on this short term,” he said. “I know they say the numbers aren’t down as much as the Hartford and New Haven line, so maybe that leads me to have some encouragement that it might come back on the Shore Line East. If those other lines are picking up. I’m hopeful that ours will too.”
Transit Oriented Development
Cohen told CT Examiner that one key to the success of Shore Line East is housing density along the route and that she was in support of the “Live Work Ride” House bill 6890.
“We need to improve our housing stock not only right along the immediate shoreline, but across the state of Connecticut. So that’s something that I’m working with our first select people, and as well as the Governor’s office to ensure that we do have more transit oriented development because we know if there’s more housing stock and density around those rail lines, we’re going to have an increase in ridership.”
Gildea said he believed that lowering service on Shore Line East was a way for the state to push transit oriented development near rail stations, requiring towns to change their zoning regulations.
“This is about getting those shoreline communities that don’t have a whole lot of housing near the train stations. I think this is one way [the state is trying] to get them to change,” he said.
But he said, until train service is provided, there is no incentive for developers to build housing.
Cameron said that less train service essentially discourages transit oriented development.
“If you’re not going to offer train service at those stations at acceptable levels, why would anybody want to live next to those train stations to get to their destination? The idea of TOD is to encourage people to live closer to transit so that they can walk out of their condo and onto the train and go to their jobs. Come back and shop in local stores instead of getting in their car. So I don’t understand how TOD can be promoted in one breath and then service reduced in the other,” he said.
Sam Gold, executive director of River COG, told CT Examiner his organization just received a federal grant to create TOD plans around Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Clinton train stations as well as the Middletown bus passenger terminal.
Gold said the plan is more than housing density around transit hubs, it also includes commercial spaces.
“For transportation oriented development to be successful, it has to be more than just housing, it actually has to be a mixture of uses,” he said. “It’s just like your traditional U.S. small town downtown, which had a mixture of uses including housing, but creating a pedestrian friendly node of accessible homes and businesses and workplaces that are accessible on foot via transit.”