Big Ideas, Big Cuts for Commuter Rail Across Eastern Connecticut

Susan Feaster, founder of the Shore Line East Riders Advocacy Group and organizer of the protest, spoke on Tuesday to a gathering of about 12 commuters at State Street Station (CT Examiner)


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New Haven – Susan Feaster, founder of the Shore Line East Riders Advocacy Group and organizer of the protest, spoke on Tuesday to a gathering of about 12 commuters at State Street Station. 

“The Governor earmarked millions a few short years ago to secure M8 electric coaches and to make the overhead catenary operational for the Shore Line East … and now with the stroke of his pen and the backing of your senators and representatives, he hobbles the train line with his new budget,” she said.

It’s a small protest pointing to what appears to be a big disconnect between advocacy by the Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislators for transit-oriented development along the Northeast Corridor, for getting out of cars, and for spending millions of dollars on new rail cars, while passing steep budget cuts to commuter rail service east of New Haven.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation has planned public meetings on Sept. 19 and 20 to present ideas for extending Shore Line East to the border of Rhode Island at an estimated cost of $245 million, and to Norwich for as much as $635 million – while also planning to cut Shore Line East service to just 44 percent of pre-COVID levels.

With ridership subsidies projected to reach more than $130 per passenger, State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee told CT Examiner at the time that while she supported the full restoration of Shore Line East Service, there simply wasn’t enough money given the state’s spending caps to fund the $29 million needed to prevent cuts.

Most of the protesters seemed on-board with a more transit-oriented lifestyle.

Annie Gangidine, of Branford, said she was “a big fan of the train” up until a few weeks ago when the schedule was abruptly changed, with little notice, to accommodate Amtrak’s work on the tracks – a preview of what’s to come.

“It feels like they just pulled the rug out from under us. I liked it because it was scenic and convenient and it was exactly at the times that I needed,” she said. 

Gangidine said she chose a daycare for her two-year-old daughter that worked with the Shore Line East schedule, but now she can’t commute by train. 

“Now we need to drive, which I think is bad for the environment and inconvenient for us to do, which is just doubling up emissions. And I just think it’s kind of irresponsible and inconsiderate,” she said. 

The protest, ironically, was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. –  exactly when a Shore Line East train left for New London, and the last train until 7:41 p.m. 

Jim Phillips, of Guilford, said that he and his wife ride Shore Line East five days a week to connect with Metro North trains. “It’s just not acceptable to continue this for any length of time, it’s unsustainable,” he said. 

Phillips said he and his wife could drive but “the whole point of riding rail is environmental, keeping cars off the highway.. Public transportation is a critical part of Connecticut commerce, so it’s a really dumb headed decision.” 

Cassie Bianchi, a junior biology major at Southern Connecticut State University, said she had to withdraw from her classes because of the new train schedule, which removed several key morning and afternoon trains. 

With the change, she needed to catch the 6:58 a.m. train from Westbrook to make her first class at 10. Her last class ended at 6 p.m. and the next available train was at 7:41 p.m., putting her back home at 8:30 p.m. 

“I tried doing it for two days, and I couldn’t do it. I was very tired,” said Bianchi, who is disabled. She also said that Amtrak would not accept her “U-Pass” student rail ticket. 

Bianchi said she was concerned about other students as well as commuters. 

“It’s so terrible. When I saw the new schedule, I couldn’t believe it. It’s very, very hard to work with. And I feel bad for people that have jobs, and they’re trying to get to work. How are they going to get there?”

Deepti Pradham, of Branford, who works at Yale, said she’s been riding Shore Line East since 1995 and she has “never seen so many canceled trains.” She said she now arrives early when nobody’s in the office and leaves when people are still working. 

“At minimum they could provide a bus while the track work is being done,” Pradham said.

Feaster, a resident of Westbrook, launched the advocacy group in 2018 during another Amtrak maintenance project, and worked with Richard Andreski, the bureau chief for public transportation at the time, to secure coach buses for displaced riders. 

But Feaster had little positive to say about his successor, Ben Limmer, for short notice on the schedule change, and called on him to offer bus service in place of the canceled trains. 

“If there is money to order 60 brand new coach cars for the Hartford line at the cost of $5.25 million per car, which happened last month, then there is money for buses!” Feaster said. 

The study

In 2021, two years before sharply cutting Shore Line East service, state legislators directed the Department of Transportation to study a radical expansion of rail service east of New Haven. 

The legislature budgeted $2.3 million dollars for the ongoing Eastern Connecticut Corridor Rail and Transit Feasibility Study to consider service to Rhode Island, to Norwich, building new train stations in Groton and Stonington Borough, and “extending other ground transportation systems in the eastern region of the state and providing interconnection between such systems and rail lines.” 

“The draft report is available online and includes short- and long-term strategies to expand public transportation and improve mobility in the region. The study is a preliminary assessment of the region’s viability of expanding transit services. This is a first step, as more analysis would be needed before any projects move forward, requiring detailed planning and significant capital investments for several years,” explained department spokesman Josh Morgan, in an email to CT Examiner. 

According to a study fact sheet, estimated capital costs for extending Shore Line East to Westerly, Rhode Island could run to $245 million, and the costs for the train line to Norwich are estimated as high as $635 million. 

Asked about the seeming disconnect between steep service cuts and such visionary planning, Morgan emphasized the distinction between capital and operational costs.

“Capital investments are different than Shore Line East operational subsidiary costs from the state budget,” Morgan said. “For fiscal years 24 and 25, the budget provides funding to support 44% of the service levels compared to pre-pandemic service, which reflects the current 30% ridership compared to pre-pandemic ridership.”

The cuts and the finalized study are expected in the late fall. 

Cuts, feasibility, and transit-oriented development

Asked to explain the seeming disconnect between cuts to Shore Line East and the goals of the new study, State Sen. Christine Cohen said she did not see a contradiction, but she did express a level of frustration, and acknowledged that the state budget would require “some significant schedule modifications” to Shore Line East. 

“The good news is that there have been recent investments and Shore Line East is not slated to completely disappear,” she said. 

Cohen said she was frustrated by the budget cuts and said she would fight to restore the funding, saying she had made her position “abundantly clear” to Lamont. 

“I really believe this is the fundamentals of the economy. How we get folks to Connecticut. Get them to work. Get them to live and grow families here. Grow roots here. Thereby growing our economy,” said Cohen. 

She also underscored the importance of mass transit for reducing the state’s carbon footprint. 

 “It’s also how we address climate issues impacted by air quality carbon emissions so we want to ensure that we continue to make investments and mass transit options. You do that by putting the dollars behind rail, making sure folks can get to where they need to go in a fast, efficient and affordable manner,” she told CT Examiner. 

And Cohen highlighted a hot-button topic in the legislature, transit-oriented development, which she said could be key to rebuilding Shore Line East. 

“More densely populated areas with more housing tend to see higher ridership… I happen to have the belief that you need to make these investments… if you build it, they will come,” said Cohen. 

“You need to build it out and make sure that you’re providing that fast, efficient and affordable transportation with consistency and connection. And once you do that, you will see ridership expand. We’ve seen this happen in other places,” said Cohen.

Asked about the most recent schedule disruptions, Cohen acknowledged that while Amtrak’s work on the tracks is intended to improve service long term, “it’s a true inconvenience” and that the short notice announcing schedule changes was a “huge upset to riders across the shoreline.” 

Cohen also pointed to Amtrak, not the Connecticut Department of Transportation, as the responsible party for helping displaced riders.

“In the meantime I am asking Amtrak to restore peak service in the mornings and evenings and allow the work to proceed during off-peak hours. If that’s not feasible, at a bare minimum bus service should be provided,” she said. 

Theory vs. reality

State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, who also sits on the Transportation Committee, told CT Examiner he was frustrated by the cost of Shore Line East.

Shore Line East, which runs between New Haven and New London, costs taxpayers $130 a passenger – the highest subsidy of any of the state’s commuter services. It’s also been the slowest to recover from the pandemic, with just 32.8 percent of pre-COVID ridership. 

As a matter of numbers, Carney said he understood why Lamont cut service given the relative efficiencies of the other lines, but he questioned whether more could have been done to lure back riders to a commuter service that’s important to some residents in his district. 

“I think maybe it would have been worthwhile to try to increase the line or change the schedule around, maybe do some promotion and try to get people back on the train and just see if that would work because we do have people that rely on the service,” Carney said. 

Carney said he was part of a large bipartisan group that tried to talk to Lamont and State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who chairs Appropriations, to reduce the cut.

He told CT Examiner, “the governor was pretty firm on this one.” 

Asked about the more visionary feasibility study, Carney said some of the ideas, like extending rail to Rhode Island or to Norwich, would be great – in theory.

“But the problem is, number one, the cost, and number two, is that going to become a reality? Why would you even consider increasing the rail when you’re not even funding the current rail a hundred percent? That to me is where we should start,” Carney said.

And Carney said the debate in the legislature about transit-oriented development – which sounded like a “worthwhile pursuit” –  did not make sense as long as rail investment was not a priority for the governor. 

The “unfortunate reality,” Carney said, is that people in Connecticut “just don’t use public transportation.”

The regional bus service, Nine Town Transit, takes a long time between towns, Carney said, and except for the New Haven Line, rail service is inconsistent. 

“Again, people like to talk about public transportation, but they don’t use it. More people have to have to use it. They have to practice what they preach and get on the bus or get on a train and get out of their car or else nothing will change.”

12-hour days

At the rally on Tuesday, Ronnie Rysz, and his wife, Tori Rysz, told CT Examiner that they bought a house in Guilford three years ago close to Shore Line East specifically for commuting to their jobs at Yale, especially since Tori doesn’t drive. 

“We thought we were going to be able to take the train in on a regular basis, because we don’t drive regularly, and we really appreciate that option,” Ronnie said. 

Tori said their nine-to-five work days have lengthened dramatically because they now need to catch the 7:30 a.m., which gets them in to work early. Neither one can easily leave work before 5 p.m. to catch the 4:30, which means waiting to catch the 7:41 p.m.

Ronnie said that as a Yale employee, he gave up his parking space and received a small benefit by riding the train. He said that he wanted to see ridership restored, especially for environmental reasons. 

“I can’t imagine that people in other states and on the shoreline want people to get back in their cars to drive back into New Haven. With all of the urban planning that’s happening around the New Haven area, and the state, I thought the goal for climate reasons was to increase public transit and decrease car traffic. But this is a move in the opposite direction. It makes absolutely no sense to me.”

Ronnie added that he was concerned about Amtrak’s ownership of the tracks from New Haven to the Rhode Island border. 

“That seems to be an untenable situation for the Shore Line East as an operator, and also a kind of tenuous relationship between Amtrak and the state of Connecticut,” he commented.

Avoiding decisions

Jim Cameron, a transportation writer and rail advocate, said that the upcoming Shore Line East schedule budgetary cuts to 44 percent of pre-Covid service were at odds with the robust statewide rail system envisioned by the feasibility study. 

“Why are they studying expanding train service in an area where they are – at the same time – cutting train service?” he asked. 

Cameron warned that the cuts to Shore Line East service would put the line into a “death spiral.” 

“When there is less service, there’s less reason for people to take the train and more reason for them to get in their car and that further reduces ridership. It’s a downward spiral that has to be broken somehow. And given the fixed cost of operating the trains, if you reduce the ridership, it makes the per trip subsidy higher,” he said. “The way to reduce that is to increase ridership, not necessarily cut service.”

Cameron said expanding shoreline service to Rhode Island makes “a lot of sense,” especially if the line serves the “flyover communities” with rails but no rail service. 

As for transit-oriented development, Cameron said it was “still a point of fascination” in Hartford, even though building housing near train stations without trains didn’t make much sense.

And Cameron acknowledged that the more rural and small town character of eastern Connecticut made it a challenge for commuter rail.

“One of the reasons that I think that Shore Line East has always struggled is that there’s not the density of population there that there is in western Connecticut. If you take all the towns served by Shore Line East, they’re all comparatively small, and they may not have the density necessary to support a robust commuter rail operation,” he said.

The original intent of Shore Line East, said Cameron, was as an alternative to I-95 during the construction of the “Q” bridge in New Haven. 

“It did not start because there was suddenly a desire for train service. It started because they realized that a huge bridge was being constructed and there was going to be tremendous delays on I-95,” he said. 

It began as a one-direction railroad – into New Haven in the morning, out of New Haven in the afternoon, and then bi-directional service and weekend service were eventually added, he said. 

“Now they’ve got the M-8 cars, which are electric and more efficient and cleaner – and the irony of adding those cars in May, and then having the legislature turn around and cut the budget and reduce service doesn’t seem to make sense to anybody with the exception of the governor, I guess, who seems to think this is a way of saving money.” 

As for the latest study, Cameron was less than sanguine.

“In the overall scheme of things, looking out decades into the future, one wonders if they ever will go back and dust off some of these studies that they’ve done in the past, looking at expanding service in areas where it would make sense and an actual impact, but so far they have not done that – so studies are a way of avoiding having to make decisions.”