CLINTON — At a meeting with state transportation officials Tuesday night, a number of Shore Line East commuters demanded the return of key morning and afternoon trains, and asked for supplemental bus service as provided in the past, but were told there was almost no chance of additional trains or bus service given the state’s budget constraints.
“Obviously it’s an unfortunate budget constraint. So if we weren’t within that, what would be the optimal scenario?” asked Ben Limmer, who head’s the state’s public transportation system. He was meeting with Susan Feaster, founder of the Shore Line East Riders Advocacy Group, and about 15 commuters at the Clinton Police Station Tuesday night. Joining them was Rich Jankovich, the rail administrator for the state Department of Transportation.
Feaster had organized a Sept. 12 protest against the abrupt train schedule changes on Sept. 5 that cut several morning and evening trains.
Previously, when Shore Line East trains were taken out of service in 2018 for repair, the state offset the cuts with bus service. This year, no buses were added to accommodate riders.
Commuter Tim Dunning asked Limmer and Jankovich why no buses were scheduled to replace the eliminated trains.
“They should have been put in place. What was difficult about it? You’ve done it before. Why didn’t you do it and prepare and allow the commuters to get to work?” Dunning asked.
Limmer explained that, unlike in 2018, trains continue to run and the department had negotiated with Amtrak to honor commuter tickets to help alleviate the commuters’ schedules.
“It’s not a shutdown, it’s a modification of services – a big one, I’ll admit that. But we were optimistic about us being able to negotiate a cross-sharing arrangement with Amtrak to help add more train options to minimize the overall disruption… It was really, really an unprecedented move, but we were able to negotiate those cross-honoring trains and in order to help minimize it,” said Limmer.
But Amtrak has no stops between Union Station in New Haven and Old Saybrook, said longtime Shore Line East commuter Eric Stoddard.
“How on earth does that ever alleviate the issue for people who are Branford, Guilford, Madison, Clinton and Westbrook?” he said.
Jankovich said the negotiations with Amtrak lasted “all summer” and reiterated the outcome was five cross-honor trains, but no additional stops between New Haven and Old Saybrook. He told the assembled riders that the price of running rail service had doubled since 2018 and the state budget was a limiting factor.
Limmer said that instead of trying to provide bus service “that we didn’t have money for,” the department negotiated with Amtrak to cross-honor tickets where there was service.
Feaster told Limmer and Jankovich that in hammering out a deal with Amtrak, they hadn’t thought about how commuters would get to work.
Talk to your representatives
After public hearings scheduled for Oct. 2-4 on proposed fare and service changes for bus and rail, a new Shore Line East schedule will be finalized on October 20 and will go into effect most likely in mid-December.
A number of commuters told Limmer and Jankovich that they can no longer commute by train given that the schedule cuts mean taking earlier trains in the morning and later trains in the afternoon, resulting in a much longer day.
Several commuters said they needed the 7:34 a.m. train from New London to be restored as well as the 5:18 p.m. train from New Haven.
Limmer said it might be possible to reschedule the 5:45 p.m. train to an slightly earlier slot, but he made no promises. He said Amtrak had precedence over Shore Line East and few slots were available.
But Stoddard said there had “always been a train that left anywhere between 5:08 and 5:20” from New Haven
“Even if you’re not getting the ideal slots that you want, you should be able to have the data tell you and be able to say to Amtrak, ‘Listen, this is unacceptable. We have to run a 5:12 or a 5:08 or a 5:20 train – our data shows that’s the most popular train, you have to give that to us,’” said Stoddard.
At the end of the meeting, Feaster encouraged the audience to talk to their state senators, representatives, and local selectmen about including Shore Line East in the next state budget.
But Feaster said she was disappointed by the senators and representatives who voted for the last budget, especially State Sen. Christine Cohen, who chairs the legislature’s Transportation Committee and has said she supports Shore Line East.
“It’s work that I think needs to be done because there’s some people in Hartford that don’t even think we need the train. I met with the DLT commissioner a few years ago… and he flat out said that some of the people that are up there voting for these budgets don’t think that we need mass transit,” Feaster said.