New Haven Union Station’s Grand Hall, traditionally only glanced at by rushed commuters, looked the same as it did a week, month or year ago. But there were differences, scattered across the station, subtly celebrating a new arrival. In the far right corner by the Greyhound office, a series of sleek black boxes sported touch screens and a slick red and grey logo. The same logo appeared on the banner hung from the balconies that sat above the ticketing windows. The most significant, yet inconspicuous difference was on the oversized LCD timetable, where orange bars ran across the screen, highlighting two destinations: Springfield or Hartford.
After nearly 25 years of proposals, debate and construction, the country’s newest passenger rail line has arrived. The automated announcer made it clear: “The Hartford Line is now boarding.”
The Hartford Line is a new commuter rail service that operates between Springfield and New Haven, a line that was originally only operated by Amtrak. No new destinations have been added, but the Hartford Line provides a much more frequent, convenient and accessible service to towns and cities once at the fringe of the national rail network. Where there were once six daily trains, there are now 16. New platforms have been built in New Haven and Hartford, and every station in-between has gone through total reconstruction. With increased service, the Hartford Line now allows easier connections to New York City–bound trains, linking Hartford, Springfield and towns in between to metropolitan New York. New developments are sprouting next to stations and more affordable housing is becoming accessible to larger job markets. Such capital improvements and intermodal connections, however, have not come quickly; the Hartford Line has been a long process, and issues of cost and accessibility are still present.
The line was first proposed in 1994, with three recommended round trips between New Haven and Hartford only, at the cost of $4.4 million. This initial proposal was left untouched until 2001, when a much more comprehensive version was floated, extending the line to Springfield with trains running every half hour, a frequency not yet achieved, even today. Total construction capital costs were projected at $249 million. A similar plan was reintroduced in 2004, but adding three new stations along the line, and a new intermodal transfer station at Windsor Locks (to connect with Bradley International Airport). Weekday ridership was projected at 3,044 and the total cost was approximately $263 million. Although this plan was the most similar to the current line, no action followed, and the project remained that way for years.
The Hartford Line’s ultimate push for action, however, is thanks to an unlikely suspect: Florida Governor Rick Scott. In early 2011, the Tea Party–backed Republican turned away $2.4 billion in funding from the Obama administration to construct a high speed rail network in Florida, intended to connect Tampa and Orlando. Scott proudly proclaimed, “The government cannot spend more than it takes in.” Nevertheless, the money originally meant for Florida’s rail network was instead redistributed to rail projects across the country, including the Hartford Line in Connecticut. According to Jim Cameron of the Commuter Action Group, “When Florida turned that down, Malloy used his democratic connections and said, ‘We’ve got this project we’ve been wanting to build for decades’ and got federal funding,” making the Hartford Line a possibility.
Although kickstarted by the Obama Administration, the Hartford Line relied heavily on state funds. According to Richard Andreski, public transportation chief for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, the federal government provided $200 million, but the total cost of the project was $768 million, leaving the state to subsidize the gap. This hefty price tag has left some wondering if the money could have been better spent. “Clearly, the main line of Metro North is under-invested and needs a lot of money spent to get it into a state of good repair,” said Jim Cameron of the Commuter Action Group.
It is not just rail lines that are hurting. Yearly reports propose destructive changes to transportation service statewide. In late 2017, “anticipated cutbacks” included a 25 cent fare increase for the state-wide bus system and a reduction in transit district subsidies by 5 percent. Shore Line East rail service was also slated for cutbacks, with a “possible elimination of the entire service in 2020.”
“But that’s not to say we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” asserted Cameron, “I think it was smart of the Malloy administration to grab the federal money to invest in the Hartford Line before Interstate 91 looks like Interstate 95.”
Construction began in 2015 and ended this year — a surprisingly short period of time given the almost-quarter century devoted to proposing and planning the Hartford Line. Funding is the main reason behind the use of these secondhand, 30-year-old rail cars, with savings running into the billions of dollars when compared to purchasing new cars.
Sitting down on a leather bench in one of the rail cars, however, I felt perfectly comfortable. As I settled in, the train pulled out of Union Station.
The cars were not as modern as expected, despite a fresh coat of paint with the same livery as the ticket vending machines. “[It was] difficult to find cars that were built after 1990,” said Richard Andreski of the state Department of Transportation. “We did a national search, contacted dozens of rail operators, and there were only two choices that would’ve worked for Connecticut: Maryland … and the [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] had cars. After reviewing both, the ones that were best suited were the MBTA cars.” Although it would be ideal for the Hartford Line to have the most up-to-date equipment available, “The truth is that most railroads run these cars as long as they can and rarely have spare equipment.” New cars are in the works, but they won’t be ready for at least five years.
The Hartford Line’s first stop north is only, according to the schedule, seven minutes away. The actual journey feels much shorter, and, unbeknownst to many, is free. State Street Station, opened in 2002, is located at the corner of State and Chapel streets, less than a 10-minute walk from both Old Campus and Wooster Square. Hartford Line improvements have led to the construction of a new platform (that has, strangely, not been used yet), as well as an increase in the frequency of trains between State Street and Union stations. Currently served by all Shore Line East trains and select Metro North trains, the construction of the station, even back in 2002, has had consequences for downtown New Haven.
“From the moment the station went up in 2002,” explained Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81, New Haven’s economic development administrator, “people have been contemplating the impact of the train station.” Although he did not attribute development in the area solely to the train station, Nemerson does see it as a great asset to the neighborhood.
The development perhaps most tied to the station is located right across from it: 360 State, the city and state’s largest residential building.
“As a Connecticut native, I’ve witnessed suburban sprawl and a lack of smart growth,” said Bruce Becker, developer of 360 State. “We visited [360 State St.] and immediately saw it was the best Transit-Oriented Development site in Connecticut because of the railroad station and its walking and biking proximity to Yale, the hospital and other employment centers. We proposed what was built, [a] 32-story tower with 500 apartments.”
These apartments, a major addition for the Elm City, were not just built for one socioeconomic class. Subsidized affordable housing was built in too. According to Becker, “We incorporate affordable housing, something I’ve done in every project. It makes sense to me to diversify the marketing risk of the project, marketing to different groups of people.”
When the development was first proposed in 2006 and completed in 2010, State Street Station was relatively new, and its service was limited. The New York Times called it “a gamble,” and a critic quoted in the article called out its massive parking garage, claiming it detracted from a focus on auto-independency. Paradoxically, the same critic disapproved of the proximity of State Street Station to downtown due to noise concerns.
“State Street Station is such a great asset to the downtown, you can come right in and walk right there to most of the downtown destinations,” according to Becker.
“We have a lot of offices on that corridor. Take a look at SeeClickFix, Square Nine, Prometheus or any of our high tech companies: They always assumed there’d be train service to the north.” But for more than 15 years, the six daily trains departing for Hartford and Springfield bypassed the station. Now, with more frequent service as a consequence of the Hartford Line project, Nemerson explained that “it’s great to see it happen” although there’s “nothing earth-shattering about this.” Becker was more optimistic: “Now you’re at the nexus of three different directions (east, west and north). I wouldn’t be surprised if someone living at 360 State couldn’t, within an hour, get to a third of the jobs in Connecticut.”
But it became clear as we branched north off the Northeast Corridor and left the Elm City that the impact of the Hartford Line is not limited to Connecticut’s big cities. The next stop, Wallingford, sits in an exciting position: only a 16-minute, $3.50 ride from New Haven.
“Since they announced that [the Hartford Line] is going to happen, there has been activity,” explained Tim Ryan, director of economic development for Wallingford. Ryan pointed to a residential development called Parker Place, currently expanding to include 200 new apartments, as a good example of the positive benefits already affecting the downtown area. The town’s downtown area now hosts a brand new station, complete with two high-level platforms, a fully accessible crossover, and clear signage and lighting. But the station, according to Ryan, is not the most important factor.
“The big thing is the schedule. The fact that there are 17 trains a day, and there were 6 before — it creates so much more convenience. Gets people thinking about, ‘Jeez, maybe the train is an option.’”
Wallingford rental rates, according to Ryan, are more affordable than New Haven. The average rent for a studio in Wallingford is $914, while New Haven’s is $1,210. This means that more affordable apartments will be within reach of large job markets such as New Haven and Hartford.
As the train pulled out of Wallingford, gaining speed, I thought it might be useful to make a quick run to the bathroom, so I stopped the conductor as he walked through the car, checking for tickets.
“Is there a bathroom on this train?” I asked.
“Yes, they’re open now,” he replied. The answer seemed oddly phrased — as if the bathrooms had been closed.
Apparently, this was exactly the case.
“The railcars we leased … were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,” explained Andreski, “so they did not meet all of the current accessibility requirements.” One of these requirements concerned the bathrooms, which (based on a personal inspection) are too narrow for a wheelchair.
“Under the direction of the Federal Railroad Administration,” continued Andreski, “we were asked to keep the restrooms closed until they were all made accessible.”
This all changed on Aug. 7, when a group of individuals with Crohn’s disease petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration to allow the restrooms to be opened to accommodate their medical conditions. Although temporarily appropriate for those afflicted with Crohn’s disease, the cars still need to be retrofitted with accessible restrooms, a process currently under way. This issue highlights the challenges of operating three-decade-old cars. At Meriden, the next stop after Wallingford, a family boarded the train, and the mother, shocked, exclaimed, “There are no outlets!” drawing attention to yet another, though less critical, issue.
At Meriden, the presence of transit-oriented development is unmistakable.
“Meriden is a great example,” Becker states. “New station, huge investments.”
“In Meriden, you will hear that the rail line is the single most important thing happening,” Andreski explained, “If you stand at the station, you will see four to five development projects underway or completed. From the green, you will see new apartment condos with ground floor retail.” This scene was impossible to miss at Meriden station, where the new platforms were snugly fit between older commercial buildings and new, multistory developments.
The following station on my journey north, Berlin, did not show a similar impact. Its surroundings are far less interesting: parking lots and industrial buildings. I saw very little new construction.
This dichotomy between Meriden and Berlin highlights a process explained best by Nemerson: “You are going to see towns falling into two camps: One camp will absolutely see the train as a way to diversify their housing stock, allowing them to build more apartments, more commuters in the city. In the other camp people will be horrified by that, wanting it not to happen.” It is obvious which camp Meriden falls into, and Berlin perhaps fits into the other.
Approaching Hartford, the skyline and the statehouse made grand appearances right before the train slid into Union Station. The station was added a new, high-level (and accessible) platform with Hartford Line funding. More than half of the riders in my car disembarked — many Hartford Line trains terminate here.
There are only two more stations between Hartford and Springfield, both served by a single track. The first, Windsor, still uses a low-level platform, although construction of an accessible replacement has begun. Andreski explained that a wheelchair lift is used at such stations, but the improved convenience of a high-level platform for wheelchairs is obvious.
At Windsor Locks, the current “station” is a platform and bus shelter, surrounded by parking lots and trees, south of downtown. Fortunately, a new station is in the works, and the town of Windsor Locks is full of excitement.
“We can’t wait for construction,” stated Jen Rodriguez, Windsor Locks’ town planner. The station will be closer to downtown, adjacent to developments that have already begun construction.
“Being between two cities with a lot to offer, including jobs, puts Windsor Locks in a strategic location. The added train trips and relocation of the train station to the downtown setting drew the attention of developers,” added Rodriguez.
Windsor Locks is most famous as the home of Bradley International Airport, the primary airport for Hartford, Springfield and many New Haven residents. In the 2004 plan, an intermodal station was proposed for Windsor Locks, with a shuttle to Bradley. Currently, no such shuttle exists.
“A shuttle service to the airport would be an important connection. Nothing is solidified, the conversation is continuing,” Rodriguez stated, but unfortunately for Windsor Locks, the Department of Transportation has decided that any new shuttle service to the airport would (for the time being) go direct to Hartford. The reasoning is that not all trains continue north of Hartford because of the limitation of the single track, and so to provide easier connections for fliers, a shuttle bus running from Hartford Union Station would be better. Although fine for those south of Hartford, residents in Windsor, Windsor Locks and Springfield would find it more convenient to take another form of transit to Bradley.
As we left Windsor Locks and crossed the Connecticut River, the towers of my final destination peaked above the treeline. We rolled into Springfield, the terminus station, whose abandoned platforms reminded me that the Hartford Line, particularly north of Hartford, needs improvement. Although a renovated station recently opened, the platform remains inadequate and worn. “If there’s one thing we wish we could see improved,” explained Cameron, “that would be the service north of Hartford to Springfield.”
Although the benefits of the line are visible throughout, it is clear where refurbishment was focused. The unfinished northern section, dated rail cars and systemwide budget concerns could become a problem in future years. As it stands, the Hartford Line is a vast improvement over the status quo and provides a level of service lacking in central Connecticut for decades. More development along this corridor is leading to more housing, particularly at rents lower than what might be found in New Haven or Hartford. Where the Hartford Line has been built to completion, it has been built right. But there is still anticipation for what’s to come next.
As I waited in line for my train home, a young family with a stroller prepared to board from the low-level platform. The conductor, quick to assist, was forced to tilt it nearly 90 degrees, while paper bags, loosely strapped onto the stroller, began to fall, littering the worn asphalt with plastic toys and candy. The baby had, thankfully, been carried up with the mother. On the platform, and on all the platforms along the Hartford Line, were people of all walks of life, waiting. An attorney from Berlin working in New York. A Yale student coming back from a visit to the University of Connecticut. A biker just trying to transfer to Metro North. A wheelchair user keeping to himself. We were all waiting to board, waiting for our own arrival in Hartford or New Haven, down the line.