Just weeks after ribbons were cut at the opening ceremonies for Connecticut’s new Hartford Line rail service, state residents expressed their dismay at the floundering quality of the older Shore Line East rail service in a public forum with the Department of Transportation last Thursday.
Shore Line East connects stations spanning from New Haven to New London with an average of 2,000 passengers per weekday and 800 every weekend. Over the past few months, multiple trains have been canceled or delayed, riders said, testing their patience as they make their way to and from work.
“We’re fully aware that this summer has been an absolutely unacceptable train wreck,” Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said to a room that appreciated his candor — as well as his pun.
According to Redeker, aging locomotives and Amtrak construction has rendered Shore Line East unreliable for many. In response, regular riders of the service noted that they have been forced to opt for buses or drive their own cars on the highway.
A portion of the unreliability is a result of a maintenance project started by Amtrak on April 23. In order to resolve drainage issues along the railroad, one of the two Shore Line East tracks were put out of service. The single track is servicing trains that both arrive and leave the station, a fact that has made normal levels of service difficult.
Anticipating the impact of the maintenance project, the Department of Transportation released an official statement in April, canceling a total of 15 trains. They also scheduled a substitute bus program to operate on weekday mornings.
A total of 167 delays have occurred between April and June due to the Amtrak construction work. Over 750 trains have been replaced by buses over the same period.
While the Amtrak construction project has long been anticipated, the issue of aging locomotives was an unexpected variable. According to Public Transportation Chief Richard Andreski, the locomotives, some of which are more than 30 years old, have failed more quickly than anticipated. When transportation officials met Shore Line East customers at Union Station on Thursday, complaints abounded — most about waiting for trains that never arrived.
Jeri Duefrene, a member of the Shore Line East Riders Advocacy Group, commutes from Old Saybrook to New Haven for her job at the Yale New Haven Hospital. Duefrene said she was late to work twice this week because of trains that got canceled or delayed for unexplained or “poorly-articulated” reasons.
Complaints like Duefrene’s are reflected in the decrease of ridership and are not limited to Amtrak construction. Though Amtrak started their project in April, between January and March, ridership decreased 14 percent compared to the same time period last year. With 153,480 riders, this falls short of the department’s stated goal of 180,000.
To soften the blow of reduced services, the Department of Transportation outlined further potential solutions in a statement released last Tuesday. The bus program, which was originally scheduled to terminate in November, will continue operating until the end of the year. Evening bus rides will also be offered in addition to existing morning routes.
“We’ve been talking to customers, and they don’t want train service to come back until it’s reliable,” said Andreski. “We’d rather be safe than overpromise.”
The state will also focus on repairing out-of-service rail cars, Andreski added. Six locomotives have been sent to Illinois for repair, and 12 more will be sent to Indiana for a complete overhaul. Andreski said this will add 10 more years of life to the aging cars — a more cost-effective solution than buying new cars.
The renovated cars are to be incrementally brought back into service next year. At the earliest, the Department of Transportation expects operations to regain normalcy by the fall of 2019.
In the meantime, transportation officials said they will be riding Shore Line East trains for the next 30 days to monitor the situation and talk to customers. By the end of October, customers will also be able to receive customized alerts by text and email about the status of their trains. Currently, riders seeking updates on train status must constantly monitor the service’s Twitter feed.
During regular operations, Shore Line East trains run seven days a week including holidays, with stops at New London, Old Saybrook, Westbrook, Clinton, Madison, Guilford, Branford and New Haven.
Nicole Ahn | firstname.lastname@example.org .