The first Hartford line train leaving for New Haven. CT DOT

Connecticut officials claimed last month that the Hartford Line has been a “resounding success.” Examination of the facts on the ground, however, shows that the service, while a welcome addition to the lacking repertoire of “Knowledge Corridor” mobility options, leaves much to be desired. It’s time we change that by learning from others.

For a $700 million slate of upgrades, the service offered on the Hartford Line is still dismal, even compared to North American counterparts. Trinity Railway Express, running the 30 miles between Dallas and Fort Worth, shares much in common with the Hartford Line despite being half the length. It connects two large population and employment centers. The route is mostly double tracked with some single-track sections.

Low-performance diesel locomotive-hauled consists (a consist is a sequence of railroad carriages or cars, with or without a locomotive, that form a unit) carry the passengers on the line. Those passenger trains must also contend with freight train interference. Somehow, despite these obstacles, route planners and dispatchers in Dallas-Fort Worth have figured out how to run at least one train per direction per hour all day with half-hourly service at the peaks.

Given trains already run as little as a half-hour apart on the Hartford Line at the peak, there is little reason to suspect the infrastructure cannot already handle one train per hour per direction all day long. The round trip between New Haven and Springfield can be made in four hours, meaning four trainsets, plus spares, are needed to supply hourly service between the two cities. This will not noticeably increase operating costs; the total cost of operating a rail line changes very little with the amount of service run on it. Connecticut is already paying for the fixed costs of the infrastructure and for running peak service, the most expensive type to operate.

Despite claims made by the Motor Carriers Association, frequency induces ridership. Having to plan one’s day carefully to avoid a wait at your origin station turns off riders, whatever the mode. Today’s Hartford Line service contains several two-hour gaps and even a four-hour gap out of New Haven during the day. There is ample reason to expect hourly New Haven-Springfield service to dramatically improve ridership. Although Trinity Railway Express runs just over double the trains per day as the Hartford Line, it gets over three times as many passengers.

At the end of the day, Connecticut should be getting much more value for the fare and tax money it has spent and continues to spend on trains. The state owns 47 coaches and 14 diesel locomotives for non-Amtrak Hartford Line and Shore Line East service, enough to make up 14 consists. Half that number should be enough to run hourly service New London-New Haven (1:15 one-way, three trainsets) and New Haven-Springfield (1:30 one-way, four trainsets).

The legislature and governor must hold DOT accountable for keeping up enough equipment for a decent, minimum hourly, service complement. They must also hold Amtrak, the track owner, accountable for timely dispatching and scheduling as much maintenance as possible during the night when no passenger trains run. DOT and Amtrak alike would do well to bring in rail experts from around the world, who have driven costs down and frequencies up, and with whom American railroaders in general have not interfaced nearly enough.

Robert Hale lives in New Haven.

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  1. Just goes to show like the bus way to Hartford. This train is taking away money that could have been used for what now is the priority supposedly to fix roads and bridges. Its all a joke. If you find in the 3 years, this train is still not producing people on it and profit. Get rid of it and again free up money for roads and bridges. I don’t why we just can’t accept we are a car culture and most of us don’t want that to change. We enjoy our personal freedoms that come with it. Since most of us tax payers use our cars. We need stop with all this mass transit that takes the moeny away from what most tax payers use

    1. That is not true. Federal money for transit comes from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) while highway money comes from Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). They are two separate agencies and money from each are not interchangeable. If we did not use the hundreds of millions the state received for the busway and CTrail, that federal money would have gone to transit projects in other states.

      1. Thank you for that. I was not aware of the that. With that fact. It only makes this worse. First we wasted the feds money on these projects and we waste our state money subizides

      2. I disagree. By all measures CTfastrak is performing as it was planned. The true value of it will come when the state begin reconstruction of I-84 in Hartford. Just like Shoreline East did for the Q Bridge project in New Haven, CTfastrak will offer commuters an alternative form of transportation during the years that very complex project will take to complete.

        The fact that you and many others did not know that there was a difference between FTA and FHWA funding shows the amount of misinformation and misconceptions relating to the project. This has been made worse by unscrupulous and unknowable politicians playing people for votes. I find that to be disgusting. All mass transit costs us money. Sadly it is the way it works not just here but across the country and around the world. That said, mass transit is a very very important component of our transportation network. Would you end Metro North service because it costs tax payers money? I doubt it because Metro North serves a very important part of our state. CTfastrak does too.

    2. Let’s be clear, 634K rides in the first year is not “a train with no people on it.” And read Tom Condon’s piece on TOD and CTFastrack. And since when do you get to decide we’re a car culture and don’t want change? Polling on congestion, pollution tends to point toward change. And one thing is unassailable: the wave of millennials gravitating toward cities expect mass transit, If we don’t provide it, we won’t keep them.

      1. First i have say. I have loved your columns in the courant for years. I’m actually excited to talk to you. This is cool. I didn’t decide that we are a car culture. America decided that long before i was born. My issue is that most of us still use our cars. Now they tell us that they need tolls for the roads in order to fix them. I just believe that the 700 million to get this train up could have been better spent on thr roads since the majority tax payers use there car. I’m not against mass transit. I even used it myself for 6 years going to NYC. Just dollars in the state are scarce and need to be used wisely and for the majority right now.

  2. The biggest obstacle is if you are a Metro-North rider there isn’t a single train connection between the two in the AM to get you to Hartford by 9 AM.

  3. If Dan Malloy and others had put the money they squandered on the Bus to Nowhere and a bunch of rusty MassDot trains into the trains for commuters to NYC, perhaps more people would have moved to FF County and the state could benefit.
    But nooooooooo! They bleed commuters, who are fleeing Ct. in droves and waste money trying to turn the Hartford area into a desirable location.
    Even Ned Lamont does not live in Hartford!
    I dream of a day when I can get out of this state for good.

    1. While I have never been a fan of Mr Malloy, I will give him a bit of a pass on this boondoggle. The busway planning had begun well before Dannel took office. In fact, the long-range plan was (and perhaps still is) to extend the line to Waterbury. So, I will not fault him on the plan, BUT in his position a Governor he could have forced a reconsideration of the viability of the project.

      1. That it true. The busway was conceived and planned under Rowland and designed, bid and funded under Jodi Rell. When Malloy took office he had a choice, go forward with the long planned and well vetted project or cancel it and lose hundreds of millions in Federal money in a rapidly deteriorating economy. Kind of a no brainer. The busway is doing exactly what it was planned to do. Ridership exceeds projections and hundreds of millions are being invested in new development near its stations.

  4. Mr Hale has a lot of misleading information in this. First the state does not own the Hartford line. It is owned by Amtrak so it has little control of what is done on it for improvements. About 35 years ago Amtrak decided to remove one of the then two sets of tracks on it. CTDOT fought hard to stop that because they always hoped to pursue commuter rail on the line. At the time they had just begun Shoreline East and they did not have the money to pursue two new commuter lines. Amtrak then removed the second track.

    Adding a second track to the line would have been prohibitively expensive for the state so they decide to implement limited service and build on it much like they did for Shoreline East. They added sections of a second track to allow commuter service now and will add more and more stations as ridership increases.

    Despite. What Mr Hale contends, CTrail has exceeded all expectations and ridership projections. The only thing holding it back is more train sets which are in order but take years to produce. Ridership on Metro North and Shoreline East are way up and the sets planned for use on CTrail were needed there first.

    Our state is small and densely populated and there is little room left to significantly widen our highways. Mass transit is one important part of solving our transportation problem. To think we can do it by only widening our highways is just ignorant.

      1. That may be true today but back when the state was planning and preparing for CTrail, ridership on Shoreline East was rising and there is nothing to indicate that it won’t return to that once full reliable train service returns. My point was that the state could not use the train sets from Shoreline East that it had planned for CTrail because it needed the new Shoreline East trains it had ordered on Metro North.

  5. I’m going to agree with Jay, and note that there are massive omissions here. TRE was started in 1996, with a larger budget (even adjusted for inflation), but with similar goals. To compare ridership stats on a service with over 20 years behind it, and one with just one year in, is not a remotely similar comparison. If we were to use the 1997 stats, we’d see a fair comparison.

    SLE was a project started by Gov. O’Neil, and Rowland tried repeatedly to kill it. Fortunately Rell didn’t agree, and through the years it has done quite well (approaching it’s 30 year mark now).

    It’s a shame all the administrations allowed the busway construction, and no actual ridership numbers have been released since its inception.

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