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

This Viewpoint was originally published in CT Mirror on August 2, 2019.

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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