The new M8 cars and the old diesel.

There’s been a lot of buzz in the past week about Shore Line East finally adding M8 cars to its service.  While this is good news, the railroad’s future is not bright.

When started in May of 1990, Shore Line East trains from Old Saybrook to New Haven began as an alternative to I-95 and pending construction of the new Q Bridge in New Haven.  Initially the service was one way… westbound in the morning rush hour and back east in the afternoon.

By 1996 the trains had captured about 8% of commuter traffic.  But losses were so high ($18.75 per-passenger-per-trip) that newly elected Gov. John Rowland suggested replacing the trains with buses.

Rowland’s plan was thwarted and followed by a small fare increase.  A few trains were extended to New London.  In 2001 two trains were extended to run as far as Stamford.  But all of the equipment was still diesel push-pull.

Because the tracks east of New Haven are owned by Amtrak, the national railroad pushed back and cut New London service to protect its limited bridge openings to instead serve its long distance trains.  In 2007 service was expanded to weekends.

As Amtrak completed its electrification of its line from New Haven to Boston, the hope was to run electric-powered M8 cars on the line, replacing the diesels.  The M8s began running on the mainline (New Haven to Grand Central) in 2011 but Amtrak was slow to approve their use east of New Haven.

Now that the M8s are finally running, the diesel equipment will be gone.  Trains will run a bit faster (thanks to improved acceleration) and certainly quieter and cleaner.  But the problem is there are so few passengers.

According to a $2 million consultant report in 2021, ridership is still down over 70% from already low pre-pandemic levels (compared to about a 40% drop on Metro-North).  Given the high fixed costs of running the line, that’s boosted the per-passenger-per-trip subsidy to $55.28 (compared to $3.85 on the MNRR main line).

Fares on Shore Line East have always been kept low to try to attract riders.  But that means those fares cover only 5% of operating costs (compared to 69% on MNRR mainline).  Who pays the difference?  We do, in our gasoline taxes which go into the Special Transportation Fund (STF).

But with the gasoline tax taking a pre-election holiday, that’s pushing the STF ever-closer to insolvency.  This is clearly unsustainable.

Even with gasoline prices recently soaring to $5-plus a gallon (and expected to be as high as $6-plus by August), ridership is lagging.  There’s plenty of parking at Shore Line East’s new stations but commuters still apparently prefer to drive, despite back-ups on I-95.

Maybe extending service east to Mystic and even Rhode Island might help.  Or renewed enforcement of masking rules (still in effect on MNRR but not SLE) especially if COVID cases rise.

Clearly, something has got to change.  Let’s hope the new M8s will make a difference… but I’m not optimistic.

Jim Cameron | Columnist

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.