I crammed myself aboard an Amtrak train with a few hundred of my closest friends this past weekend, rode down to Meriden to wander around the beautiful new Meriden Green, and then I boarded a standing-room-only CTRail train back to Windsor Locks. The Hartford Line was open at last, travel was free, and people were excited.
It was a break from reality. For a single day I lived in a place where people cared about things like rail lines, where public transportation projects actually got funded, and the federal government invested in the future.
I couldn’t decide whether I was wishful for some gauzy vision of a lost train-filled past, or straining to sense a better, brighter future than today.
Maybe it was both. That’s how this rail line makes me feel.
On the surface of it the Hartford Line is not really a brand new service to places that have never had rail, it’s an expansion of the expensive and limited Amtrak service that already existed. There are more trains, CTRail branded trains, and a deal with Amtrak that lets passengers ride their trains with the steeply discounted Hartford Line fares.
But there’s more to it than just that. It’s an actual alternative, a new way for commuters to get where they’re going without a ton of hassle. Around here, that’s downright revolutionary.
When I was younger, back in the mid 1990s, I spent some time commuting from my high school in Windsor to the nearest train station to my house, in Berlin. Sadly, it didn’t work out. The trains were usually late, and the one-way fare was an eye-popping $7 ($12 today). I went back to driving and being driven.
The same ride now would cost $4.50 on the Hartford Line, with the possibility of discounted weekly and monthly passes. If the Hartford Line had existed back then, I would have taken it every day.
But it’s not just a boon for commuters. It’s also the rebirth of one of the Connecticut Valley’s most important assets: the rail line connecting its three major cities of New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield.
This line was left to decay after the steep decline of rail travel in the second half of the 20th century. I grew up in a house that was right behind that line on the border of Newington and New Britain, and I spent a lot of my teen years wandering up and down the tracks (note: don’t ever do this). I got good at dodging trains, even though there were so few of them in those days that the state actually ripped up one of the two tracks that were there.
One of the larger expenses of the Hartford Line’s construction was putting those tracks back in. But now the land around the rails and the stations aren’t just for moldering industrial ruins and contaminated wetlands: towns are starting to realize the potential of transit-oriented development. There are beautiful new apartments in Windsor, for example, right next to the station. It’s something other places have discovered: where there’s frequent train service, there is life and energy.
There are problems with the Hartford Line, of course. Service north of Hartford is abysmal, for instance. I want to commute from Enfield to East Hartford every day, but the schedule means I’ll be away from home from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Worse, there’s no station in Enfield, so I’d have to drive down to the dinky station in Windsor Locks to catch the train.
This seems strange, as Enfield is the largest town between Hartford and Springfield, but it’s because my town was dumb enough to tear down its station in the 1970s. There are plans for a station, but they are not yet funded.
There’s also connection problems. The CTTransit bus system has no single collection point, meaning that the bus I’d need to get to work would pick me up across downtown Hartford from Union Station, about a 15-minute walk away.
The actual train cars, which are old Boston commuter rail cars, are clean and bright and ride smoothly. However, the seating is hard and cramped, and the bathrooms are not yet wheelchair accessible.
But it exists. It’s a start. It’s something we have now that we didn’t have a few weeks ago, and it will be a huge boon for the region.
And it reminds us that yes, we can change and grow. We can undo some of the mistakes of the past. A better future is possible, despite everything happening around us now. We just have to get there.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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