Passengers board an Amtrak train in New Haven
Passengers board an Amtrak train in New Haven, Connecticut in March 2018. Credit: Bob Korn / Shutterstock
Jonathan L. Wharton

I have an affinity for commuter trains to get to New York and also to Connecticut’s various cities. Yet, I live in Connecticut where our train lines have been problematic for generations. When I lived in New Jersey, I was amazed at New Jersey Transit’s operation because it was extensive and pretty efficient. I also realized that New York’s Pennsylvania Station is no Grand Central Terminal.

But in the last couple of years, Connecticut has shown some promise on the commuter train front. Ridership has steadily increased to pre-pandemic rates on Metro-North’s New Haven Line and several express trains to New York are back. This has been an ongoing promise of gubernatorial and New Haven mayoral administrations. Instead of a two-hour ride to New York, express train service cuts travel 20 or so minutes. (I’m still waiting – along with so many Fairfield County riders – for the bar car’s rumored return. Sadly, Former Gov. Dannel Malloy and his administration failed to order the sleek M8 cars retrofitted for bar cars).

The Waterbury Line is operating with seven more scheduled trains as well. This is a must in light of I-84 and Route 8’s construction and the traffic that has resulted from this massive-scale project. Besides, Naugatuck Valley deserves a reliable train line and its General Assembly bipartisan delegation has rightfully lobbied for additional trains for years.

The Shore Line East train line has new M8 cars, replacing diesel locomotives with electrification. And bringing along a bicycle is a breeze with the commuter-friendly built-in racks. In fact, there are so many fellow cyclists during rush hour that I often have to fight for space.

And then there was this summer’s unfortunate news that the Hartford Line, which has only been operating a few years, has shifted commuters to buses because of needed station upgrades. For a couple of months, riders will take substitution bus service and pay the regular train fare even though CTtransit has free rides until the end of the year (my CT News Junkie colleague Susan Bigelow recently wrote to “keep it free forever” in light of climate change concerns). 

CTrail’s Hartford Line is already on a limited schedule even during rush hour. With their diesel locomotives and reconditioned Massachusetts commuter train cars, the line appears decades old. Admittedly, I’ve been rooting for a Hartford Line since I grew up in West Hartford when there was only talk of a commuter train line to New Haven. Alas, back to buses we go. The Hartford Line reminds us that dreams can come true, and that reality can hurt.

Connecticut still has much work to do on our commuter train lines. If there’s any recent good news, state officials are discussing light-rail ideas again. There were plans for light rail in New Haven and Stamford a while back. Also, there’s talk of a Hartford Line train station with a Bradley International Airport connection (more than likely a bus line before a light rail). But state officials are suggesting retrofitting the infamous CTfastrak bus way between Hartford and New Britain into light rail. At the Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials conference, Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti pitched the transformation of the bus line. And Lamont stressed that with the federal government’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, his administration could make significant changes to public transit.

So, maybe we can dream again. But I’ll still hold my beer and nap on the bar car-less New Haven Line until someone wakes me to let me know that Connecticut has modern and efficient commuter train service.

A CTrail engine pulls out of Windsor Station
A CTrail engine pulls out of Windsor Station during Saturday morning’s test run on June 11, 2018. Credit: Contributed by Emily Woodward Tracy / CTNewsJunkie

A CTrail engine pulls out of Windsor Station in Windsor, Connecticut
A CTrail engine pulls out of Windsor Station in Windsor, Connecticut during Saturday morning’s test run on June 11, 2018. Credit: Contributed by Emily Woodward Tracy / CTNewsJunkie

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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