Rendering of the inside of the new rail cars. Credit: Contributed photo
Jonathan L. Wharton

I was anxious to read so many recent articles about new train cars for Connecticut’s commuter lines, especially CTrail’s Hartford Line. They’re certainly overdue, but I’m sadly reminded that a number of scheduled trains will also be canceled in the near future due to low ridership and budget cuts. Isn’t it like Connecticut to be duplicitous about transit? Offer new train cars but also limit future train service. It’s a reality check that we can and should do more for public transportation.

Many readers already know my train interests since I’m an avid rider and pseudo-advocate. I often feature a column or two annually about Connecticut’s public transit and will get occasional support or angst about my opinion.

But this month’s announcement that the Connecticut Department of Transportation agreed to 60 new rail cars from French manufacturer Alstom is a big deal at $315 million. They will be mostly used on the Hartford Line and New Haven Line branches. Many already know that some of Hartford Line’s train cars are former Massachusetts commuter trains. And the Shore Line East line’s cars were recently updated to the New Haven Line’s Kawasaki M-8 train cars.

But the unique features of the newest cars arriving in 2026 include two-by-two seating, workstation tables and giant windows for better lighting. Train cars will be custom-designed for Connecticut riders and can be hauled by electric locomotives or diesel engines.

These are all significant upgrades and can make Connecticut’s transportation notable throughout the tri-state are and New England. As someone who has and still rides New Jersey Transit, I noticed their updated multilevel train cars years ago. Their packed Northeast Corridor Line needed more seats and more trains, even following the COVID-fueled dip in ridership as New Jersey purchased 22 more multilevel train cars last year.

But let’s face it, Connecticut has been lackluster about transit rail. The majority of train stations remain on Metro-North’s New Haven Line and ridership rates remain lower than they were prior to the pandemic. Shore Line East ridership has even lower rates and both lines will have service cuts as a result. Many of us are working from home and fewer people are taking the trains into New York City.

It’s no secret that Gov. Ned Lamont and his administration also announced service cuts, just before news of the purchase of new train cars. But it’s clear that many of us want newer and additional train stations on existing commuter lines. There have been plans for extending train service beyond New London and Springfield, for example. With the new station opening next year in Windsor Locks, there’s also discussion of improved transit access to Bradley International Airport.

Ultimately, planned development around train stations for housing and retail – also known as transit-oriented development – remains a main policy initiative for Connecticut to be economically competitive. None of this is radical, as many nearby states also build around transit hubs and airports.

But Connecticut being Connecticut, many of these concepts will remain concepts. It often takes years – if not generations – for modernized public transit. After all, the Hartford Line took decades to complete. And the New Haven Line’s M-8 outfitted bar cars have yet to arrive, as promised by former Gov. Dannel Malloy

I’m not quite giving up on Connecticut’s public transportation future, but I often fear that bad news always comes along with the good. The new train cars are a great start, but Connecticut has much more to do when it comes to public transit. Offering train service and connecting transit lines are merely beginning points and we seem to have hardly mastered the basics with respect to modernizing public transportation.

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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