How to kill a train line

Even while promoting transit-oriented development and better service, CT lawmakers are cutting back on the transit

Gov. Ned Lamont aboard a Metro-North train. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)
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. Contact Jim at [email protected].

Our politician friends in Hartford are trying to kill mass transit in Connecticut, worsen our air quality and increase traffic, all in a move that contradicts public policy.

They want to cut train service on Metro-North and Shore Line East railroads.

As early as this fall the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s budget cuts would see Metro-North reduce service from 309 daily trains in Connecticut to just 260, cutting back from 100% of pre-pandemic service to just 86%. Though peak-hour trains would not be cut (for now), off-peak service would go from once an hour to every 90 minutes.

Shore Line East, still only at 66% of pre-pandemic service, would be pared back to 40%, cutting all mid-day service Monday through Friday.

Why the cuts? Even before COVID, every train in service lost money and was subsidized by funds in the Special Transportation Fund. Post-pandemic, the ridership has come back much too slowly, increasing the per-passenger, per-trip taxpayer subsidy to unsustainable levels:

Commuter advocates would argue that one reason ridership hasn’t come back stronger since the pandemic is that service (especially on Shore Line East) wasn’t restored to the old level.  They say that the way to cut the subsidy is to increase service and get ridership back.  Cutting service, they argue, would only cut passenger loads further, increasing the losses.

The death spiral: Reducing train service only sends mass transit into an inevitable “death spiral”:  fewer trains discourages ridership… fewer riders equals higher subsidies… leading to more service cuts.  As ridership further erodes there will be the inevitable calls for shutting down service completely, which we’ve heard in the past (under Gov. John Rowland) when the subsidy was much, much lower.

Public policy: Gov. Ned Lamont has set a lofty goal of reducing “vehicle miles traveled” and greenhouse gas emissions in Connecticut by 5% by 2030.  He’s directed CDOT to do this by increasing the frequency of mass transit.  The governor is also promoting transit oriented development.

But what developer wants to build housing, luxury or affordable, next to a train station with less and less train service?  And why are all of the legislature’s zoning reform bills also tied to transit oriented development if they’re going to kill the trains?

We just added shiny new M8 cars to Shore Line East and increased train frequency on the Waterbury branch… and now they want to cut service?  And whatever happened to Lamont’s dream of “30-30-30,” faster trains? Faster, maybe, but fewer for certain.

Hartford politics: Of course, all of this is tied to the budget negotiations as the legislative session comes down to the wire.  Maybe, just maybe, all of these train cuts are just a bargaining chip?

But I’ve seen this movie before and I don’t like the way it turns out.  The railroads have told us they’re making serious plans for these service cuts and this is not a drill.

So if you care about your commute, now would be the time to ask your elected officials what the heck they’re doing… and why they want to kill your trains.


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3 responses to “How to kill a train line”

  1. Bryan Meek

    Telecommuting is likely the driver of reduced demand and that trend will continue until driverless cars make MTA obsolete. By that time maybe the $1bn walk bridge will be done for the few empty trains running to the city. It will be interesting to see what businesses are still around in 7 years. I saw one claim that sales are down 50% since the parking disruptions.

    1. Becca Stoll

      Driverless cars still create congestion. And are not as efficient a way to move people. And while the rise in remote work is real, commuting is not the only reason to take the train. Visiting family, seeing a concert or show, or exploring the beach or a state park would all be easier if more people could get there via train. In addition, some folks have jobs that will never go remote, and who count on the train to get them to work and back. Like it or not, for a lot of people, myself very much included, part of the appeal of living in Fairfield County was the ability to walk to the train station and ride into my jobs in NYC. Making us drive will only drive us out and drive prices up.

      1. Bryan Meek

        Autonomous cars will not be subject to the whims of the driver to break and accelerate unnecessarily. Smart highways will guide traffic and increase the capacity of the highways. Will trains go away, not likely. But much more efficient trains with smaller environmental footprints will be more cost effective and are the future. See the rail system they have been building in the DC suburbs, like out to Reston. They are making smart investments for the future, while we dump billions into a system created 150 years ago.

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