“How To Kill A Train”
By Jim Cameron
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 CDOT’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:
|BRANCH||PRE-COVID SUBSIDY PER PASSENGER, PER RIDE||CURRENT SUBSIDY PER PASSENGER, PER RIDE||
RIDERSHIP NOW VS PRE-COVID
|Main Line of MNR||$ 3.25||$ 5.38||70.5%|
|Danbury Branch||$ 17.04||NA||NA|
|Waterbury Branch||$ 24.46||NA||NA|
|Shore Line East||$ 49.52||$ 131.87||32.8%|
|Hartford Line||$ 55.70||$ 58.99||80.4%|
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 Rowland) when the subsidy was much, much lower.
PUBLIC POLICY: Governor 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 TOD, 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 TOD 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 bargain 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.
Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. His weekly column “Talking Transportation” is archived here. You can contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.”