Over 60 Yale commuters filled a classroom in the School or Engineering and Applied Sciences to vent their frustrations about inconsistent and disrupted rail service on September 6th. Richard Andreski, Bureau Chief of Public Transportation for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, started with introductions, then gave riders a chance to express concerns and ask questions. The event was sparked by growing frustration among Shoreline East riders over cancelled trains, late trains, and lack of communication between riders and operators, though Metro North and CT Rail riders were also vocal. The frustrations mainly centered on a lack of communication about unforeseen changes in service. Eager for things to improve, many riders identified areas where improvements could be made. Rebates for services not delivered, GPS on trains, text message notifications, and accurate electronic signage were suggested as solutions to improve poor customer service. The cleanliness and safety of rail cars were also highlighted as a priority for riders. Unusable bathrooms, cars without air conditioning, and a lack of capacity on the most crowded trains were underscored as significant concerns for passengers.
To make sense of the complications, Adreski described the governing bodies that oversee Shoreline East service. The Connecticut Department of Transportation owns most stations, parking, rail cars and locomotives, whereas Amtrak owns tracks, bridges, and the signal system. In addition, DOT operates service and maintains Shoreline East trains under contract to the State, which further complicates changes and amendments to service.
Following the listening session, Bureau Chief Andreski presented on the causes of service interruptions on Shoreline East, as well as their plan to improve communications and operations. The reasons for decrease in on-time performance over the past year can be attributed to both mechanical issues and track work. Several diesel locomotives in the Shoreline East fleet are currently undergoing major overhauls, which have been replaced with buses to accommodate commuters. However, frequently late, crowded buses that cost the same as a train ticket prompted spirited comments from attendees of the forum. As one rider expressed, “I love it when I am stuck in traffic on the train-bus staring at a billboard promoting the Shoreline East to avoid traffic.”
Andreski acknowledged busing as an imperfect system and summarized plans to improve service and communications through more proactive outreach. In addition, Shoreline East trains will eventually be fitted with GPS to correspond with a mobile app that would allow riders to track the location of the trains. Beginning in September 2018, several overhauled locomotives will once again be available for service, temporarily ending the bus substitution program. By November, track work will suspend for the winter season and Shoreline East will release a revised fall schedule.
The project to overhaul GP40 diesel locomotives will be complete by January 2019 and the P40 diesel program will continue. Longer term, track work will resume on an additional 79,200 feet of track between New Haven and Branford between April and August 2019. During this time, substitute bus service will return. According to Andreski, a bus will be present at stations at all times when a train in scheduled to arrive or depart.
Within the next 5 years, the state and Amtrak plan to invest $300 to $400 million in the Shoreline East line. New rail cars are currently being designed and are expected to begin serving riders in 2023. In addition, Shoreline East will continue rebuilding a total of 18 diesel locomotives to extend their lifespan, which will wrap up in 2021. There will also be investment made to stations, including ticket vending machines and the installation of a second platform at Clinton Station. Significant investments are also being made on the tracks, including undercutting work and siding electrification, expected to cost $28 million and $21 million, respectively. These investments in the tracks will allow for faster trains and more efficient service in the long run.
Attendees of the forum were pleased to hear about the planned improvements to service, but riders remain concerned about their daily commutes before the improvements are complete. As one dedicated rider expressed, “Connecticut needs public transportation. Our state needs this to work.” This sentiment was expressed over and over again by patrons of Shoreline East and other lines, underscoring to the value of commuter rail and their desire to see it succeed.
As a sign of how committed he is to addressing the concerns of Yale commuters, Mr. Andreski invited his senior leadership team to the discussion, including David Raby, Transportation Planner; Carl Jackson, Public Transit Administrator; Richard Jankovich, Public Transit Assistant Administrator; Jon Foster, Supervising Rail Officer; Marci Petterson, Supervising Rail Officer; John Bernick, Public Transit Assistant Administrator; Dennis Solenski, Public Transit Administrator; and Russel McDermott, Program Director of CTrides.
On Thursday, September 20th, Commissioner James Redeker and other representatives from the Connecticut Department of Transportation and Amtrak, held a Shore Line East Customer Update at Union Station in New Haven. Commissioner Redeker led the “We’re Listening” session to discuss current operating and service issues on the rail line, and the schedule for planned improvements.