Despite New Cars, Shore Line East’s Future Isn’t Bright

There’s been a lot of buzz over the past week about Shore Line East finally adding M8 cars to its service. Although this is good news, the future of the railroad is not bright.

When started in May 1990, Shore Line East trains from Old Saybrook to New Haven began as an alternative to I-95 and pending construction of the new Q Bridge in New Haven. Initially, the service was one-way… westbound in the morning rush hour and eastbound in the afternoon.

By 1996, trains had captured around 8% of commuter traffic. But the losses were so high ($18.75 per passenger per trip) that newly elected Governor John Rowland suggested replacing trains with buses.

Rowland’s plan was thwarted and followed by a slight increase in fares. Some trains have been extended to New London. In 2001 two trains were extended to Stamford. But all the equipment was still push-pull diesel.

Because the tracks east of New Haven are owned by Amtrak, the national railway pushed back and cut service from New London to protect its limited bridge openings to serve its long-distance trains instead. In 2007, the service was extended to weekends.

As Amtrak completed the electrification of its line from New Haven to Boston, the hope was to run electric M8 cars on the line, replacing the diesels. M8s began operating on the main line (New Haven to Grand Central) in 2011, but Amtrak was slow to approve their use east of New Haven.

Now that the M8s are finally working, the diesel equipment will be gone. Trains will run a bit faster (thanks to improved acceleration) and definitely quieter and cleaner. But the problem is that there are so few passengers.

According to a consultant’s report of $2 million in 2021, ridership is still down more than 70% from already low pre-pandemic levels (compared to about a 40% drop on Metro-North) . Given the high fixed costs of operating the line, this increased the subsidy per passenger per trip to $55.28 (compared to $3.85 on the MNRR main line).

Fares on Shore Line East have always been kept low to try and attract passengers. But this means that these tariffs only cover 5% of operating costs (compared to 69% on the main line of the MNRR). Who pays the difference? We do, in our gasoline taxes that go into the Special Transportation Fund (STF).

But with the gas tax taking a pre-election holiday, it’s pushing the STF ever closer to insolvency. It is clearly unsustainable.

Even with gas prices recently climbing to $5+ per gallon (and expected to hit $6+ by August), ridership is lagging. There are plenty of parking spaces at the new Shore Line East stations, but commuters still prefer to drive, despite the backups on I-95.

Maybe extending service east to Mystic and even Rhode Island might help. Or a renewed application of the masking rules (still in effect on the MNRR but not on the SLE), especially if the cases of COVID increase.

Obviously, something has to change. Hopefully the new M8s will make a difference…but I’m not optimistic.

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