(News analysis) The Hartford Line is undeniably a triumph for a state whose transportation policy has often vacillated between paralyzed and bankrupt. But before the $8 trains start rolling from New Haven to the state capital, some loose ends in the planning threaten to throw the enterprise off track.
Starting this May New Haveners will be able to take the train to and from Hartford 17 times per day thanks to the new service. Statewide, Nutmeggers will be able to ride (somewhat) more frequent, (slightly) faster trains between several of the state’s core cities and just across the Massachusetts border to Springfield, all at the tidy price of $760 million now and another $400 million or so in future improvements to maximize capacity.
The launch comes at a time of crisis for Connecticut, and especially its transportation and infrastructure budgets — meaning that riders will need to work at getting the most out of their shiny new train line. Including fixing the fares and the schedule.
The state’s budget crunch is putting future improvements to the Hartford Line in jeopardy, not to mention threatening the quality of service on Shore Line East and Metro-North’s Connecticut branch lines to New Canaan, Danbury, and Waterbury.
And that’s just the rail system. In a broader context, the state of urban transit in Connecticut is mostly deplorable, as New Haven bus riders know well.
Why It’s Worth It
While the improvements promised under the Hartford Line program are essentially ready to start operating (well, the first phase, at least), it’s reasonable to look at the price tag, compared to the state’s budget crunch and the poor state of other transit in Connecticut’s cities, and wonder whether it’s worth it.
On the one hand, it seems fair to say that if the same amount of capital spending had been lavished on the state’s bus systems, it would have positively impacted more riders.
On the other hand, job markets are regional, and because cities like Connecticut’s often have trouble employing their own residents locally, there is a real need for fast, convenient service between urban cores — something that local buses cannot provide.
The other element to consider is that, overall, the capital outlay tied up in the Hartford Line, while large in absolute terms, is fairly small relative to the state’s overall transportation budget. The Special Transportation Fund — the state budgeting element that is tipping into insolvency — holds $1.51 billion this year.
The total state outlay for the Hartford Line to this point has been $564.3 million, or one-third of one year’s Special Transportation Fund spending. Alternatively, that’s somewhere between 8 and 18.8% of what the state expects it to cost to replace and widen the crumbling Mixmaster interchange in Waterbury.
The seemingly immortal (no matter how little money is available, they never die) plans to widen I-95 in Southwest Connecticut would surely cost billions or tens of billions. Thanks to the principle of induced demand, the additional mobility benefits of these projects are questionable.
So yes, relative to other transit projects the Hartford Line might be seen as questionable, and the state should surely be faced with hard questions about resource allocation relative to its urban transit systems — and about management of the project, which has repeatedly slipped on both timeline and budget.
But Connecticut is a mature state with a massive amount of expensive transportation infrastructure, especially its freeways. Fixing up that infrastructure, much less fixing the challenges of congestion, is turning out to be massively expensive.
Given the apparent unwillingness of the state’s voters to pay to maintain that infrastructure through the gas tax or tolls, the state faces either a paradigm shift or eternal gridlock (not to mention that even if these projects could be paid for, the wisdom of widening roads is questionable at best).
Projects like the Hartford Line — while imperfect at the outset — are part of the shift away from expensive, congested, and polluting highway infrastructure and toward a network that gives travelers a wide variety of options.
Of course, that same imperfection means that it’s important both to support the project and hold its managers accountable in the right ways — an outcome that at the moment hardly seems guaranteed.
So what can Nutmeggers and their elected officials do to make sure the Hartford Line — and the state’s other transit investments — become a launching pad for a new era rather than a dead-end waste?
The easiest ways to maximize the Hartford Line’s utility are, luckily, also the easiest to implement since they’re in the realm of operations and service rather than construction— but they require advocates and citizens to hold government officials accountable for the policies they choose.
The most fundamental element of any transit service is its schedule, making sure that riders can get to points along the line at the time they need to go and ideally at a reasonably frequent interval. While the initial proposed Hartford Line schedule suffices in some ways, it fails key tests in others.
First and foremost, there’s the matter of the fact that the proposed schedule includes trains run by two different operators: the Hartford Line proper, run under contract to CTDOT, and Amtrak, which operates Regionals and Shuttles to Springfield.
These trains are mostly interchangeable from a passenger perspective, with some important exceptions: The midday Vermonter does not make all stops. And only one Amtrak train in each direction per day stops at New Haven-State Street, the station closest to most of New Haven’s jobs and attractions. (This seems like an easy and necessary fix.)
There’s also the open question of how well fares will be integrated, covered below.
Overall, the coexistence of the two operators is somewhat odd and introduces additional, unnecessary complexity from the rider perspective. But with enough work, it can be papered over.
The question of frequency of service is not as easily resolved. As transit guru Jarrett Walker is fond of saying, frequency is freedom—a necessity for easy travel by transit.
To begin to get a handle on this, I’ve marked up the proposed Hartford Line schedule with the times that riders would experience between trains:
The northbound schedule is more or less sufficient for service to Hartford, with trains coming every hour or so on a very rough average. There’s certainly room to improve, and the frequency of late-night service—four trains between 7:30 and 10 p.m., more frequent than at any other point of the day — is somewhat odd. But it’s a start.
Digging deeper, though, the fact that of the eight daily Hartford Line (as opposed to Amtrak) trains, five go no farther north than Hartford becomes problematic.
No northbound train arrives in Springfield between 6:20 a.m. and 10:01 a.m., the peak commuting hours. Springfield commuters have numerous southbound early morning options, but nothing between 7:15 and 9:10 a.m. So much for commuters to or from Springfield being able to skip traffic by hopping a train at the peak of the morning rush!
Springfield also experiences a service outage at the height of the afternoon rush, with no arrivals from Hartford between 3:46 and 6:44 p.m..
Effectively, for peak commutes, what has long been marketed as the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield (NHHS) service is really useful to only the two Connecticut cities. (This may be related to Connecticut wanting Massachusetts to cover some of the costs of providing more service and layover infrastructure on its side of the border.)
Overall, across the entire line, southbound AM trains and northbound PM trains are somewhat more prevalent, suggesting that planners think the line will have a strong directional flow towards New Haven in the morning and back in the evening. This is not totally implausible but requires additional explanation. The beauty of the Hartford Line corridor is that, unlike most American “commuter” rail services, it touches metropolitan areas of roughly equal size at its southern and northern termini, as well as in the middle.
Nor are commute trips the only trips that these trains should be aimed at serving — especially in the Knowledge Corridor, with its large populations of students.
Providing strong, consistent two-way service — the beginnings of which are apparent at least between New Haven and Hartford in this schedule — should be a priority in the future, especially as future infrastructure upgrades ease more frequent service to Springfield.
Running the trains is only part of the challenge. People have to be able to access them with equal convenience. Simply put, the state must get Hartford Line ticketing and fare policies right.
While the rollout of proposed fare levels got a fair amount of media coverage, the cost of fares is only one part of broader fare policy.
The Hartford Line’s website shows both types of train that will be running on the line in May as if they’re equally useful to riders, but as of this writing the state has not announced that tickets or passes will be definitely able to be used interchangeably on either type of train. And the website’s FAQ section states that they’re still working on it.
Without fare integration, the usability of the line is essentially cut in half or so (depending on what time of day you’re traveling) for someone holding a pass belonging to one operator or the other.
It is thus absolutely essential that advocates and local officials hold the state accountable for ensuring complete fare integration on the Hartford Line.
There’s a second level to the fare integration discussion, too: Making sure riders can use the same fare media (passes/cards/transfers) to pay for the Hartford Line and the local buses that it connects to.
New Haven Mayor Toni Harp has been appropriately vocal about the need for better coordination and connections between the state’s various modes of transit. It’s not clear the state is listening.
The Hartford Line website’s FAQ section currently states that “Currently a universal travel card is being explored by the Connecticut Department of Transportation, but is not currently available.”
Keep in mind that the existence of a universal card, while (if it comes to pass) laudable, is only integration of fare media, not of fare policy. In addition to developing a shared technology, the state must make sure that free transfers are available between services and that rail passengers can lean on CTTransit’s local buses for first/last mile connections.
The final element of getting fares right is that it would benefit the Hartford Line (and Metro-North and SLE as well, although as well-established organizations the question is somewhat more complex) to use a modern system of fare collection in order to keep costs down.
The process of train fare collection that Connecticut residents are familiar with from Metro-North, whereby a team of conductors collects a ticket from each and every passenger, is a special American innovation that exists in stubborn defiance of international norms and practices.
In most countries with “regional” or “suburban” rail services, fares are collected through a system known as Proof of Payment (PoP), under which passengers are expected to buy a ticket on the platform or in advance and subject to fines if random sweeps find them without one.
CTDOT officials should be familiar with this concept, as it is in operation on the CTfastrak busway connecting Hartford and New Britain.
PoP allows reductions in on-board crew requirements, lowering operating costs. And where possible, there’s a clear need to reduce costs; a recent Courant article quoted officials as saying that the line’s annual subsidy from the state would be $21.7 million, or 94% of operating costs (it is worth noting that the projected ticket revenue in this article seems very low, so these numbers may be off).
Capital And Concrete
There are other, more concrete (and expensive) actions that the state and its local partners can take to make sure that the investment in the Hartford Line pays off.
The first and most important one is, of course, completion of the remaining infrastructure elements of the line: completion of double-tracking north of Hartford to allow for more fluid train movement; modernized stations in Windsor and Windsor Locks and new ones in North Haven, Newington, West Hartford, and Enfield; and improvements to the bridge over the Connecticut River.
One element that will have to wait is the final route the line will eventually take through Hartford. That alignment is being determined through the ongoing planning process for the I-84 replacement, and will probably result in the line being moved off its current viaduct (which is rumored to be in such poor shape as to not be able to hold more than one train at a time) to a trench or elevated replacement some time in the 2020s. At $400 million, the price tag for these improvements is not inconsiderable, but it’s still relatively small compared to the state’s highway budget and the capacity improvements they enable.
The state should prioritize funding these improvements in order of importance (i.e. double-tracking is more important than a new park-and-ride station in North Haven) as soon as it can.
Implementation of high platforms that allow level boarding at all existing stations is especially important, as it brings the service into full ADA compliance, shortens boarding times, and allows reductions in crew requirements, since all doors can be opened and closed automatically.
The state should also make careful choices about what type of train makes sense for the Hartford Line.
It is my understanding that the original plan for the Hartford Line was to use the coaches currently used on Shore Line East, which would have been replaced by the same M8 Electric Multiple Unit trains now used on the New Haven Line; but it appears that plan was upended when it turned out all of the cars in the initial M8 order were needed for New Haven Line service. More M8s are now on order, but it seems that in the meantime CTDOT has decided to lease some coaches that MBTA had stored to run the initial Hartford Line service. I don’t know the terms of the lease, but it seems fair to assume CTDOT intends it to be a short-term arrangement; as of a year ago the plan was to lease equipment for 4-5 years and then procure new rolling stock together with Metro-North. However, even 4-5 years may be pushing it with this equipment.
The MBB coaches that CTDOT is leasing have been stored in despite MBTA’s severe shortage of coaches for a reason; they’re widely considered ancient, unreliable junk.
With an internal refresh, they may well suffice for a few years, but service reliability and passenger experience will suffer if they’re anything more than a short-term solution.
Advocates, media, and officials should be asking CTDOT what the medium- and long-term fleet situation will be. Ideally, the state would entirely discard its aging fleet of slow locomotive-hauled coaches and buy entirely modern multiple-unit rolling stock; but the line’s future choice of trains depends in part on the question of electrification.
In the long term, CTDOT should also take seriously the possibility of converting the Hartford Line from diesel to electric power, allowing it to share rolling stock with the New Haven Line (and eventually Shore Line East) and run cleaner, faster trains.
Electrification of the Hartford Line would also save riders on the Amtrak Regionals that run through New Haven to Springfield and vice versa the pain of the 15-minute schedule delay imposed by changing locomotives from electric to diesel at New Haven.
CTDOT and its consultants appear to have dismissed the possibility of electrification early on in the planning process. Neither the 2005 NHHS Commuter Rail Implementation Study nor the more recent NHHS Environmental Assessment appear to have considered electrification of the line in their Alternatives Analysis.
There was some modeling done. A video of CTDOT rail official John Bernick speaking to Pioneer Valley advocacy group Trains in the Valley includes him telling the audience that modeling showed electrification would only save six minutes.
This seems unlikely to be accurate. According to a 2010 study examining electrification of the GO Transit network in Toronto, electrification and use of EMU vehicles would save 18 minutes, or 16% of trip time, on the Kitchener Line, which is nearly exactly comparable to the Hartford Line in terms of length and average distance between stops (once all of the planned stations are added in).
Because the acceleration of such trains is so far superior, the benefits accrue more intensely as more stations are added in—meaning that once the second wave of “new” stations planned for the line are added in, EMUs are even more important to prevent schedules from slowing down.
It’s possible that CTDOT chose to model electrification using traditional locomotive-hauled trains, such as Amtrak’s Regionals, which accelerate more slowly than the EMUs used on the New Haven Line. This would effectively sandbag the modeling and lower pressure on CTDOT to use modern practices. There appears to be no documentation of the modeling done online, so I cannot speak to what was actually conceived. In any case, CTDOT should be held accountable for transparency on this topic.
While electrification might seem a far-off moonshot, the most important policy lever the state and relevant municipalities can pull to make the Hartford Line a success has much less to do with the trains themselves.
The state can run as many trains as it wants, but it needs to make sure that there are people to ride them. That means concentrating jobs and housing around train stations—making sure that a) the state’s investment is maximized and b) the highest number of people possible can benefit from the easy, fast commutes enabled by rail service.
In Connecticut as in nearly all of the U.S. land use is controlled at the municipal level, which is an awkward fit with state-level policy priorities, and consequently, Connecticut’s track record on coordinating transportation and development investments is mixed.
Newington, for example, has blocked new development near its CTfastrak station and would probably do the same for a hypothetical Hartford Line station; this reserves the benefits of those investments (which are paid for by all taxpayers) for the small number of people who already live in Newington and might use the new infrastructure. It’s a form of rent-seeking that the state cannot afford in a time of budget crisis.
Meriden, while acting without apparent malicious intent, has built a large park next to its train station instead of restoring the dense housing and commercial area that once occupied that land.
The state’s previous proposal for a powerful state-level TOD administration may not be the most productive solution, but it should be a starting point for mobilizing efforts to ensure the state’s efficient investments are maximized.
TOD-friendly cities like New Haven and Hartford will naturally take the lead on these efforts; but the Hartford Line connects a string of potentially walkable, dense downtowns in smaller cities, and the state cannot afford to miss this opportunity.
TOD will not only bring increased economic activity to downtowns that need it (and, when spread out along the line, should be dispersed enough not to hyper-concentrate gentrification in any one area), but also begin to close the rather large operating deficit currently projected for the Hartford Line.
It’s healthy for Connecticut residents to approach the opening of the Hartford Line with skepticism. While the need it meets is clear, it was an expensive, heavily delayed project; the schedule is imperfect; elements have been deferred to a later phase, whose funding is unclear; and the state’s urban bus systems continue to exist in a state of semi-decay.
There are, however, productive and less-productive ways to channel that skepticism. It would be easy to fall into skepticism of the whole project; the greater challenge is to hold state decision-makers accountable for their choices and apply public pressure to use public policy to leverage this investment into something broadly useful.
Indeed, with the right policy accoutrements, this is precisely the kind of investment that can lead to the kind of transformation all can share in.
Sandy Johnston is a planner and program manager for a regional transportation planning agency in Boston, where he lives in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood with his partner and two cats. He grew up in New Haven and is still a regular visitor. Sandy holds a Master’s in Regional Planning and a Certificate in Urban Policy from SUNY Albany and B.A.s from Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Sandy blogs at Itinerant Urbanist and can be found opining on Twitter @sandypsj.