CT train riders are slow to return to Shore Line East, which is struggling to regain passengers in COVID era

Photo of Abigail Brone

Employees have been slowly returning to their workplaces — getting behind the wheel of their cars or hopping onto trains and buses.

But the state’s rail lines are showing vastly different rates of recovery of ridership since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, when the once-crowded commuter trains emptied out.

Most of the state’s rail lines have regained about half of their prepandemic ridership levels — but Shore Line East has struggled when it comes to getting riders to return, according to the latest data from the state Department of Transportation.

All but Shore Line East have regained at least 40 percent of ridership, with some lines reaching above 60 percent, according to Department of Transportation data.

But Shore Line East, which runs between New Haven and New London, has barely reached 25 percent of prepandemic ridership, a concerning trend that may signal a need for more investment in the rail line, experts say.

Shore Line East has twice reached 28 percent of pre-COVID ridership, in November 2021 and March 2022, according to the data.

But for all of 2021, the average ridership for Shore Line East was 18 percent of its prepandemic levels, according to the data.

Those percentages are far below the recovery rates seen on the New Haven Line of Metro-North, running to Grand Central Terminal in New York City, and on the Hartford Line, the newest commuter train line in the state, which travels between New Haven and Springfield, Mass. The numbers for Shore Line East also fall below the state’s three branch lines of Metro-North, to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury.

By the numbers

DOT spokesperson Josh Morgan offered an explanation for why train riders are returning at different levels in different parts of the state.

“Employment demographics of Shore Line East users skew white collar, and as such, the COVID pandemic and telework flexibility decimated ridership over the last two-plus years,” Morgan told Hearst Connecticut Media.

“Ridership is recovering much faster on the New Haven Line and Hartford Line, where we see a mix of travelers and commuters,” he said. “Shore Line East ridership is slowly rebounding, and we continue to make investments, such as the new M8 electric trains, to improve service, comfort and reliability for passengers.”

The latest data on train ridership from DOT, who goes through April 2022, shows those different levels and allows for a direct comparison to the first full month after COVID-19 hit.

Here is a comparison of ridership recovery on each train line in Connecticut, which shows how far Shore Line East lags:

Metro-North’s New Haven Line: 5.3 percent, or 182,018 passengers, as of April 2020, compared to 52.7 percent, or 1,816,615 passengers in April 2022.

Hartford Line: 7.3 percent, or 4,362 passengers as of April 2020, compared to 71.7 percent, or 42,554 passengers in April 2022.

Shore Line East: 2.7 percent, or 1,399 passengers as of April 2020, compared to 27.8 percent, or 14,576 passengers in April 2022.

For the branch lines of Metro-North, the most recent data available is through March 2022. Here is a comparison of ridership recovery rates:

Metro-North’s New Canaan Branch: 18.2 percent, or 23,985 passengers as of April 2020, compared to 46.3 percent, or 57,496 passengers in March 2022.

Metro-North’s Danbury Branch: 13.9 percent, or 8,712 passengers as of April 2020, compared to 40.2 percent, or 24,053 passengers in March 2022.

Metro-North’s Waterbury Branch: 9.2 percent, or 2,692 passengers as of April 2020, compared to 65.6 percent, or 18,484 passengers in March 2022.

In January 2020, Shore Line East had 48,797 monthly rides, according to DOT data. In January 2022, the line had 7,524 monthly rides, about 17.6 percent of prepandemic levels.

Of Connecticut’s train systems, the Hartford Line has seen the best recovery, with ridership at about 72 percent of prepandemic levels in April, according to the data. The Waterbury branch of Metro-North also saw a significant return of riders, with more than 60 percent of prepandemic ridership.

After a decrease in service along Shore Line East in the two years before the pandemic, DOT began investing recently in improvements on the train line, partially with funds acquired through the bipartisan infrastructure bill approved last year.

“We just launched the M8 trains on the Shore Line, which are modern, more comfortable, quieter and more efficient than older locomotives,” Morgan said. “We encourage riders to come back to the service or give it a try for the first time. It really is the best and most convenient way to travel along Connecticut’s coast.”

The M8 electric trains were launched on Shore Line East in May but have operated on the New Haven Line of Metro-North for many years.

A broader approach

The state may need to take a more holistic approach to the state’s transportation system, but ridership will slowly return to previous levels, said Norman Garrick, a University of Connecticut civil and environmental engineering professor who specializes in urban planning and transportation.

“I think we will get pretty close. One of the things I’ve been working on is a project where we looked at how we operate Metro-North in particular. And what it is, is a feeder system for New York City. It’s a commuter rail that feeds commuters into New York City and that’s about all it does,” Garrick said.

“My quick take is that lines that serve a more general function and are not just about commuting are doing better. Lines that don’t depend too much on New York — New Haven Line does — but not so much some of the branch lines,” he said.

A major way to boost use of the area’s train and public transit would be to better integrate the different forms of public transit, by adding bus stops near train stations and making it easier to flow easily from one mode of transportation to another, Garrick said.

“Transit is a system. You depend on some lines that are going to carry more and carry less. What you’re trying to do is create an ecosystem where people can dependently rely on transit,” he said.

“We have not done that in Connecticut, but that’s what we have to start thinking about. How can we use these lines to provide people good ways of getting around without cars?” Garrick said.

Some of the Hartford Line’s success may stem from the creation of a Transit Oriented District, designating some areas for development and increasing ease of access but constructing or rehabbing apartments and shops in the area, Garrick said.

With the TOD and other COVID-era shifts, the Hartford Line has become more of a regional form of transportation than a mere commuter service, Garrick said.

A TOD was established in Clinton, where the state recently expanded rail service on Shore Line East, revamping the station platform, doubling the number of trains stopping at the station on weekends and increasing weekday trains by a dozen.

Shoreline towns suffer

Shore Line East largely serves as a commuting option for workers traveling to Stamford, New Haven or New York, experts say.

Even for people visiting New York City, the Shore Line trains run less frequently, which may prevent many residents from choosing the train for day trips, Guilford First Selectman Matthew Hoey said.

“I’ve used the Shore Line East on occasion over the years, largely to get a connecting train, and sometimes the timing on return trips is not always convenient, particularly late at night into the city,” Hoey said. “There are not Shore Line East trains running past 8 or 9 p.m. If you’re coming in from dinner or a show, you’re not going to make a connecting train.”

The low number of riders on Shore Line East is concerning — but is largely due to the shift in working habits of riders who previously commuted to work on the trains, Hoey said.

With the record-high cost of gas, he is hoping more riders will reconsider riding the trains.

Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna said concern over COVID is no longer a factor in residents’ choosing not to use public transportation — but he is also hopeful the electric trains and improved travel experience will attract riders

“We are the only train station between New Haven and New London and in Rhode Island after that. Having an Amtrak stop and Shore Line East (stop) is a huge boon to Old Saybrook. It makes it a destination,” Fortuna said. “I think ridership — with some investment in the line — would increase. Whether it returns to prepandemic levels, I don’t know, but I think they can boost ridership and continue to grow it.”

Hoey and Fortuna said they favor the idea of teaming with DOT for a marketing or tourism campaign promoting the shoreline and its offerings, providing a boost to the trains and the towns home to Shore Line East stations.

Shore Line East is conducting an online survey at https://shorelineeast.com/news-and-information/298-how-are-we-doing .

abigail.brone@hearstmediact.com