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Passengers on Metro-North increasing as pandemic wanes, but the future of New Haven Line is at a crossroads

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 7/19/2021 Kenneth R. Gosselin, Hartford Courant
a large long train on a steel track: A Metro-North train exits the Stamford station last week bound for New Haven. © Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant A Metro-North train exits the Stamford station last week bound for New Haven.

Travelers on Metro-North’s New Haven Line — a crucial transportation link between Connecticut and New York City — are increasing steadily this summer and could start approaching ridership levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic by the end of this year, another sign of economic recovery.

The return to normal levels of commuters and leisure riders will mark a milestone after the pandemic left commuter trains largely empty as passengers stayed home and New York restaurants and theaters closed. But the New Haven Line also is at another crossroads, needing billions of dollars in upgrades and repairs to increase train speeds if it is going to play a high-profile role in the state’s economic development in the 21st century.

a large passenger jet sitting on top of train tracks: Annual ridership on Metro-North's New Haven Line was 40 million before the pandemic. Official say ridership is now recovering. © Mark Mirko Annual ridership on Metro-North's New Haven Line was 40 million before the pandemic. Official say ridership is now recovering.

“Modernization of the New Haven Line has to be one of the first priorities of any comprehensive rail strategy, and it matters not just for Fairfield County and not just for New Haven, but the whole state,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, co-chair of North Atlantic Rail, an initiative to bring high-speed rail to New England and New York. “Right now, the travel times are far slower than they were decades ago because of decade after decade of failing to invest in infrastructure.”

a person sitting at a train station: The Hartford Line has been in operation for three years. © Nina Cochran/Hartford Courant The Hartford Line has been in operation for three years.

A recent study by the state Department of Transportation found that deterioration on stretches of track on the New Haven line and its branches have combined to force the slowing of train travel speeds over time.

The study, for example, pointed to 95 locations where 5,700 railroad ties needed repairs and 34 bridges in serious need of upgrade or replacement, including four movable bridges that are more than a century old. An aging fleet of trains is another concern.

“It’s crazy. These trains go less than 45 miles an hour on average,” said Joseph McGee, a former state economic development commissioner and now a member of a committee examining the future of the Stamford rail station. “It should be 60-70-80 miles an hour, minimum.”

The state study recommends spending $8 billion to $10 billion on the New Haven Line that could shave as much as 25 minutes off a commute from New Haven to Grand Central in the next 10 years.

a man and a woman standing on a sidewalk: Union Station in New Haven is a major hub for Metro-North's New Haven Line and its branches. © John Woike/Hartford Courant Union Station in New Haven is a major hub for Metro-North's New Haven Line and its branches.

“In the real world of today, the rail connection is critically important,” McGee said. “The frequency, the safety and then the speed of that connection has very important economic development benefits. It’s connecting labor. You become a center. You become recognized. You can promote the region,” McGee said.

Rise of the reverse commute

For the vision of a modern railway system in Connecticut to unfold, however, funding will be needed, and many are looking to the $1 trillion road, bridge and rail infrastructure spending plan sought by President Joe Biden and now being debated in the U.S. Congress.

a person sitting at a train station: A masked Metro-North conductor keeps an eye out for boarding and exiting passengers at the rail station in Stamford. Passenger volume is still a third of what is was before the pandemic, but it is steadily rising, state officials say. © Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant A masked Metro-North conductor keeps an eye out for boarding and exiting passengers at the rail station in Stamford. Passenger volume is still a third of what is was before the pandemic, but it is steadily rising, state officials say.

The implications for economic development extend far beyond southern Connecticut. Improvements on the New Haven Line would, supporters say, make commutes from central Connecticut and elsewhere in the state more feasible. That would include the now 3-year-old Hartford Line commuter service that connects to New Haven’s Union Station.

This would be especially true if workplace changes accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic take root permanently.

Employers allowing workers to perform their jobs at least part of the week from home could make a commute from, say, Hartford to Stamford or even New York City, more attractive.

The reverse also could be true, unlocking an expanded workforce willing to travel deeper into Connecticut. In turn, McGee and others say, that would signal to employers — both those already in Connecticut and others considering moving here — not only speed of travel but a sought-after pool of workers.

Bronin, the co-chair of the rail initiative, said he believes working and living patterns will continue evolving in ways that will make travel by rail more attractive.

“There is a decoupling of where people work and where they need to live,” Bronin, the Hartford mayor, said. “If you are only in the physical office two or three days a week, you may look to build your life and live your life in a place a little more distant. That, to me, is a significant opportunity and advantage for a place like the Hartford region.”


Video: Northeast Corridor Commission Releases 15-Year Plan Of Rail Improvements (CBS New York)

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There already is evidence that major corporations are taking a serious look at their workplaces in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Last week, Pratt & Whitney said it would make remote work for thousands of its salaried office employees at its headquarters in East Hartford permanent on either a full- or part-time basis.

The trend of a reverse commute to Connecticut has been developing for more than a decade. In the 1980s, the morning rush hour was devoted almost exclusively to getting trains queued to run into New York.

“That is no longer the case,” Joseph Giulietti, who heads the state’s DOT, said. “There are as many people commuting in what we used to call the reverse direction as going in. So, we’ve got a lot of people who come out of New York to work in Greenwich, to work in Stamford, to work in Norwalk as we do having people go the opposite direction to New York.”

More frequent trains needed

Giulietti said he is optimistic that ridership on Metro-North will continue to ramp up in the coming months.

Annual ridership on the New Haven Line and its branches is usually about 40 million. In 2020, as the pandemic surged, that plunged to 12 million, according the statistics from the DOT.

Through the first five months of this year — the latest DOT figures available — ridership stands at 3.8 million. But Giulietti said May saw the monthly volumes exceed 1 million.

But weekly ridership in June and into July has been steadily rising, Giulietti said, giving him confidence that passenger volume could reach as high as 80% of levels seen prior to the pandemic by the end of this year.

Traffic congestion on highways in Fairfield County is reaching levels before the pandemic, Giulietti said, and many are still working from home. Giulietti said he believes many of those on the roads were regular Metro-North commuters.

As more people are vaccinated, those now on the roads will come back to the trains, Giulletti said.

But for that to happen, commuter rail advocates say the New Haven Line will have to step up frequency of trains.

Faster and frequent service is top priority

Jeffrey Maron, vice chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, has been commuting to New York for three decades, the latest as a financial services data manager.

He has been driving to his office in downtown Manhattan since September, but has recently started gradually migrating to taking the train from Stamford. He needs to be in his office by 7 a.m. to be in time for crucial calls and meetings that start his workday.

“I’ve had to adjust my schedule to acknowledge the fact that Metro-North is running far fewer trains than they used to, which makes it almost impossible for me to be in my office to make a 7 o’clock call or a 7 o’clock meeting, especially on days when the railroad is running late,” Maron said. “It doesn’t help.”

DOT’s Giulietti said the frequency of trains on Metro-North will be reevaluated after Labor Day. That’s when many companies are expected to make more longer term decisions about remote working and hoteling, in which employees reserve workspaces but don’t have a designated desk, Giulietti said.

As of now, the DOT says the New Haven Line has about 70% of the trains it had running prior to COVID-19.

“New York City, in particular, has been seeing an increase in some of the companies that are expecting their workers to come back to the office,” said Jeffrey P. Cohen, a professor of finance and real estate at the UConn School of Business in Storrs, where he is studying the state’s rail system. “I know some of the Wall Street firms have been telling people that if you want a Wall Street salary, you have to come to Wall Street. Some of this is starting to play out in the demand for Metro-North travel.”

As Congress debates the Biden infrastructure plan, there has been a steadily increasing emphasis on modernizing the state’s rail system in order to improve the speed and frequency of trains.

Last week, the Northeast Corridor Commission released a $117 billion plan that includes many of the recommendations from the state’s study on Metro-North. The 15-year plan includes speeding up rail service and introducing a new direct service from Hartford to New York City.

Bronin said Connecticut — and the Hartford area in particular — sits between the growth hot spots of New York and Boston and the state should be working to take better advantage of this.

The North Atlantic Rail initiative envisions high speed rail serving New York and New England, with a route including a tunnel under Long Island Sound.

“We should be aiming to bring our rail system into the 21st century, and that means being serious about high speed rail,” Bronin said.

McGee, who led state economic development efforts under former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker in the early 1990s, argues that the foundation for high-speed rail must first be set down with improvements to the New Haven Line.

“So, building a tunnel under Long Island Sound — long term, great — but in the short run,” McGee said, “you’ve got to fix the commuter rail system, and the commuter rail systems can be improved dramatically to increase speed.”

Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at kgosselin@courant.com.

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