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Hartford Line returns to full train service, with officials optimistic that more riders will take to the rails as pandemic wanes

Hartford Courant
Hartford Courant
Passengers at Hartford's Union Station at the arrival of the Hartford Line. On Monday, the Hartford Line resumed its full schedule of service. Sofie Brandt/The Hartford Courant

The Hartford Line, a 3-year-old commuter and leisure travel rail service, was back to full steam Monday, as ridership — battered in the pandemic — is recovering at a quickening pace with worries about COVID-19 appearing to be on the wane.

About half of the monthly ridership has returned to the train line, which links Springfield and New Haven with daily commuter rail service.

As of Monday, the trains have returned to a full weekday schedule of 32 trains. When the pandemic struck in March, 2020, the number of trains was cut back to 10 on weekdays. Since July 2020, there have been 22 trains a day during the week, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The DOT said it made the decision to increase train frequency based on customer surveys in July 2020 and another completed earlier this month.

“From those surveys we found that nearly one-third of all customers reported that reduced service schedules were keeping them from using public transportation more frequently,” Kevin J. Nursick, a DOT spokesman, said Monday. “To some extent the limited COVID-19 schedules were acting as a disincentive to many customers, particularly those with access to automobiles.”

With travel now ramping up, “there is ample reason to believe that our rail ridership will rise quickly, consummate with the expanded schedules now in place,” Nursick said.

In addition, seven additional trains will be added to the Shore Line East schedule. Four Shore Line East trains will be extended from Old Saybrook to New London to expand travel options.

The Hartford Line is seen as key to economic development for Hartford and the north central region of the state, linking Hartford to New York City via Metro-North’s New Haven Line. Convenient rail service is now increasingly sought by potential employers when considering relocating to an area.

Ridership on the Hartford Line, launched in June 2018, was on a steady upward trajectory until the pandemic hit. In April 2020, for example, the number of riders fell by 92%, to 4,362, from 59,347 for the same month in 2019.

The ridership in 2020 was a about a third of what it was in 2019, as working at home took hold and leisure travel plummeted amid government restrictions on social distancing.

As vaccinations have increased this year, ridership has started to climb. In June — the latest month for which statistics are available — 30,905 riders stepped onto the Hartford Line. That’s still only about half of the same month in 2019, but the highest ridership since February 2020, just before the pandemic struck Connecticut.

Joseph Giulietti, the state’s transportation commissioner, said Monday he was optimistic about a recovery in ridership and the long-term future of rail service in Connecticut.

Two recent reports — one focused on Metro-North’s New Haven Line and the other, from the Northeast Corridor Commission — call for improvements that would increase speeds on the state’s rail systems with a clear eye on passenger safety. Funding may depend largely on a major infrastructure bill now being debated in the U.S. Congress.

For the New Haven Line, $8 billion to $10 billion in upgrades and repairs could shave 25 minutes off the time it takes to get from New Haven to Grand Central Station in New York. The study also raises the possibility of an express train to New York’s newly-renovated Penn Station.

An ambitious $117 billion plan outlined by the Northeast Corridor Commission also focuses on speed and more express service, including from Hartford to New York City.

“There’s no question, this is an exciting time for rail in Connecticut and our country,” Giulietti said.

Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at .

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