T he Shore Line East commuter rail wasn’t supposed to stick around. The line was established in 1990 along the tracks of the Northeast Corridor to alleviate traffic created by construction on I-95. At that time, the line ran from Union Station in New Haven to Old Saybrook, with stops at Branford, Guilford, Madison, Clinton and Westbrook.
Today the SLE is still standing and, for the most part, thriving. In 1995, it survived its first shutdown scare and in 1997, its second. Then-Governor John Rowland proposed shuttering the SLE, as well as Metro-North’s Danbury and Waterbury lines, in favor of a fleet of state-owned buses. The money saved on passenger subsidies coupled with an influx of buses replacing cars on the road, Rowland argued, would shave 5 cents off of Connecticut’s gas tax.
In the hierarchy of preferred travel modes, though, train usually beats bus, and the SLE had its champions: the riders themselves. A group of volunteers called the Shore Line East Riders Association began an aggressive campaign, handing out fliers at stations and talking to influential legislators. At the time, ridership had increased 18% since the line’s inception, and its passengers vowed to go down swinging.
Eventually, Rowland backed down and, much later, due to unrelated circumstances, stepped down. But the SLE rides on, with regular service having since been extended eastward to New London and “limited” service westward to Bridgeport and Stamford, stopping at both Union Station and State Street Station in New Haven.
The service was initially dubbed “The Clamdigger,” as a nod to a previous local commuter line of the same name. That route operated from 1898 until 1972, running from New Haven to New London. Amtrak took the reins of the original Clamdigger from Penn Central Transportation Company in 1971 but shuttered the line in 1972, citing a tepid average of 66 riders per train.
But 1990 saw the return of shoreline mass transit, and now it seems it’s here to stay with over 2,000 riders a day—or roughly two-and-a-half times the average tally it started with.
Although the SLE is primarily utilitarian, created to solve a problem, it has its pleasures. Train interiors are colorful with wood veneer, and feel ripped out of the 1970s. The engine cars are painted black and orange and feature Herbert Matter’s iconic New Haven Line ‘NH’ logo. In each car, a few sets of seats contain small tabletops on which you may place things like a newspaper or your head. That may not seem like much, but if you’ve ridden Metro-North recently, you can imagine that having a sturdy tabletop at your seat could make a world of difference. Lean or type or arm-wrestle with ease.
Between New Haven and Branford, the line doesn’t offer much in the way of scenery—mostly the backs of buildings, with some rock formations here and there. Once the train pulls out of Branford, however, things open up. From there, you’ll cross the Hammonasset River, and chug alongside wetlands and the Clinton Harbor.
Manmade osprey nests dot long stretches of salt marsh covered in cordgrass. You might see some swans or great egrets, too, if the time is right, or you may get a glimpse of some actual clamdiggers, mucking about in an estuary.
Past Old Saybrook, after crossing the Connecticut River, the Long Island Sound comes into view. Beach-goers raise red plastic cups as the train zips by and onto the final stop in New London.
Taxi service is available at nearly every stop, but at New London’s Union Station, who needs it? The doors open up and spill passengers right into downtown. Here you can walk the streets, check out the U.S. Coast Guard museum, flip through boxes of vinyl at the Telegraph Record store or check out one of the many bars or cafes along Bank Street. Many of these establishments boast large back decks with plentiful seating. Here you can sit and sip, watching ferries headed to Fishers Island, Block Island and Long Island depart from the docks.
That’s what I was doing one day at the Muddy Waters Cafe on Bank Street. The sky was overcast, but the air was pleasant and it was quiet. Shorebirds congregated on the cement boardwalk below. Next to me sat a father and his young son. They were there because the son wanted to watch the trains depart from Union Station.
A train whistle blew, and the young boy sprinted to the front of the deck and clutched the railing. His father laughed and sipped his coffee. The boy shouted, “It’s moving, it’s moving!” and smacked the railing with his hands—an SLE rider in the making.
Shore Line East
“Connecticut Commuter Rail”
running 7 days per week, including holidays
Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.