On the Line

On the Line

By now, you’ve probably heard about the new rail line to Hartford, which took its first run on June 16, and its features: frequent trains to Hartford, Springfield and several other towns with a price tag of just $8 from here to the capital. But there’s another feature of CTrail’s Hartford Line, one I’m not expecting when I board in New Haven: good cheer.

Maybe this has something to do with conductor Chet Rhodes, who greets everyone enthusiastically and lets the two kids in the car punch their own tickets. But another hint lies in the fact that so many riders have questions: Can I use a one-way ticket I bought in New Haven for my return from Hartford? (Yes, if you’re on a CTrail train.) Can I buy a ticket on the train? (Yes, but there’s a surcharge, unless there’s no ticket machine in your station.) Even jaded travelers seem excited to try something new.

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I talk to two of the 19 people in my car, who can best be described as evangelists for the Hartford Line, which offers 17 round-trip trains a day, 12 of them all the way to Springfield, with an emphasis on rush hours. (Trains include both Amtrak-branded cars (excluding the Vermonter) and CTrail-branded ones.) Floridian Marilyn Brownlee, originally of Brookfield, is thrilled with the new line, which helps her visit her daughter in East Granby. And it doesn’t hurt that the ride is pleasant. “I love it,” she says. “It’s like an old-fashioned train ride.” Rona Berkowitz of West Hartford and Manhattan is even more enthusiastic. “I’ve been telling all my friends,” she says. “I can get to see my friends up here, and it’s all going to be very seamless.”

I’m having a pretty good time, too. It’s the first time I’ve ridden north out of Union Station, and I try to locate familiar landmarks from an unfamiliar angle. There’s East Rock, of course. Then we cross the bridge over James Street and under the double overpasses of I-91. From the right side of the car there’s a tranquil view of the Quinnipiac River. On its distant shore, I spot four old train towers, relics of the defunct Cedar Hill Rail Yard. The most intriguing sight, on the left side in North Haven, is a large concrete warehouse going up—a future Amazon outpost.

We’re rolling north toward a velvety gray sky, and mist sparkles on the window. The train blows its long-long-short-long warning at every crossing. After State Street Station in New Haven, it stops at brand new stations in Wallingford, Meriden and Berlin. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for riding CT4458 northbound to Hartford,” we hear as we leave each stop. North of Meriden the scenery shifts from industrial to rural. Telephone poles stand ankle deep in grass, and the roads are slick with rain.

As we enter Hartford, the gold-domed capitol rises like a castle screened by layers of green trees. The city makes a good first impression from this perspective. My burning question now is what happens next. You can take the train to Hartford—or, in the case of 12 trains daily, on to Springfield. But where can you go from Hartford’s Union Station without a car?

The elevator from the upper track carries me down to a small, low-ceilinged station shared by CTrail, Amtrak, Peter Pan and Greyhound. It’s obviously easy to switch here for long-distance travel. I climb upstairs into the cavernous old station. Fellow passenger Berkowitz is there, and I follow her out the doors to Union Place. From here, we can see CTtransit buses—she’s about to take one home—as well as CTfastrak buses that run to several commuter towns, partially on their own roadways, and orange DASH buses that run a downtown route. Berkowitz notes it would be nice if the bus stops were covered—it’s still raining—but at least they’re close by. A friend has told me there are green LimeBikes for rent here, too, much like our Bike New Haven wheels, though I don’t locate them as I survey the station.

In any case, you can also walk. From the steps of Union Station, I can see the green lawn of Bushnell Park one block away. Another passenger, Desiree Primus of Windsor, who teaches in Hartford, tells me there are good restaurants within walking distance, too. She had hoped to take the train all the way home, but, like many of our fellow passengers, she’s still learning the schedule and has to make an unexpected switch in Hartford. That doesn’t seem to deter her. “I’m impressed with it. I like it,” she says of the train.

I’m in the station for about an hour. Without my camera there wouldn’t be much to do, though some waiting passengers grab a snack from Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway or one of the vending machines. An employee of the company that makes the new CTrail ticket machines is standing by to help passengers use them—the buttons don’t always respond, and the screens aren’t entirely intuitive—then calling in reports to a colleague.

I imagine there might be a crowd of commuters on the 5:05 heading back to New Haven, but the car is about as full as on the first trip. A spokesman for the state Department of Transportation says ridership in the first two weeks has ranged from 1,500 to 2,000 passengers daily, with expectations that the number will rise. According to official figures, the opening weekend alone logged more than 20,000 rides.

The Hartford Line is a partnership between the state Department of Transportation, Amtrak and CTrail. In a prepared release, Governor Malloy said this investment “in our transportation system is critical to drive economic growth, boost development, create jobs and improve the overall quality of life for our residents.” He added that “new transit-oriented development is already well under way along the line, and we expect hundreds of thousands of passenger trips each year, with healthy growth going forward.”

The CTrail trains themselves aren’t fresh off the manufacturing line, but they’ve been wrapped in a snazzy red, white and black coat that makes them stand out from the Amtrak and Metro-North trains. The railway itself isn’t exactly new, either. Amtrak has been running it for years. What’s new is more convenient and affordable train service heading north, with thousands of riders already on board.

The Hartford Line

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 and 4 provided courtesy of CTrail. Images 2 and 3 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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