Thoughts on Trains from a Connecticut Commuter

Recently, I found myself driving by a new train station being built in West Hartford and found myself confused. Who was going to use this instead of just driving 5 minutes to Hartford? Shortly there after I remembered the New Haven-Springfield commuter line coming to a train station near you in 2016 and realized this would be different than the lumbering Amtrak trains that run through Hartford’s Union Station. Then the CT Mirror reported that Amtrak was thinking about a high-speed Boston-New York train that would skip any stops in Connecticut. With all these trains in the news, I thought it was a good time to share my experience as a train commuter.

Like many Connecticutians I have, at one time or another, taken a train on a regular basis. For about a year I commuted from Norwalk to Manhattan to work. I’d drag myself out of bed, park a couple of blocks from the East Norwalk train station (because getting a pass for the parking lot was expensive and virtually impossible) and walk to the station. I would usually start reading with my earbuds in, and then nod off somewhere during the hour long trip. Back then there were still the old trains on the New Haven line, and the swaying rocked me right to sleep. I’d start to wake up as we entered the tunnels that lead under the city and into Grand Central. Then I would get off the train, navigate the underground walkways, and emerge somewhere in mid-town before walking over to my office on 53rd street. 

I did this after spending a year using NJ Transit. I would catch a bus right outside my apartment building–which is now just a smoldering pile of ash–fall asleep, and wake up in the Port Authority. For a while I took the subway over to that same office on 53rd street, but after several train delays I realized I could walk this last leg of my journey–and not be pressed up against any sweaty commuters.

Each experience had its ups and downs–its pros and cons. For instance, walking from the train to my car at night could be a little sketchy, especially if I wasn’t on a rush hour train. But the MetroNorth trains were (generally) far more punctual than the bus, which was subject to morning traffic issues and the fact that NJ floods every time it rains.

MetroNorth has, of course, had its share of issues over the past few years, but all of my issues have been with Amtrak. I no longer take Metro North regularly, but a few times a year I do take Amtrak. For instance, last summer I was on my way back to Hartford from Manhattan. Our train stopped because there was a car on the tracks in Meriden. While we waited for someone to tow this car off the tracks (honestly people, just put it in neutral and push…) we were also experiencing engine problems and so we also had to wait for a “rescue engine.” Instead of getting home at 9:30, I got home after midnight. (When I finally got home and let the dog out, she discovered a rabbit and chased it across the street and into the neighbor’s yard so I got to wander around in the dark calling her while trying not to wake up the neighborhood. Fun times.)

But this kind of annoyance isn’t really Amtrak’s fault. As a general rule, I really like Amtrak. The seats are comfortable, and you usually have a row to yourself. There’s internet, though it’s sketchy, and I’ve never once been on an Amtrak car with someone who was singing to themselves for the whole trip (which is more than I can say for MetroNorth). I did, however, run into a lady from Springfield who told me the guy sitting next to her on her previous trip had started masturbating next to her. She reported him, a chase ensued, and the conductors kicked the guy–who didn’t have a ticket–off at the next stop.

The CT Mirror story caught my eye, though, because there are many things about Amtrak’s service that I still do not understand. There was a period of time where, when I tried to book a train from Hartford to Boston, Amtrak would attempt to put me on a bus down to New Haven and then on a train from there to Boston. I decided it was better to just drive, because heading 45 minutes in one direction, only to then go back in the opposite direction makes about as much sense as a layover in Chicago, on your way to Dallas from Connecticut.

This problem has not been entirely solved. As you can see, if you want to go from Hartford to Boston, you have to transfer in New Haven.

hartford boston

 

As a result of this convoluted path, a trip that takes slightly over an hour and a half by car, takes about four hours by train. WTF? Who is taking this train? It would probably be easier to hitchhike.

There is another Amtrak-based mystery I have yet to solve. Whenever I’m standing in Penn Station looking up at the board to find out if my train is on time, I see that the train I am supposed to transfer to to in New Haven (for some reason you can get a direct train from Hartford to NY, but not on the return trip) is also at Penn Station and is leaving only minutes after my train to New Haven. Inevitably, when I’m standing on the platform in New Haven waiting for the second train to show up I find myself mystified. Why the hell couldn’t we have just gotten on this train when we were at Penn Station? The train shows up–empty–and we all file on. At least once I’ve asked the man who collected my ticket why the heck we have to do this. He was as mystified as I was.

In all my time on trains, I have never once seen an Acela stop at a Connecticut station. Not in Hartford, not in New Haven, not in Bridgeport, and not in Norwalk. I realize that part of what makes a high-speed train high-speed is the fact that it doesn’t stop all the time, but is it too much to ask that it makes just one stop in each state it passes through?

These days I don’t commute to work at all. I walk downstairs in the morning and turn the computer on and I’m there. But I actually liked using mass transit to commute. Sure I had to get up a little earlier, but then I got to nap on the train. When I wasn’t tired, I got a lot of reading done–and even on those crowded, stinky old MetroNorth trains, I was more comfortable than I’ve been on a plane in years. But here’s the thing: Even if I had a reason to use the Hartford Line, I’m not sure I could or would. I live east of the Connecticut River. All of the new train stations are west of the River. So I would have  to find my way across the river at rush hour, to even get to one of these stations. Add that to the fact that you won’t be able to pee at any of them, and I’m definitely rethinking my mass transit decisions.

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