Hartford Line train starts rolling between New Haven and Springfield

ABOARD THE HARTFORD LINE — Riding the new Hartford Line train between New Haven and Springfield, Massachusetts, will be free all weekend, but state officials and business people hope the new rail service will bring a lot of money into the state.

They already see businesses and residences starting to spring up along the line, which made a ceremonial run Friday, with trains rolling into Hartford from both ends of the 62-mile-long line, loaded with politicians, business people and mass transit advocates.

“You’re talking about two of the biggest, most successful predictors of the future, and that is mass transit being available on bus systems, on train systems,” said Gov. Dannel Malloy after stepping off the CTrail train at Hartford’s Union Station. “We don’t have to talk about the Hartford market and the New Haven market being different job markets. They’re now the same. Because you don’t need a car to get back and forth. You don’t have to be tied up on [Interstates] 95 and 91 to reach a job that may be your next promotion. So it’s a game-changer for Connecticut.”

At a ceremony in the Great Hall of Hartford’s Union Station, Malloy said the $769 million high-speed train system, including $204.8 million in federal funds, cost less than it would have to add another lane to I-91. The train “will move people in a way that they want to be moved and link cities in a way that a highway simply can’t do.

“This is about the future,” Malloy said. “This is about who we are, what we are today because we built it. But [it’s] the future generations that will enjoy the reinvigoration of this form of travel. We should be proud as Connecticut citizens that our state made this investment. It speaks well of who we are and what we are at this moment, that we care more about the future than we do ourselves in the present.”

Plans for the project go back two decades but were “dead in the water 7½ years ago,” Malloy said. But, as U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott declined federal funds for mass transit, the money became available to Connecticut, which took advantage of the opportunity.

State Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said Friday’s opening came “14 years after conducting our first feasibility study … but just three years after first breaking ground” and called the Hartford Line “a defining moment in Connecticut’s history.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the project wouldn’t have happened without President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was passed by Congress after the Great Recession.

“This is a big deal for the city of Hartford, the entire region and the entire state of Connecticut,” Bronin said, pointing to “the concentration of advanced research into one of the most talented labor markets in the entire country. Public transportation and especially rail is vital to economic development in the 21st century.”

Before the train rolled out of New Haven, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp congratulated Malloy who, when he first took office, “always seemed as if he were rushing to catch a train. … I want to congratulate the governor. I want to thank him for his vision, for the way he has fought for infrastructure changes and development throughout our state.”

“This is a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” said Carl Jackson, the Department of Transportation’s rail administrator, who said he has 60 employees in his division. “We’ve been putting time in for the last four years making sure this happens. This is a wonderful day.”

Jackson said getting the line up and running was a detailed process. “Once we got through construction, we had to negotiate upwards of 32 agreements with Amtrak and contractors. Finally, the agreement to lease the coaches and bring them on the service agreement” with TransitAmerica Services of St. Joseph, Missouri, and Alternative Concepts of Boston, which formed a joint venture to operate the line.

Riding the train, Harp said the line will expand economic development in the Elm City. “We’re going to get workers into New Haven from the central part of the state. They won’t have to drive their cars,” which will reduce emissions, she said.

“When I was in the General Assembly, I could have taken the train,” Harp said.

“Some of the technology companies have been working with the Elm City Innovation Collaborative entrepreneurs,” Harp said. Among them was Dawn Hocevar, president and CEO of BioCT, which represents “the bioscience pharmaceutical industry for the state of Connecticut,” according to Hocevar.

BioCT is located in the former bus terminal on James Street now called District, “a mix of co-working space, technology companies, digital companies and hopefully soon to be wet lab space,” Hocevar said. It’s perfect as an incubator for “a lot of very successful companies that have come out of Yale and we really need graduation space … to help companies become midsize growth companies.”

District offers the opportunity for economic growth that the Hartford Line can attract, Hocevar said. “There’s a full gym in there; there’s going to be a restaurant in there. It’s really going to be a Silicon Valley high-tech space,” she said.

“It’s awesome,” said Ben Berkowitz, co-founder and CEO of SeeClickFix, whose office at 770 Chapel St. is a two-minute walk from the State Street station.

“A number of my employees take Shore Line East in the morning. A majority of my employees are walking, busing and training to work,” Berkowitz said. “Now we have access to a different market. A big part of my generation does not want to drive cars to work” and likes to be able to work on the train while commuting.

Berkowitz, who is 39, said his is a one-car family and he drives very little. “For me, getting to the airport is a huge deal on the train … I will definitely spend more time in Hartford now,” visiting places like the `Connecticut Science Center.

Ginny Kozlowski, CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of New Haven and REX Development, said the Hartford Line will “bring more people to New Haven to see our great cultural attractions, eat at our restaurants and see our beautiful city. More connectivity across the state is critical when we’re out recruiting and retaining companies. Transportation is critical.”

She said companies “need to get their folks to work and meeting with customers and suppliers, so ease of travel is a critical component and it needs to be fast and reliable. Reliability is a critical component here.”

Keivon Jones, chief creative officer for Fitscript at 5 Science Park in New Haven, which has a diabetes-control app called GlucoseZone, said the number of employees at his company will grow next week from 20 to 25. “We’re very interested in attracting top talent to our company as a growing startup in New Haven,” he said. The Hartford Line is a bridge “to bring innovation to New Haven and it provides a direct line that probably wasn’t available to us.”

State Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said, “I find myself in New Haven as often as I am in district. … For me, it’s definitely, definitely helpful. Doing work on the train when they eventually get Wi-Fi will be really, really nice.

State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said, “I am so excited about this. I’ve been going down on my bike at night looking at the construction because I couldn’t wait for it to open.” A new station was built in her town for the line.

She said a monthly commuter ticket between Wallingford and Hartford, at $115.50, is just a quarter of the cost of driving.

“We have a new large apartment units building that is built right next to the train station and they’re obviously planning to advertise to commuters,” she said. “Businesses come in to serve these people in apartments and you get bookstores and coffee shops. Property values go up and the number of jobs goes up because the transit hub itself is a generator of economic activity.”

Besides, she said, riding the train, “you’re relaxed … and you’re not all angry at the traffic. It’s really the civilized way to go.”

Former Speaker of the House Christopher Donovan of Meriden, who left office in 2013, said, “It only took me 20 years, 25 years” to make the rail line a reality. Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, “was somewhat interested and then Obama said, ‘I have money for infrastructure’ and things fell into place. People said, ‘Oh, everybody drives,’ but when I take I-91 people aren’t driving, they’re sitting,” Donovan said.

One sour note for the new line was the news that the restrooms would be locked until they could be made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 16 30-year-old cars have been leased from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and two are being retrofitted now, according to Jim Cameron of Darien, founder of the Commuter Action Group.

“I think DOT did everything right in trying to get the ADA-accessible bathrooms on the cars,” Cameron said. “They got a waiver from the [Federal Railroad Administration] acknowledging that they were moving forward to get those cars and there was a complaint from an ADA activist that prompted FRA to rescind the waiver, and everybody suffers until November-December, when they get the first cars from rehab.”

Cameron said portable handicapped-accessible lavatories were installed at all the stations where they were needed.

Rail Administrator Jackson said, “Sometime in December we’ll be 100 percent ADA-accessible. … The FRA took no exception to our initial approach, which was [that] we would have a community outreach program with the ADA community, which we had.”

Among the speakers at the Hartford ceremony was former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who until 2017 was chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America. “Projects like this don’t always happen,” he said. “We talk about them and try to start them but then events intervene and throw you off the tracks if I’m able to use that analogy. But this was a project that really did involve an awful lot of people.

“There was a time when the United States led the world in ideas like this. We were the ones that came up with wonderful ideas. In fact, even in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln spent public moneys to create a trans-American rail line. … Then we sort of gave up on this idea and we let other nations take the lead. … So I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back in my beloved state to see us once again ready leading the way for the country,” Dodd said.

The six conductors and six engineers on the Hartford Line all worked on freight lines before getting their jobs with CTrail. “I feel good. It’s exciting, brand new,” said Mark Bastien of Brimfield, Mass., a conductor who previously worked for CSX. “I came from freight so everything was much slower. The maximum speed for us is 80 out here.”

Chet Rhodes of Wethersfield, a CSX conductor for 19 years, said the 12 “have over 150 years’ experience. … I knew every single one of these guys before I came here. It’s just a great group of people.” He said the managers also have “worked themselves up through the ranks.”

Rhodes, who joined CTrail in January, said it was “the best winter I’ve spent on the railroad in 19 years. I didn’t have to hang on a boxcar.” Pointing out one of his former stops, Connecticut Container Corp. in North Haven, he said he was enjoying the change.

“I’m not getting off the engine spotting cars anymore. It’s a lot cleaner.”

There will be 17 trains weekdays between New Haven and Hartford, at $8 one way and $168 for a monthly pass. Twelve will run between Hartford and Springfield at $6 and $126. But on this Saturday and Sunday, the trains will run free of charge.