It was standing room only with some delays during the launch of the Hartford Line this weekend, as nearly 22,000 commuters came out for free rides on the new CTrail service.
“It’s unbelievable,” Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said. “We don’t expect to be moving that many people in a day for a while.”
Crowds for the new rail service seemed at times to be larger that the trains could handle, causing delays. At one point on Sunday, CTrail asked people to stop boarding trains so they could get everyone back home. Peter Pan and Connecticut Transit buses were recruited to help.
“Rather than see it as a problem, the team has the capacity to handle almost anything,” Redeker said. “Doing this on the fly is a credit to the professionalism of the team working on the service. Amtrak is part of this as well.“
The Hartford Line runs from Springfield to New Haven.
The launch wasn’t without mechanical glitches — one train was sidetracked Sunday because of a compressor issue, and maintenance crews had to add cars to a train to help clear the backlog. The compressor was fixed, but a dispatching glitch caused delays for part of the morning Monday.
DOT didn’t have ridership numbers for Monday afternoon, the first day customers would need to purchase tickets, because Amtrak hadn’t yet submitted numbers from hand-held devices.
State and local officials agreed the larger than expected crowds were largely to blame for weekend delays.
Local officials and business advocates expressed hope the rail would offer more commuting options for workers. A contingent of Meriden officials rode the 12:20 p.m. train Saturday to Hartford.
“It was crowded, but everybody got a seat and we weren’t in a rush,” said Juliet Burdelski, director of Economic Development for the city. “We were amazed at how quickly we could get into Hartford. The Meriden station area with the new park is by far the prettiest on the line.”
Burdelski plans to use the CTrail and Shore Line East trains to commute from her home along the shore to work, and is working with employers to determine how they can use it to move workers throughout the region.
A train ride from Meriden to Hartford, including a stop in Berlin, took 17 minutes Sunday.
“It was really swift,” she said.
Sean Moore, president of the Midstate Chamber of Commerce, said he didn’t think anyone expected the crowds and praised the CTrail staff.
“It did exactly what it was intended to do,” Moore said. “It created a buzz and gave everybody a first experience to see how efficient, how comfortable, even if crowded.”
The chamber is also looking to promote the rail service to current and prospective employers. At a job fair Friday, 25 employers were made aware of the rail service and two have partnered to make it available to employees.
“It’s a game changer, “ Moore said. “The last train out of Hartford is 10:30 p.m. That is an option we never had on a fixed bus route. The problem we had was, we can get you to work but we can’t get you home. As word catches on, it will be fabulous.”
Moore said the line will basically rely on three groups of riders to succeed: area residents who will regularly use the train instead of a vehicle, frequent commuters from outside the area, and those who will occasionally use the rail for special events. He said college students in New Haven use the train to visit Stony Creek Brewery in Branford, and thinks Meriden, Wallingford, and Berlin can offer similar attractions.
The Twilight Concert Series on Friday nights at the Meriden Green could draw train riders to Meriden, for example.
Ulbrich Steel and Specialty Metals is looking at forming a partnership with Masonicare to use its shuttles to bring workers from the Wallingford train station to jobs at Ulbrich or Masonicare.
“The trains are coming through,” Ulbrich President Chris Ulbrich said. “There are workers in Springfield and Stamford. Can they work at Ulbrich or Masonicare? We’re going to be exploring it. That’s the new world.”