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Two Trains And A Bus: Why Does A 45-Mile Commute Take 3 Hours?

Bridgeport Transportation Center
Lil Keller
WSHU Public Radio
Bridgeport Transportation Center

Grace McFadden joined WSHU this summer for a one-day-a-week internship. Our studios are in Fairfield, Connecticut, and Grace lives in Madison. That’s a 45-minute drive, mostly on I-95 … if you luck out with traffic. But Grace doesn’t own a car.

“No particular reason,” she said of her lack of vehicle. “I just haven’t gotten around to getting my driver’s license, and it’s not that important to me.”

Grace goes to the University of Connecticut in Storrs. She lives on campus — so for most of the year, she can just walk everywhere. But this summer, she made the trek to Fairfield.

“I wake up at around 6 in the morning,” she said. “Then I have to walk to the train station to take my first train. Then I take my second train, which lands in Bridgeport. Then I take a bus from Bridgeport to WSHU.”

We wanted to know what Grace’s three-hour commute was like. So we gave her an audio recorder and told her to document her commute. She leaves home at 6:31 a.m. — running a little late for her, she said.

“Right now we’re doing probably my favorite part of my commute, which is walking to the train station,” she said. “And I will be taking the train station in my hometown to New Haven.”

That’s Shoreline East. It’s the train that connects southeastern Connecticut to New Haven’s Union Station, where Metro-North trains go on to New York City.

“I am definitely running late,” she said. “We’ll see if I catch this. Hopefully, I do, because if not …”

She’d have to wait two hours for the next train. Both Shoreline East and the Metro-North reduced their service when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year. But Grace stepped up her pace and made it to the train platform in time. The first leg of Grace’s trip — on Shoreline East — took half an hour.

New Haven's Union Station is one of the busiest train stations in the country. More than 2,000 passengers get on or off a train here every day — at least, they did before the pandemic.

Grace is just halfway through her commute from Madison to WSHU’s studios in Fairfield. And after work, she’ll have to do it all over again in reverse.

“I think it’s unfortunately a story shared by too many Americans around the country,” said Yonah Freemark, with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

“You know, we have inadequate transit from a number of perspectives, and one of the fundamental problems is that it’s difficult to get between areas that are not major downtowns. So in the New York region, it’s relatively easy to get into central Manhattan from areas all over the region. But getting between different areas of the region — like between Madison and Fairfield — is often very difficult because of poor transfers, infrequent service and slow service.”

The average commute in the New York metro-region is almost an hour each way — and experts say that’s one of the longest for any major city in the U.S. Nonetheless, Freemark said, there are plenty of places that would be even harsher if you don’t own a car. Like your typical American suburb that’s not on a major east-coast artery.

“The New York region has the best transit in the United States,” Freemark said. “It’s the most frequent, it’s the most available, it’s the most lengthy in terms of the areas that it covers.”

So if you want to find a solution for Grace’s problem, Freemark said you need to look outside the United States.

“In other parts of the world, like in places like Switzerland, regional trains are much better coordinated and systematically frequent in a way that is not common in the United States,” Freemark said. “That makes it possible to get around that country in a way that is much more simple and much more convenient than places like Connecticut.”

Freemark said there are a few reasons to look to Switzerland for solutions.

“One is that they use a standardized scheduling system that ensures that there are very easy and frequent transfers between trains, which means people don’t have to wait,” Freemark said. “The other is that trains are scheduled to come very frequently, every 10 minutes on many lines throughout that country. And the third is that they’ve improved the tracks to make sure that speeds are as quick as possible.”

But it would take money to do that in the U.S. — a lot of money. Like the $1.1 trillion in the infrastructure bill passed this month by the Senate, maybe?

“Which states like Connecticut could use to invest in improvements that speed up trains, that make sure trains are more frequent, that improve service even to areas like eastern Connecticut that currently have pretty inadequate rail service,” Freemark said.

He said whether the state uses the money for big, transformational improvements — that’s another question. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said he wants to use it to replace 100-year-old railroad bridges and fix highway bottlenecks.

“We do have really aging infrastructure,” Lamont said last week. “We have sort of got barbells at either side of us in Boston and New York, we’ve got to be able to move around.”

And that’s important. But Grace, our intern, said she loves the idea of a Switzerland-style suburban transit system.

“In my dream world, I walk outside my house and I have a car that just drives me to my job, obviously,” Grace said. “But I think the most practical solution is to have more trains running. Just having more options for the trains in particular would have been very helpful.”

She said, after this experience, she’s decided she wouldn’t take a job if it required this kind of commute every day, instead of just once a week. And, she said, she thinks it might be worth it to get her driver’s license.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.