Last revised: March 21, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Shore Line East is the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s
(ConnDOT) commuter rail system, which connects New Haven with New
Since the service’s inception during the early 1990s it has become a very successful operation, a significant as to why it was saved from an attempted shutdown by one-time governor Lowell Weicker.
For railfans, however, what makes Shore Line East’s operations so unique and interesting is its nod to history.
Because SLE operates over the ex-New Haven Railroad’s main line, which connects Boston and New York City, it has painted its locomotive fleet in the road’s famous “McGinnis” livery of eye-catching orange, white, and black.
The history of the Shore Line East system traces back to one of New England's most notable systems, the New York, New Haven & Hartford; better known as simply the New Haven.
At its peak the NYNH&H operated a large, 1,800-mile system throughout the region serving southeastern New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
There were numerous smaller systems and subsidiaries which came together to form the New York, New Haven & Hartford in 1872, the largest of which included the New York & New Haven and Hartford & New Haven.
The present-day Shore Line East operating over the Northeast Corridor between New London west to New Haven, with some service extending to Bridgeport and Stamford, was constructed by three predecessors of the NYNH&H.
The aforementioned New York & New Haven first chartered on June 20, 1844 and began service between its namesake cities during January of 1849 while trackage rights over the New York & Harlem (later New York Central) provided it access into downtown Manhattan.
The route above New Haven was built by a number of predecessor systems, the first of which was chartered in May of 1848
Within a decade, by 1858 serviced was opened to Stonington, near the Rhode Island border, and in 1864 all of the railroads involved were reorganized as the Shore Line Railway, acquired by the NY&NH in 1870.
By the early 1890s the then NYNH&H had direct rail access between Boston and New York where the 229-mile corridor became known as its Shore Line Division.
This busy routing turned the New Haven into the busiest commuter and passenger system in country, moving millions of folks annually between the big cities or to their homes in the outlying suburbs.
It was the only major railroad with a direct, high-speed route between New York and Boston. As business increased the company moved to electrify the New Haven-New York segment, New Canaan Branch and the Norwalk-Danbury line, completed by 1915.
Aside from the countless daily commuter trains the railroad dispatched regional, named trains offering a higher level of accommodations such as the Yankee Clipper and overnight Owl, both New York-Boston runs.
Unfortunately, the New Haven fell on hard times after World War II as New England's longtime manufacturing and textile businesses closed while the public abandoned trains for the open highway.
It fell into bankruptcy during 1961 and was forced into the ill-fated Penn Central Transportation Company on January 1, 1969.
Into the PC era service declined rapidly as losses mounted and the new conglomerate attempted merely to stay solvent.
In an effort to cut losses commuter services were severely cutback when commuter operations were suspended after New Haven joined PC. While they briefly reappeared under Amtrak service was again abandoned in 1981 following budget cuts.
In an effort to see service restored east of New Haven and cut down on congestion along nearby Interstate 95 the state of Connecticut and then-Governor William O'Neill and ConnDOT launched temporary service in October of 1986 between New Haven Union Station and Old Saybrook.
It proved so successful that regular service was launched on May 29, 1990 at first known as the Clamdigger and then quickly changed to Shore Line East.
Since it was initiated service has expanded with connections running from Grand Central Terminal in New York City to New London via New Haven.
In all, there are currently 17 stations served. Even the Shore Line East’s name is a nod to the New Haven as the section of line the commuter service operates on was originally called the Shore Line by the NYNH&H.
Interestingly, SLE has never operated the newest equipment although it did acquire its first new motive power in 1996 purchasing six rebuilt GP40-2H's.
Since then it has also picked up eight former Amtrak P40DC's. It also owns thirty-three Mafersa coaches and operates in the “push-pull” fashion for faster operations (thus saving time).
The idea behind push-pull operation is instead of having to run the lead locomotive around the train to be on the head-end once it completes it journey it simply pushes the train from behind (thus making the last car the head-end).
While this may seem unsafe the FRA has concluded that there has been no evidence to prove such and you are just as safe riding in push mode as you are in pull mode (this following the deadly Metrolink accident in California in 2005 when a fool parked his SUV on the tracks causing a horrendous crash among three different trains).
Finally, SLE in the process of acquiring 300 new M8, electric multiple unit car manufactured by Kawasaki to supplement its current fleet. The future for the Shore Line looks even brighter.
Now that Amtrak has electrified its Northeast Corridor between New York and Boston the commuter line is seriously contemplating purchasing electric locomotives to replace its diesel fleet, which should allow for even faster transit times (if they do purchase electrics this will do away with the push-pull operations).
So, even after 60+ years since the New Haven pulled its last commuter train, most of its routes, especially its New York-Boston main line, continue to be a vital link for commuters heading to work all along the New England coast.