Shore Line East, for the first time in years, today will begin providing regular weekend train service between New London and New Haven.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced this week that 19 trains - 14 to New London and five to Old Saybrook - have been added to the Shore Line East schedule.
"That's all new and will be a big boost for tourism in the region ... no more I-95 parking lot, Sunday nightmares," said Todd O'Donnell, co-owner of New London's Union Station, in an email. "The morning arrival times and evening departures make visiting southeastern Connecticut's tourist attractions a lot easier for day-trippers, too."
Additional weekend service by Shore Line East, operated by the state Department of Transportation, doesn't include 30 regularly scheduled weekday trains. The service also has added a 12:15 p.m. weekday train from New London that provides an arrival in New York City in time for dinner and a show.
"This is great news for our region," O'Donnell said.
Laura Cordes, who heads up a grass-roots advocacy group known as the Shore Line East Coalition, credited a "constant groundswell of support" among local residents, business owners and environmental activists with helping push the state toward weekend train service. The group, using the slogan "All the Way, No More Delays," has sent a barrage of video postcards and petitions to state lawmakers, she said, while keeping everyone informed about progress at a website, www.onemorestop.net.
"All we wanted was the same service the rest of the state has been enjoying," Cordes said in a phone interview.
George Dowker, president of the City Center District and a member of the Shore Line East Coalition, said the state started bringing in special trains for Sailfest a couple years back, and it was very successful.
The new service, he said, is a bit of a test to determine whether there is enough ridership for an even more ambitious effort later on.
"The governor has been very supportive of mass transit," Dowker said in a phone interview. "He has a vision for something larger, and this is the start."
It's unclear whether the weekend train service is intended to continue beyond Labor Day, because a DOT spokesman did not respond to requests for additional information. Dowker and Cordes, however, said their understanding is that the new weekend runs would be year-round.
Dowker said the weekend service, if extended beyond the summer season, will be a benefit to students at local colleges and their visiting parents. He believed business people coming to the region would use the service as well.
In addition, according to both Dowker and O'Donnell, Cross Sound Ferry will benefit from more consistent train service. Visitors using Amtrak often miss their Block Island Ferry connection because of late-arriving trains, they said.
Stan Mickus, director of marketing for Cross Sound, said Amtrak did a better job making on-time connections last year than in the past, but Shore Line East would provide another option for customers.
"Weekend service on one of the busier commuter routes in the state unlocks the tremendous economic potential of the region because of its many popular attractions and destinations," said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, in a statement. "This allows more residents to explore what's in their own back yards and opens up the New London area to even more visitors and tourists for overnight stays."