The Little Train That Could

The Long Island Rail Road’s South Fork shuttle train service was launched with high hopes in March. The experiment was years in the coming. Public-transportation advocates and elected officials had long considered trains to be the most likely solution to the hellish trials of the morning and evening commute along our east-west highways.

If traffic reduction were the only measure by which the success of the new service would be judged, its value in these early weeks might have been deemed small. But what might make it a success in the long run — and a point officials seem to have missed in their halfway efforts to promote the shuttle — is the quality of life factor. 

The South Fork Commuter Connection service runs from Speonk to Amagansett, with stops along the way; an affordable flat fee of $4.25 is charged. Buses are waiting as several morning and afternoon trains pull into the stations, connecting the rail line to commercial centers. For example, the eastbound train arriving at 8:36 a.m. in Southampton can deliver passengers to a bus that will take them to Main Street by 9 a.m.; going the other way, the bus departs from Main Street at 5:10 p.m. to meet the 5:33 p.m. westbound train. Morning riders headed to Montauk must transfer at the Amagansett station at 7:10 for what adds up to a 50-minute circuit dropping them off at the downtown Carl Fisher Plaza at 8.

One thing is clear about the shuttles: You can’t carry a 12-foot extension ladder or a pallet of pool chemicals onto a train. 

This means that the “trade parade” — the massive time-suck of work vans, delivery trucks, and specialized service vehicles of all sorts — will plod on unabated. No matter what happens to the South Fork shuttle ridership, mornings and afternoons on Montauk Highway and County Road 39 will continue to be miserable.

What the shuttle does offer, however, is a ride vastly more pleasant for people who can leave their vehicles at home. If you happen to work at a desk or retail job within walking distance of the well-located East Hampton Train Station, for instance, the service is a seductive alternative. It is new, but we believe that it will catch on, simply because it is a pleasing alternative to driving tedium. 

As they race along on the rails — catching a passing view of the pitiful sods in bumper-to-bumper tie-ups — riders have time for a little extra sleep, time to catch up on their reading or watch another episode of “Peaky Blinders.” Friends can meet up on board for a coffee klatch. 

One woman we know who works in East Hampton spoke glowingly about her newfound morning ritual. She leaves her house a half-hour later than she did before, drives to the Hampton Bays train station, leaves her car, and gets on board the 8:26. Shortly before 9, she arrives in East Hampton, having gained back about 40 minutes of her day for herself, and takes what she describes as a slow jog to where she has to be. “I love it,” she says. “I just hope they keep it going.”