Commuters Press Conn. to Improve Waterbury Rail
Connecticut commuters on a small Metro-North Railroad branch line are fed up with what they say is substandard service and are organizing to make sure they're not ignored.
Advocates have set a meeting Wednesday of commuters on the Waterbury branch to sharpen their lobbying and press their case with the state Department of Transportation and Metro-North.
"Without question, it's the line that gets the least amount of attention and service," said Jim Gildea of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. "I'm hoping commuters of the Waterbury branch will be better mobilized, better advocates for the line."
The 27-mile-long Waterbury line, which feeds commuters to the main New Haven line linking Connecticut to New York City, is characterized by a lack of planning and investment, too many buses used to substitute for broken down trains and poor weekend scheduling, he said.
Judd Everhart, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, disputed Gildea. In a letter to the commuter advocate on Tuesday, Everhart said the state has been replacing tracks and bridges, is building a parking lot and waiting room and installed security cameras at the Waterbury station parking lot.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced on Monday that the state will spend $6 million to $7 million to install signals on the branch line, which also will include passing sidings that allow north- and southbound trains to pass each other. Design work will begin next year.
The improvements can't come soon enough for some commuters.
Roger Cirella, a paralegal who commutes about an hour one way between his home in Ansonia and East Norwalk each day, said there seems to be a bus put in to substitute for non-operating trains "every few weeks."
"Once the buses start showing up, people head back to their cars," he said. "They give up on the service."
Jim Cameron, a commuter advocate, said the trains are equipped with diesel equipment that has been "failing at a fantastic rate" over the last couple of years.
Everhart said less than 3 percent of trips were by bus. An increase last fall was due to broken electrical equipment at a Con Ed station in suburban New York, forcing Metro-North to use diesel equipment for the New Haven line, he said.
Metro-North also responded to commuters' complaints about a schedule change that eliminated a morning express train on the Waterbury line to Stamford, a key hub on the New Haven line. The rail line extended the Waterbury train from Bridgeport to Stamford.
Problems on the Waterbury line are of increasing importance because more commuters rely on the rail line. Commuter trips have more than doubled, from 190,000 a year 10 years ago to about 400,000 now, Gildea said. That's about half the number on the Danbury line, he said.
Samuel Gold, executive director of the Council of Governments Central Naugatuck Valley, said that in the past decade, the number of round-trips on the Waterbury line increased to seven from six and commuters responded to sharply higher gas prices by riding the train. In addition, free parking at the train station has been a strong draw, he said.
Gildea hopes that organizing among riders will spark more improvements.
"Commuters never mobilized before," he said. "They just sit back and take it."