Metro-North reverting to old ways, riders say

WATERBURY — Riders of the Waterbury Branch of Metro-North Railroad say recent gains in reliability and on-time performance are slipping.

The branch, which runs between Waterbury and Bridgeport and has stops in Naugatuck and Beacon Falls, uses diesel locomotives that run in one direction at a time.

Although service has improved since 2014, when a rider called the line an “outhouse on wheels” during a commuter meeting, rail advocates hope the Waterbury Branch won’t revert to its former state.

Chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council James Gildea, who commutes to work daily on the Waterbury Branch, called August a “giant step backward.”

“Quite frankly, commuters are upset as it’s been an exceptionally bad month,” Gildea said.

Recently, riders became stranded in Bridgeport, where they normally meet a connecting train that takes them to the Devon transfer in Milford to board a Waterbury Branch train.

However, Metro-North didn’t tell riders that, due to a wiring problem, the mainline train they were on would stop in Devon.

Riders were stuck in Bridgeport for more than two hours waiting for the next train to Devon, a temporary station that has no parking and is only accessible by train.

“The whole frustration level would have been much lower had they simply made the normal announcements of ‘passengers wishing to connect to Waterbury, stay on this train, or disembark here and wait for the next train,’” rider Lisa Slinsky said. “As for an apology, absolutely none.”

Communication is a recurring problem, riders say. On Aug. 22, at 6:20 a.m., riders received an alert on their cellphones that a train scheduled to depart at 6:04 a.m. was delayed.

On-time performance is down in August, after a sixth-month period where it averaged 95 percent.

So far this month, only 85 percent of trains have been on time.

Gildea fears the branch will lose riders if service doesn’t improve soon. In April, May and June, ridership dropped after eight consecutive months of gains.

Between Aug. 2 and Aug. 16, there were 19 incidents that caused delays. Several were due to mechanical problems, which Metro-North blamed on hot weather.

Gildea is asking Metro-North to give the Waterbury Branch the attention it deserves.

“It’s critically important that neither CDOT, Metro-North, legislators nor commuters become complacent and let service or communication slip back to the substandard levels it had been at, or even appear to accept anything less than top notch service,” Gildea said.

On the bright side, Gildea said, Metro-North is making progress on a $70 million signalization project on the Waterbury line that includes passing sidings to allow two-way train traffic.