NAUGATUCK — Commuters who use Metro-North’s Waterbury branch line came out last week to air their grievances in hopes of getting of smoother ride.
The Connecticut Commuter Rail Council and the Connecticut Department of Transportation organized a forum Sept. 4 at the Naugatuck Historical Society to hear concerns from riders of the branch line, which runs through the Naugatuck Valley from Waterbury to Bridgeport.
The most prevalent complaint of the evening was there aren’t enough trains running on the line.
“I know in the morning we have a 6 a.m. train and then an hour layover. During peak hours that’s great for the morning, but in the evening there’s no other train. So there’s a two and a half hour layover. I would love to see another train added after 6 p.m.,” Naugatuck resident Ray Schilling said. “Honestly, if I miss that train or miss that connection, I’m sitting in Bridgeport for two and a half hours.”
Naugatuck resident John Sanford said the lack of trains has an impact on how people get to or from work.
“Some of the reason people may not be here tonight is they didn’t catch the 6 p.m. train out of Bridgeport, not because of any other reason. That two and a half hour gap is just totally unacceptable,” Sanford said.
Sanford pointed out when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority added a second train in the morning the ridership jumped by more than 40 percent.
Chris Minutolu of Naugatuck pointed to the increased ridership as proof that adding more trains to the line would benefit all the commuters.
“My biggest frustration, and everybody’s biggest frustration, is we need more trains and we need them now. As everybody here has said, if you build it they will come,” Minutolu said.
Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said fixing the problem is not as easy as simply putting another train on the line.
“The Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees this line and says what you can and can not do in terms of its capacity, has said we can not run any more trains without a signal system in the peak period. That’s just it. So we have to invest in a signal system,” Redeker said. “I would love to add trains. We can not in the peak period.”
The DOT announced earlier this year a plan to spend $7 million designing a signal system with side lines, which are places where trains can pull over and allow another train to pass, for the line.
Redeker said an option to help ease commuters’ concerns while the state and MTA work towards adding more trains is adding buses that go to and from the train stations. The buses would fill the gaps in the current train schedule.
“More trains? I agree. Let’s do it. But I can’t do it now. If you want service now I think there’s an opportunity to try something,” Redeker said about adding buses. “If it doesn’t work we won’t do it. But if we do it and it works, it builds the ridership, shows the demand, shows the support and the advocacy,”
Not all the commuters agreed with Redeker that buses were the way to go. Some feared that if buses are put in place, they may be used constantly instead of fixing the rail line.
Charlie Kestler of Shelton said if he had to take a bus instead of a train it would increase his travel time because of the traffic on Route 8.
“Most of us have gotten out of our cars and take the train because of different reasons. I’d even take the train even if there was lousier service because I can’t afford the gas. It gets me where I want to be in two hours instead of an hour and a half it’d take in my car, but I’m more relaxed,” Kestler said.
Some commuters, such as Waterbury resident Gail Bournival, were more receptive to the idea of having buses to supplement the trains until the upgrades are made to the line.
“I don’t have to take the train. I take it for my convenience. It’s also a stress reliever coming back from work,” Bournival said. “If we do take the buses I feel a Metro-North conductor should be there to check your tickets.”
Commuters voiced other concerns throughout the two-hour forum, including maintenance of train stations. Commuters pointed out that there was a light out at the Naugatuck platform and the roof of the Beacon Falls platform leaks.
Sanford felt part of the reason the Waterbury branch line is not getting as much service as other branches is because it is seen in a negative light.
“The Waterbury line has a perception of being rowdy, has a perception of being dirty, has a perception of not working correctly,” Sanford said.
Sanford said, because of this perception, commuters only ask for small improvements on the Waterbury line.
“It seems like when we have these meetings it’s always can you just give us a little nub, a little pinch, throw us a little bone because we’re starving rather than say why don’t we set the bar higher,” Sanford said. “It shouldn’t be ‘we only have so much money and it’s Waterbury.’ It should be ‘we need all these things and let’s start with a bigger bar set and go from there.’”
Sanford said something needs to be done to help the commuters because they are tired of constantly having to wait for improvements.
“You can get more trains and at least we have something in the interim while we are waiting for another study, another design, another six or seven years before we get a ‘maybe,’” Sanford said.