By Andrew Larson, Republican-American
WATERBURY — Train riders who use the Waterbury branch of Metro-North Railroad may finally get what they’ve been wanting for more than a decade: more frequent service.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget recommends $1.2 million to increase the number of trains servicing the Waterbury line from 15 to 22 beginning in fiscal year 2022-23.
The seven additional trains include two in the morning, one midday, two in the evening and two at a time yet to be determined, said Max Reiss, a Lamont spokesman. Specific times need to be worked out with Metro-North Railroad.
Lamont’s proposed budget says the expanded service will “align with constituent demands.”
Mayor Neil M. O’Leary said he talked to Lamont about the fact that use of the Waterbury branch remains strong despite COVID-19.
“That increase in ridership, along with the governor’s commitment, allowed us to get the seven additional trains,” O’Leary told the Naugatuck Valley Regional Development Corp. on Feb. 12. “I think we’re going in the best direction that we’ve been going in a long time, so I’m really happy.”
Better train service is seen as a key to unlocking transit-oriented development in the Naugatuck River Valley.
Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess believes it will help galvanize a mixed-use development project at the former Uniroyal site in the borough’s downtown known locally as Parcel B. The project will include a combination of residential and commercial uses, he said.
“Train service will dramatically enhance the quality of the project,” Hess said. “In others words, it’s a very good project now, but it’s a sensational project when you have an effective commuter line.”
Hess said he believes the service upgrades will make properties more marketable and attractive.
The state has nearly finished a $120 million project to signalize the Waterbury branch, and the work is set to be completed by April.
Three passing sidings have been built on the single-track railroad, allowing northbound and southbound trains to pass.
The line has also been outfitted with signals, which direct traffic and prevent collisions, and Positive Train Control, a system that automatically enforces safety rules, such as speed limits, if the engineer fails to act.
The proposed service upgrades are needed to justify the state’s $120 million investment, said Jim Gildea, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, who lives in Derby.
He and other rail advocates have long touted untapped demand along the 27-mile line that runs between Waterbury and Bridgeport. He pointed to the addition of a 6 a.m. train in 2008, which caused ridership to increase 34% in one year.
“And that was just one train,” Gildea said.
Gildea said he balances his optimism with the fact that last year Lamont abruptly removed from the State Bond Commission’s agenda a proposed $72 million investment on the Waterbury and Danbury branches. It included 12 new rail cars for the Waterbury line.
The move was largely seen as retaliation against legislators who helped sink Lamont’s tolling plan.
O’Leary believes the trains will be funded this time.
“I know there was a lot of political back forth about it not that long ago, but the governor has given us his word … to honor his commitment to the Waterbury line,” O’Leary said.
Last March, leaders of the newly formed Waterbury Rail Line Caucus proposed the DOT acquire eight dual-powered locomotives and 24 new rail cars, which it said were necessary to meet the branch’s long-term service needs.
The additional cars would allow for 30-minute headways during peak hours and 60 minutes during off-peak hours by 2025.
Metro-North Railroad operates the Waterbury branch under contract with the state Department of Transportation. The DOT will accommodate the additional service with existing rail equipment across its rail fleet, Reiss said. Any new cars would need to be procured through action by the State Bond Commission.
The DOT is required to hold public hearings on any proposed service changes.