Rail branch is on track


Metro-North line to Waterbury to get promised upgrades

WATERBURY — Projects to bring the Waterbury Branch of Metro-North up to current standards for passenger railroads are moving forward, and the branch is on track to meet the Federal Railroad Administration’s deadline.

“Let me be clear, the Waterbury Branch is not getting shut down and is under no threat of getting shut down,” said Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

The DOT hires Metro-North to operate the state’s commuter rail service from New Haven to New York City, including three branch lines. The Waterbury Branch, which has about 500 daily riders, runs between Bridgeport and Waterbury and is used by residents and visitors alike in the Northwest Corner.

In 1998, Congress passed a law ordering the FRA to require all passenger railroads to implement Positive Train Control by Dec. 31, 2015. When it became clear that virtually every passenger railroad in the country would miss that deadline, the FRA extended it by three years.

PTC construction is underway on the Waterbury branch and is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 20, 2018 — 11 days before the FRA’s deadline, DOT officials said.

The cost of building the PTC system, which involves installing passive transponders along the tracks that transmit instructions to a computers aboard trains, is about $163 million for the entire Metro-North system in Connecticut.

PTC improves safety by employing certain automatic functions, such as slowing the train when the speed limit drops, even if the engineer fails to act.

“When a train goes by it gives a signal to the transponder, and the transponder will tell the train the maximum speed,” Deputy DOT Commissioner Anna Barry said. “The transponder has the information, and the equipment on the train automatically reduces the speed to conform with whatever information it’s getting from the transponder.”

Meanwhile, the Waterbury branch, which lacks signalization, will receive another upgrade. A signalization system to control the movement of train traffic on the single-track line is being designed for $6.7 million. Construction is estimated to cost about $60 million and will be finished by November 2020, according to the DOT.

Signalization includes the installation of passing sidings in Derby, Devon, Beacon Falls and Waterbury. This will allow more than one train to run on the branch at once, enabling more frequent service. Rail advocates say a more convenient schedule is the key to unlocking untapped demand for rail service in the Naugatuck Valley.

Funding for these projects has been secured, the DOT said. However, local rail advocates caution that if the state’s austerity measures took money away from planned investments to the Waterbury branch, its future would be grim.

“As a practical matter, we aren’t worried about it, but as a theoretical matter, to think maintaining the status quo on the Waterbury branch would not have any impact …” said Rick Dunne, executive director of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments. “If we do nothing, the line would be shut down, it’s almost certain.”

The FRA has the ability to issue fines to rail providers that fail to meet its requirements, or even revoke their authorization to operate. However, so far the FRA hasn’t issued any threats, but is working with passenger rail lines to help them meet the new PTC deadline.

“The FRA was in kind of a tough situation because they didn’t want to say they would shut down the nation’s railroads, but they didn’t want to not do their jobs,” Barry said. “But they could make things pretty difficult by issuing a lot of fines.”

The DOT is confident it will meet all future deadlines and satisfy the FRA’s requirements, while making the Waterbury branch more attractive to commuters.

“There’s a real hunger for easier ways to get into New York,” Barry said. “But it’s also about doing it safely.”