WATERBURY — There was more than a one-third chance that passengers who rely on Waterbury branch trains to travel to school, work or any appointment requiring punctuality arrived late in June and July.
That statistic was revealed by the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council’s operations reports for the first two months this summer.
“Our ability to put food on the table is too big of an issue to flip a coin on a daily basis and hope you get there,” said James Gildea, chairman of the commuter council, who uses the Waterbury line to commute to his job in Fairfield.
In June, an average of 65 percent of Waterbury branch trains were on-time, and in July, that number was 64 percent. Meanwhile, on the New Canaan and Danbury branches, which are also run by Metro-North Railroad, about 85 percentage of trains were on-time during the period.
Waterbury branch trains performed better earlier this year, with 86 percent on-time performance in May and 93 percent in April. Metro-North defines “on-time” as meaning within six minutes of scheduled arrival.
Service reached a new low Tuesday morning for some riders when Metro-North announced that substitute buses would run in place of the 6:38 a.m. train from Waterbury.
Only one bus stopped at the Waterbury Train Station and it departed at full capacity, with more than a dozen would-be riders left behind. Stranded commuters had to call Metro-North to request a second bus, which arrived about an hour later.
“It is truly aggravating,” Waterbury rider Lisa Slinsky said. “There are a number of commuters who have abandoned the branch because they simply could not continue to be late to work, or late to get home to their families.”
If Metro-North hadn’t sent a second bus Tuesday morning, commuters would have had to wait until the next southbound train at 9:12 a.m. Riders called the rail operator’s response “shameful” and said if current trends continue, the line will lose so many users that it will no longer be viable.
Metro-North said Tuesday’s substitution was due to a mechanical problem. Trains on the branch were running 15 to 20 minutes late into the afternoon.
The spate of problems prompted riders to contact state and federal lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn.
“People just want to go to work and pick up their kids on time. They’re right to be fed up with these delays. It’s absolutely unacceptable,” Murphy said in a statement. “The reliability of this line is critical to people up and down the Naugatuck Valley. These issues need to be addressed immediately.”
Last month, the General Assembly’s Waterbury branch caucus sent Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker a letter inquiring about the drop in service. In response, Redeker said the delays were due to an “aggressive rebuilding program” for antiquated locomotives, along with track upgrades.
Metro-North has told the commuter council that it’s taking one diesel locomotive out of service per month to be rebuilt, stretching its fleet thinner than usual.
But Gildea said preventive maintenance shouldn’t have been postponed for so long that the state’s entire diesel fleet needed to be replaced at once.
In addition, a $70 million signalization project is underway on the Waterbury line. The work includes adding passing sidings and Positive Train Control, which can slow a train if the engineer fails to act. But those upgrades won’t automatically improve service or boost ridership.
“They’ve been getting along with Band-Aids and duct tape, and it’s coming home to roost now,” Gildea said.