Ridership drops on Waterbury line

A Metro-North train departs the Naugatuck train station in 2016. -REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

WATERBURY — Ridership declined on the Waterbury branch in 2016, for the fifth time in the last six years, according to data from Metro-North Railroad.

Ridership dropped on all three of Metro-North’s Connecticut branches in 2016, despite a banner year for the New Haven Line, which runs from New Haven to Grand Central Terminal.

The New Haven Line, the busiest commuter line in the United States, recorded more than 40.5 million passenger trips in 2016. That number exceeds 2015’s ridership by 20,000, setting a record, according to Gov. Dannel Malloy.

The Waterbury branch, which runs south of the city along the Route 8 corridor to Bridgeport, tallied 342,908 passenger trips in 2016 — a 2.9 percent loss from 2015.

The line’s ridership has been trending downward since 2011. The worst year was 2014, when its ridership decreased 6.4 percent from the prior year. The only increase in the last six years happened in 2015, when it rose 1.5 percent.

The Waterbury line saw ridership increases during the first three months of 2016, but began shedding riders due to mechanical problems that caused long delays. During summer months, the rate of on-time trains dropped to 75 percent.

“Metro-North was really on par to have an outstanding service and ridership year, perhaps one of the best in years,” said Jim Gildea, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. “Then it suffered significant service issues.”

The Waterbury line lost a greater proportion of riders in 2016 than the Danbury and New Canaan branches.

The Danbury branch, which also runs on diesel, delivered 782,796 passenger rides, a 2.4 percent decrease from 2015. Ridership has been steadily increasing on the line due to service and infrastructure upgrades.

The most popular branch, New Canaan, registered a total of 1.53 million rides, marking a 1.1 percent decrease. New Canaan is the only electrified branch.

Waterbury’s ridership came close to reaching 400,000 in 2010. The line delivered 396,802 passenger rides that year.

The branch saw a spike in ridership starting in 2008 when it introduced an early train that departs Waterbury before 6 a.m. In 2008, ridership jumped 33.8 percent followed by 10.5 percent and 15.6 percent increases the following two years.

The branch began losing customers during a service outage for two months in 2012. During that time, train service was replaced with buses that were often cramped and running late. Many riders who switched back to driving never returned even when train service was restored.

Gildea said the branch is still recovering. With on-time, reliable trains, equipment upgrades and more frequent service, he believes it will attract more users.

“When you look at this corridor, at how many people are moving down Route 8 and sitting in traffic any day of the week on Route 8, this corridor is poised and it’s in great shape to take advantage of a consistent, reliable rail line with modern equipment,” Gildea said.

Gildea blames the line’s recent ridership losses largely on antiquated equipment.

“While the mainline has gotten M8s, the Department of Transportation has made little investment to benefit people who take the Danbury and Waterbury lines, yet they magically expect people to run and flock to them,” Gildea said.

Malloy’s 30-year transportation plan includes funding to replace the branch’s diesel locomotives, but “there’s no urgency whatsoever,” Gildea said.

When the decades-old trains used on the branch break down, buses are used in their place causing delays and other headaches. During the second half of 2016, there were more than 100 busing substitutions.

Because the Waterbury branch is a single-track railroad, only one train can run at a time resulting in a turnaround between trains that could last hours. For commuters, missing a train could mean being three hours late to work.

That should change after a $70 million signalization project on the branch is completed. Work to install signals and passing sidings is underway and is set to be finished by December 2018.

Gildea hopes the signalization project will result in more frequent service, which should bolster ridership.