Signalization project continues on Waterbury branch

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By Andrew Larson, Republican-American

Metro-North Railroad crews work on a railroad trestle over Maple Street in Naugatuck April 16. The work is part of the $90 million signalization project set to be finished in June 2021, which will allow trains to travel in both directions on the Waterbury branch line. -BILL SHETTLE/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

WATERBURY — New rail cars are needed in order to realize the main benefit of signalizing the Waterbury branch of Metro-North Railroad — more frequent service — but their absence won’t prevent the $90 million signalization project from being completed.

Service on the commuter rail line, which carries an average of roughly 420 passengers per day, has been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ridership is down 90% on the New Haven Main Line, according to Metro-North.

Substitute buses, which provide more space for riders to practice social distancing, are running in place of trains on the Waterbury branch until further notice.

Originally, bus substitutions were planned during off-peak hours to facilitate the ongoing signalization work. The full-time track outage gives Metro-North and the state Department of Transportation, which owns the railroad infrastructure, an opportunity to accelerate upgrades, according to DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick.

This month in Naugatuck, contractors have been installing conduit and signal equipment. Signalization involves adding Positive Train Control, a safety feature that applies the brakes on a train when the engineer fails to act, and passing sidings, which will allow bidirectional train traffic.

The signalization project is set to be finished in summer 2021, Nursick said.

Meanwhile, Metro-North crews are replacing ties along the branch as part of its track maintenance program. Also, steel repairs and bridge timber replacement was scheduled to start on two bridges.

These projects are separate from the state’s plan to purchase new rail cars — a plan that doesn’t include new rail cars for the Waterbury branch, for now.

The Waterbury and Danbury branches of Metro-North Railroad are likely going to have to wait years for the needed rail cars while the state replaces the fleets for the Hartford Line and the Shoreline East Line.

The State Bond Commission had been expected this month to approve $300 million for procuring 72 new rail cars for all four of the state’s commuter rail lines. But that wasn’t the case when the bond commission met April 16.

The explanation for the change of plans offered at the State Bond Commission meeting was the Waterbury and Danbury lines had been included in error on two different agendas, and the agendas also incorrectly stated that 72 replacement cars would be purchased.

Melissa McCaw, the state budget director, previously said the $300 million would only be used to purchase 60 replacement rail cars for the Hartford Line and the Shore Line East.