Survey offers insights into rail ridership

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WATERBURY — Despite a limited schedule and less-than-ideal conditions, some commuters choose to ride the Waterbury branch of Metro-North Railroad because they like it: they can work on their laptops, listen to music and talk to fellow riders while avoiding the stress of driving in traffic.

Others depend on the train as their only means of transportation.

“It’s my lifeline,” said Derek Alvarez, a personal assistant in New York City.

The Waterbury branch runs diesel trains on a single track from Waterbury to Bridgeport. Eight passenger trains depart Waterbury on weekdays, and seven return. Spread across those 15 trips, the branch averages 960 riders a day.

Alvarez was one of about 55 people who boarded the 6:38 a.m. train last Friday at the Waterbury Train Station. As the most popular train of the day, the 6:38 accounts for 22 percent of the 511 daily riders counted in a recent survey by the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments.

The survey offers new insights into the reasons why people use the Waterbury branch. It found that about 80 percent of southbound riders traveled to Bridgeport, and about 60 percent of northbound riders were destined for Waterbury. Others used the train to get to and from six intermediate stops between the two cities.

In Bridgeport, 55 percent of riders transferred onto mainline trains, according to the survey. A trip to Grand Central Terminal from Waterbury takes about 2 1/2 hours.

Based on the data, about 20 percent of Waterbury branch riders were destined for New York City. That’s more than Mark Nielsen, assistant director of the council of governments, expected.

“There are so few trains heading back to Waterbury, you have to make sure when you’re leaving New York you get on the right train to make your connection, or you’ll have to wait two hours for the next train,” Nielsen said. “In my mind, that’s not an attractive thing to do.”

With better service, Nielsen believes ridership would grow.

“The idea is if we can provide service that’s more frequent, more convenient and more attractive to riders, you’re likely to get more people to ride,” he said.

Jim Gildea, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council and a Waterbury branch rider, said the study underscores the importance of maintaining existing service and adding more trains.

As part of a $70 million signalization project that’s currently underway, passing sidings are being installed on the branch. The sidings will allow more than one train on the tracks at a time, adding capacity to the rail line.

“It’s imperative that once the project is complete, the state moves forward and not only maintains service but takes advantage of the available infrastructure and increase service,” Gildea said.

He hopes for trains that run every 30 minutes during peak times. Currently, there’s about a two-hour headway between departures.

But first, advocates are trying to keep existing service intact. The state Department of Transportation, which has a contract with Metro-North to the service, has threatened to reduce off-peak and weekend service on the branch due to budget constraints.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • 41 percent of southbound riders used the two peak trains that leave Waterbury at 5:40 a.m. and 6:38 a.m. The 5:40 is the only train that provides through service to Stamford.
  • 61 percent of northbound trips were on the three evening trains, which leave Bridgeport at 3:41 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8:31 p.m.
  • 55 percent of Waterbury branch riders were commuting to or from work. About 19 percent were traveling for social or recreational purposes and 16 percent were going to school.
  • 42 percent of respondents said they ride the train five or more times a week.
  • 34 percent of riders walked to the train station where they began their trip, and about 23 percent were dropped off. About 12 percent drove alone.
  • 55 percent of southbound passengers transferred in Bridgeport, and about 36 percent of those traveled all the way to New York City.