Upgrades coming for branch line

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Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker holds up literature outlining a five-year transportation plan to an audience during a commuter forum at the Naugatuck train station Wednesday as Richard Jankovich, assistant rail administrator for the DOT, left, looks on. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker holds up literature outlining a five-year transportation plan to an audience during a commuter forum at the Naugatuck train station Wednesday as Richard Jankovich, assistant rail administrator for the DOT, left, looks on. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — Top officials with the state Department of Transportation and Metro-North Railroad affirmed commuters’ hopes that signalization and passing sidings will be installed on the Waterbury branch before the end of 2018, during a forum Wednesday at the Naugatuck Historical Society, next to the train station.

Nearly 40 people attended the forum, organized by the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, which focused on the Waterbury branch.

DOT Commissioner James Redeker said $2.8 billion has been allocated for the five-year ramp up to Gov. Dannel Malloy’s ambitious 30-year, $100 billion transportation plan.

One of the goals is turning the Waterbury branch into a “best in class” railroad, he said.

“It’s taking the Waterbury line out of the dark ages and out of dark territory, and into one of the brightest futures I can imagine,” Redeker said.

Metro-North has begun installing a passing siding in Derby, which is scheduled to be finished by early November. Other sidings are planned for Devon, Beacon Falls and Waterbury.

Signalization, which will control the movement of train traffic on the single-track line, must be implemented before the passing sidings can allow two trains to pass.

The siding in Devon could potentially be used to free the tracks of a disabled train, even before signalization is completed, said Mike Donnarumma, superintendent of the Waterbury branch for Metro-North.

As it stands, when a train breaks down in “dark territory,” an 8-mile stretch from Devon to Beacon Falls that lacks signals, it can be stranded for hours. Due to federal regulations, a rescue train can only travel at a top speed of 15 mph in dark territory, Donnarumma said.

Several riders asked for a definitive answer as to whether the siding and signalization project will lead to increased service. Redeker hedged, saying it depends on the DOT’s ability to secure extra trains and subsidies for the branch.

But with the infrastructure in place, it seems likely.

“As of now, it’s a pretty darn positive environment,” Redeker said.

Also, he hopes to replace coaches and locomotives on the Waterbury branch soon. Breakdowns are common due to the age of the trains, causing temporary bus substitutions at least several times per month.

The DOT recently purchased four used diesels from New Jersey Transit, which Redeker said will be rebuilt and rehabilitated before going into service in “one or two years.”

In a separate project, Positive Train Control will be installed on the Waterbury branch in 2018.

PTC will improve safety on the line, Redeker said, by employing certain automatic functions, such as slowing the train when the speed limit drops, even if the engineer fails to act.

Further, the Devon Bridge, which has been undergoing repairs since May, is scheduled to reopen during the last week of October or first week of November, Donnarumma said.

Construction was delayed slightly when the Devon Bridge became stuck in the open position for several days in early July, he said.

During the project, Waterbury branch riders have been using a temporary station, Devon Transfer, for access to and from the New Haven Main Line. Once Devon Transfer is disassembled, normal service will resume, including the popular 5:45 a.m. express train to Stamford.

Jim Gildea, vice chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, called it an “exciting time” for the Waterbury branch.

“Sidings and signals are coming, and hopefully so is additional service,” Gildea said after the meeting. “And so are new coaches and locomotives.”