Waterbury train branch makes temporary switch to buses

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Buses, like the one pictured above idling in front of the Waterbury train station in February 2011, will replace train service on the Waterbury rail line until Sept. 2 while the Department of Transportation and Metro-North perform work on the railroad. –RA ARCHIVE

WATERBURY — Just as a track replacement project is completed and service to Bridgeport along the Waterbury branch of Metro-North Railroad resumes, the railroad is halting the trains.

On Monday, buses replaced train service on the Waterbury line, which follows the Route 8 corridor to the shoreline. The suspension of train service will last until Sept. 2.

During that time, the state Department of Transportation will repair four bridges along the tracks.

While the DOT works on bridges, Metro-North will perform routine maintenance and replace switches on the tracks. The rail closure follows a project at the Bridgeport station, which caused Waterbury trains to be diverted to Stratford from July 2 to July 22. Instead of trains arriving at and departing from Bridgeport, the Stratford station served as the terminal point of the Waterbury branch.

Now that riders have survived that change in service, they’re being relegated to buses.

“It is amazing how much work is being done on this line while it offers so little service,” said Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council. “When the council met at Naugatuck a couple years back, we had the largest turnout of angry riders at any meeting in a decade. The Waterbury branch is definitely the ‘Rodney Dangerfield’ of commuter rail — it gets no respect.”

Buses will mirror the train schedule, but on trips southbound to the Bridgeport station, they will depart 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled train times.

The early departures are meant to ensure that riders arrive at their destinations — and catch connecting trains in Bridgeport — at the usual time, according to Metro-North.

Northbound buses will depart at the same scheduled times as their train counterparts. However, riders should be prepared to arrive at their destination 15 minutes later than usual.

Train rider Danine Chevarella said the early departures are especially burdensome for riders who rely on city buses to get to the Waterbury station, as the city bus schedule doesn’t coincide with the revised Waterbury branch times.

“If I were to categorize it, it would be a little bit of both a necessary inconvenience and an excessive burden,” Chevarella said. “It could be solved if the (city) buses would accommodate our new ‘train’ schedule.”

Based on past experience, she said the buses sometimes arrive in Bridgeport earlier than the trains. But, if they get stuck in traffic, or drivers get lost along the way, riders can miss their connections.

“I must point out that the bus drivers do not always know where they are going, they do skip some stations on the route, and they do get lost,” Chevarella said. “The bus drivers, DOT and Metro-North supervisors have to all work together to make this run smoothly. It’s not brain surgery, yet in the past they can’t seem to get it together.”

The DOT says it chose the summer months for the project because train ridership is at its lowest levels. But some riders are annoyed that routine maintenance requires the entire railroad to be shut down.

The Waterbury branch is one of two Metro-North railroads in the state that still uses diesel locomotives. Also, it lacks sidings and operates on a single track.

“There is a sense among riders that they shouldn’t suspend train service every time they have routine maintenance,” Chevarella said. “Especially this summer, they rerouted us to Stratford for a few weeks and now we have buses for a month right after that. That makes it very inconvenient to commute on the rail and get off the road.”

Suspensions of service on the Waterbury line have become a tradition every few summers. The line also was closed for maintenance in 2009, 2006, 2003 and 1998.

Cameron said the fact that the DOT is investing money in the Waterbury line suggests there are no plans of closing it any time soon, despite rumors to the contrary.

“The other good thing is that they are spending any money on this line,” Cameron said. “Some felt they’d abandon trains and just do buses, but every dollar they invest on tracks or bridges is an indication to me that the DOT plans to continue offering rail service to Waterbury.”