A nearly $70 million signal system on Metro-North's Danbury Branch has malfunctioned repeatedly since it was completed in November, resulting in dangerous rail crossings and longer commutes.
Soon after the last section of the signal system along the 24-mile line between Danbury and Bethel was completed, the gates and flashing lights that block roads when an oncoming train is approaching, began to trigger when no trains were in sight.
"It has been a stubborn problem," Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said. "We keep thinking we have a fix but it is persistent."
Danbury Police Chief Al Baker the longer the problem lasts, the greater the probability that a horrible accident could occur between a train and vehicle.
Since Jan. 15, the department has handled more than 13 complaints about signal crossings at Shelter Rock and Great Plains roads, requiring a police presence to prevent train-versus-vehicle accidents.
"This number of complaints is very unusual," Baker said. "Obviously something is wrong. I'm having my traffic unit reach out to Metro-North to get a valid explanation."
Metro-North has been working with the designer of the signal system, Alstom Signaling Inc., and the component manufacturer, Siemens Rail Automation, to fix the problem, but have not been able to eliminate the misfiring signals, Anders said.
Anders said the equipment was tested as each section of new signal equipment was installed.
In addition to allowing Metro-North to control and monitor signals from its operations control center in Grand Central Terminal, the three-year project added several rail sidings to allow trains to pass each other, and add capacity to the line that serves about 1,100 riders a day.
Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the Federal Railroad Administration is keeping tabs on the effort to correct the problem.
"FRA is aware of the grade crossing issues on Metro-North's Danbury Line and is monitoring the actions being taken by the Connecticut Department of Transportation, the railroad and signal-system manufacturers to resolve the situation," Flatau said.
Under Federal Railroad Administration regulations, the installation of highway rail-grade-crossing equipment requires initial and routine inspection, testing and necessary maintenance to ensure components are properly configured, calibrated and functioning.
"There is a calibration that needs to take place with the new equipment and how it communicates to the old equipment," state DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said. "Obviously, the goal is to have all this worked out before being put into real-time use. Clearly we are not happy with the way the system is operating."
On Tuesday, the railroad had malfunctioning drop gates at eight Danbury Branch grade crossings: Taylor Avenue, South Street, Greenwood Avenue, Great Pasture Road, Shelter Rock Road, Triangle Street, Taylor Street and East Liberty Street.
Commuter Laura DiMugno said many recent trips from the Bethel station to New York City have been stop-start journeys at street crossings where drop gates have malfunctioned. After years of shunning the Danbury Branch because of slow and unreliable service, DiMugno began riding it this winter to avoid driving to the use Harlem Line in New York in inclement weather.
Depending on the number of nonworkinig signalized crossings, the extra stops can add up to 30 minutes to the trip, she said. On Tuesday, the train stopped eight times between Bethel and the Danbury Branch's terminus in South Norwalk.
"The signals at the street crossings have been down intermittently for months in Danbury, and currently there are eight consecutive signals down in Danbury and Bethel," DiMugno said Tuesday. "This has resulted in dangerous situations at crossings."
Anders said once notified of a malfunctioning gate, usually by police, the railroad immediately implements a "stop and warn" procedure to minimize the risk of a train striking a vehicle crossing its path, which includes bringing a train to a complete stop.