CT: Metro-North Riders: Waterbury Branch Service Is Off Track

At a rally Wednesday night where disgruntled passengers blasted Metro-North for shoddy service, thoughtless scheduling and crummy communications, commuter John Sanford offered perhaps the most scathing grievance.

"An outhouse on wheels" was Sanford's description of the Waterbury branch.

Long known for the having the weakest service among Metro-North's routes in Connecticut, the line from Waterbury to Bridgeport nevertheless was the fastest-growing part of the network in recent years. But passengers appear to be losing patience: Ridership has been dropping sharply this year.

"The Waterbury line is the Rodney Dangerfield of Metro-North — you get no respect," said Jim Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Group.

And despite Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's announcement this week of a $6 million to $7 million improvement study, commuters insisted they need faster action, and on improvements that won't cost much.

"I just want the trains to do what's promised: show up on time," said Corey Ferrell. "And if it's going to be late, I want an announcement."

While several commuters said the branch needs new passenger cars, rider Charlie Kestler said the system would work fine if Metro-North took better care of the old ones.

"Old equipment will work, but you have to maintain it," Kestler said. "We had a train come in for its first stop of the morning and the air conditioning in two cars wasn't working."

Passengers said Metro-North can make some quick, inexpensive improvements: Make announcements at stations when trains are running late, clean the passenger cars every night and repair the onboard bathrooms.

As several state legislators listened, riders said the state Department of Transportation should make Metro-North do a better job of handling equipment breakdowns and routine maintenance. When rail service is stopped because of locomotive failures or large-scale track work, the replacement bus service is abysmal, riders said.

"I literally sat on the dashboard of one bus because it was so crowded," one woman told the group.

"The perception is 'Let's give Waterbury whatever piece of junk. Who cares?,'" said Sanford, a commuter from Naugatuck. "You have a diesel piece of junk that breaks, the air conditioning doesn't work, [when buses are substituted] you have one bus for the entire line and the bus driver doesn't know where he's going."

Metro-North seems to ignore the needs of Waterbury branch riders when it schedules trains, several passengers said. At the afternoon rush hour, there's a gap of several hours between northbound trains. The railroad canceled the branch's only express train to Stamford, and brought it back only after pressure from legislators and commuter advocates.

John Gildea of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council took extensive notes during the session, and promised to bring the complaints to Metro-North leadership at the council's next meeting. Several state lawmakers from the Naugatuck Valley said they will press for improvements.

Some riders said they would be willing to pay higher fares if the service improves.

In 2004, the line carried 178,000 passengers; that rose after an additional morning rush-hour train was added, and soared to 393,000 by 2012, Gildea reported. Ridership slipped to 384,000 last year and is down 15 percent in the first quarter of 2014.

Gildea said it's no coincidence that bus substitutions are up steeply this year; Metro-North sends too few buses to replace the trains, and buses sometimes leave the Bridgeport station before the connecting train arrives.

"It's ridiculous what goes on on this line," Sanford said.

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