Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Waterbury Branch Line Feasibility Study

Last night I attended the public information meeting held by the Connecticut Department of Transportation concerning the Waterbury train line. Within five minutes, I was outraged and spent the next half hour forcing myself to calm down enough to ask civilized, intelligent questions, rather than launching into a tirade. I wonder if the DOT and their consultants had any idea what to expect from this meeting. I suspect they didn't, since they surely would have been better prepared to deal with the issues that were making all of us so angry. I was particularly pleased with the eloquent expressions of anger and frustration from State Senator Joan Hartley and Reginald Beamon.

For those of you who weren't able to attend the meeting, the Feasibility Study information and documents are available online at www.waterbury-newcanaanrail.org. They are accepting comments from the public if they are mailed before July 20 to:
Waterbury and New Canaan Branch Lines Needs and Feasibility Study
Andrew H. Davis, Transportation Planner II
Connecticut Department of Transportation
2800 Berlin Turnpike
Newington, CT 06131-7456

You can also email your comments, presumably to Mr. Davis (there's a comment form on the website, but also his email address) at andrew.h.davis@po.state.ct.us.

Okay, time for my comments.

I use the train to commute to NYC, but not on a daily basis. Much of the time I work from home. When I do commute, it's intense, every day for several weeks at a time and frequently very long days. In order to arrive at the office at 9:30, I need to take the 6:40 a.m. train from Waterbury. At the end of the day, if I can get out of the office quickly enough and then race to the station, I can catch the 6:42 p.m. train and get home at 9:30 p.m. If I miss the 6:42, which often is the case, I have to wait for the 9:07 and don't get home until 11:30 p.m. Sometimes the train to Waterbury isn't running (which will happen for at least a month this summer), so at the end of a very long day, when I would like to be napping, I'm packed in like a sardine onto a city bus with no room to move, no toilets, not enough seats for everyone, and no ability to relax or rest.

When the Waterbury train is taken offline this summer, I might very well drive to Bridgeport, rather than take that awful bus. The downside is that I'll have to drive home late at night when I am tired, which I am not happy about, but I'll have more flexibility for getting home early.

The Meeting Last Night
First of all, I think part of the anger and frustration last night stemmed from the information being poorly presented. At some point later in the meeting, it was implied that the long list of options was created to satisfy funding requirements--if the DOT requests funds to expand the train line, they need to prove that they have examined all of the alternatives, even if some of those alternatives are absolutely terrible. On the other hand, if they are seriously considering building a roadway alongside the train tracks to be used by buses, they are insane.



The rest of the anger and frustration stems from the way Waterbury has been shafted by the DOT for decades. The tiny little bit of barely-acceptable service we have has come from the persistent efforts of individual representatives (Beamon) who demanded that we have things like a platform, and individual train riders (I didn't catch her name) who call repeatedly to complain about cars being broken into, the train toilets being broken or lacking toilet paper, and so on. As Sen. Hartley pointed out, we have been trying to get the train line improved for decades, and so far all we've gotten are more studies and no action.

At the meeting, I was a little concerned by the fact that the consultants suggesting improvements to the train line are not working in conjunction with the consultants planning the improvements to the station, just as those consultants don't know for certain what will be happening with the rebuilding of the mixmaster, and none of those consultants seems to be aware of plans to construct a greenway along much of the train and highway routes, just as whoever is responsible for the selection of South Main Street as a likely location for the Chestnut Hill Bioenergy clearly has no clue about development plans for improving that neighborhood which would be derailed by sticking a garbage facility there. This level of chaos is a terrible way to go about planning anything.

Back to my comments on the Feasibility Study:

Do It Now!
This latest study has identified things that can and should be done right now. The primary improvement, in my mind, is the installation of signals along the line. The Waterbury line is used by passenger and freight trains without a signal system, which is why the passenger train schedule is so terrible--there is only one track and it is not safe to have more than one train on the track at the same time, even if they are going in the same direction. Without signals, there would be a collision. My understanding from last night's meeting is that if we install the signals, we can add more trains to the passenger schedule.

If we had a decent freight yard in Waterbury (in other words, if all those rusting tracks to the west of the track that gets used were reactivated), they could store passenger trains in Waterbury and thereby run more trains every day. This is how they were able to add the early-morning commuter train. When the 5:57 from Waterbury arrives at Bridgeport, the 6:40 from Waterbury is ready to depart.

I'd also like to see some upgrades to the trains themselves. Some are in good condition, but all of the toilets are terrifying, to be used only in desperation. I've noticed recently that some of the passenger seats are being randomly recovered in fabric--bad idea! The NJ Transit trains have fabric seats, which absorb all of the sweat and grime from people sitting in them. It's disgusting.

Safety at the Waterbury station could be improved right now. Tear down the abandoned building blocking the view from the street, reducing the likelihood of car being broken into. Patrol the lot regularly, not just when we complain. Keep the lot clean! The broken glass gets swept up once or twice a year. Why not contract with the city to have the street sweeper come through on a regular basis?

Improve signage for the parking lot. First time train riders can never figure out how to get to the parking lot, even if someone has explained it to them. The entrance is hidden between the little white bank building and the non-usable mini-lot.

Spend some money marketing the train. Make the quick and easy improvements to the trains and parking lot, then promote the trains. Make sure people know they exist. Make sure people know how much cheaper it is to take the train. Make sure people realize that time spent on the train is time you can spend reading, working, watching a DVD and relaxing (as opposed to driving, which is time spent driving and getting stressed out by traffic).

Do It SOON!
Electrify the Waterbury line. It boggles the mind that we have to rely on a diesel engine to go back and forth on those 27 miles of track.

Add a second track. The presenters last night seemed to think this was impossible, as there are too many bridges involved, but they also think they can build a two-lane bus road alongside the tracks for the full length, so maybe it's not that impossible after all. At the very least, add a second track along enough of the line for trains to pass one another. We need more trains.

Don't Do These At All
My outrage last night stemmed largely from the proposals to replace the train with buses. This is a terrible idea for several reasons.

Buses that use the regular highway system offer no improvements for riders. We'd still get stuck in traffic during rush hour, thereby missing our connecting train in Bridgeport, making us late for work or, worse, late for our flight at JFK or LaGuardia. (I've taken the train from Waterbury when I have a flight leaving from JFK. It's the best way to get there. You take the train to Grand Central, then hop on either a shuttle bus or the subway to the airport. No stress, no parking fees, and it can take less time than driving.)

Constructing a special roadway just for the buses seems incredibly wasteful. It will take up more space than adding a second track to the train line and adds more cost, both financial and environmental, in the long run. How many bus tires will be added to dumps when they wear out? Will the buses be electric or diesel? What type of buses will they be? (I asked this question and was told that they hadn't gotten that far yet). You can't beat the train for passenger comfort, even with a coach bus. Buses are always cramped and claustrophobic. I have a tendency to get motion sickness on buses, but never have that problem with trains.

Come to think of it, if I enjoyed taking the bus, I'd already be doing that. In fact, replacing the train with an express bus is pointless for anyone going to NYC. We already have buses (and nice ones at that) which go there from Waterbury.

Public Feedback
Try a little harder to get public feedback. At the meeting last night, we were told that the consultants surveyed passengers between 6 and 8 a.m. on one day last fall. I guess that must have been one of the days when I wasn't commuting, because I was not surveyed (or did they miss me because I was on the 5:57 and they didn't start until after that?). Ridership to/from Waterbury is highest on weekends (when there are fewer trains), and the survey missed all of those people.

They also did a phone survey, trying to find people who don't take the train. Again, I think they missed a few demographics. I know a lot of people in the Waterbury area who drive to White Plains and take the train from there because it is a nicer train experience. I know a lot of other people who don't take the train from Waterbury because the last train home is at 9:07 p.m., which means you can't take the train if you want to go to NYC for the evening. I'm not sure those concerns were reflected in their phone survey results.

Why not do a survey that is published in the newspaper and on the train and buses for a month? Then you'd really get a good result.

Final Thoughts
We need improved train service. Trains, not buses.

The DOT needs to treat Waterbury with more respect. Every time Waterbury residents demand improved public transportation, we hear the same basic illogical response. The city buses don't run past 6 p.m. because no one takes the bus after 6 p.m. (even though we keep requesting that the buses run past 6 p.m.). Not enough people take the train to justify spending money on making the train worth taking. Completely illogical. Make the train worth taking, promote the train, then a ton more people will take the train.

Don't keep us waiting. As someone said at the meeting last night, we needed these improvements yesterday.

7 comments:

Waterbury Girl said...

Also! (can't believe I forgot this little bit). The meeting last night was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., making it impossible for anyone reliant on the train to attend on time. If I had worked in the city yesterday, I wouldn't have been able to attend at all.

Kind of illogical, holding a meeting about the train at a time when most train riders can't attend. They should have held the meeting on the train.

Bryan P. Baker said...

I share your frustration, and agree with you regarding what needs to be done. I'd use the train from Waterbury if there was any decent service. Keep up the good fight, and keep me informed.

crosa said...

The Problem? Highway engineers trying to run trains!! Their solution? Build another road for busses. Boggles the mind!!!

Your thoughts, observations and comments are well done!!

ironrailsironweights said...

It's a difficult problem. While there's a temptation to think in Field of Dreams terms - add more trains, and they (riders) will come - the complicating factor is that the distance from Waterbury to Grand Central simply may be too long for the line to attract commuters in any appreciable numbers.

Peter

Waterbury Girl said...

There may not be many going all the way to GCT, but there are a lot of Waterbury-area commuters going to Stratford, Bridgeport, Stamford and Norwalk. If there were Peak trains on the Waterbury line that stopped only at Waterbury and Derby, that would save a lot of time and increase ridership (IMO).

Anonymous said...

Great comments! Please be sure to get these all in to the DOT, and maybe they'll actually recognize them in the study.

"The rest of the anger and frustration stems from the way Waterbury has been shafted by the DOT for decades."

Exactly ... and it seems like they're well on their way to making the mixmaster an even bigger eyesore, but that's another story.

In addition to the rail study, there's the I84/Rte 8 study, which seems lacking in public involvement, another Route 8 study for towns south of Waterbury (www.route8study.com), a greenway study, and the transportation center. That's 5 haphazardly-interconnected transportation studies.

If you google them, you can probably find links. Maybe you can add it to the right-side menu, if you have the chance.

Anonymous said...

First of all, the DOT cannot be trusted to come to a sound decision for any CT rail that is not on the main New Haven Line. Too many people ride the main line for them to screw it up. The poor Waterbury and Danbury branches are another story, and are used in a game of politics between the DOT and Metro-North. See, Metro-North tends to complete their work on schedule and on budget, and, well, the DOT cannot even pave a road without making a mess. So the DOT tries to embarrass Metro-North in any way possible, the Waterbury Branch being the main example.

Signals are impractical on the line because there are no active sidings. Just one or two lengthy sidings in addition to signaling could improve service dramatically as trains could stop on a siding while another passed. As for double-tracking, this is theoretically possible on much of the line, as it was double-tracked in the past and the right-of-way exists in nearly all areas. Most of the bridges on the line, which are all solidly built, also have a second deck that once held tracks and could easily be restored. Unfortunately, the flood gates in Derby and Ansonia were shortsightedly built with room for only one track, so a large chunk of the line would have to remain as a single track. The cost of a new track for this line, as opposed to a second track on the New Haven-Springfield line, is unrealistic because of ridership.

The Waterbury Branch is like the bastard stepchild of the Metro-North system, but if the towns on the line joined together to demand improvements it could really be rejuvenated and help spur some redevelopment in these depressed towns. I just doubt any of it will ever happen.