Sunday, February 04, 2018

Train Line History

One of the key assets that helps draw people to Waterbury is the train line connecting us to Bridgeport and New York City. Speaking as someone who relied on the train line to get me to my job in NYC for two years, I can't emphasize enough how essential the train service is, and how we very much need to see improvements to the train line. We need more daily trains, and we need express service trains during rush hour to make it easier for commuters to choose the train over their cars.

The Waterbury train station platform, 2018.

Unfortunately, due to the ongoing state fiscal fiasco, the Department of Transportation has suggested reducing, maybe even eliminating, the train line between Waterbury and Bridgeport, as well as the other branch service lines for New Canaan and Danbury. A little bit of history regarding the main line illustrates how potentially devastating this could be, and a longer bit of history regarding the branch lines illustrates what we've already lost.

Rail Service to NYC

During the 1960s, there were plans to end all passenger service on the train line running from New Haven to New York City. The trains were antiquated, the stations were shabby, and derailments kept happening. The company that operated the rail line was teetering on bankruptcy, despite multiple bailouts by Connecticut and New York. By 1965, the newspapers reported that the New Haven Railroad appeared certain to receive permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon passenger service. (Naugatuck Daily News, 5 Feb 1965)

Take a moment to think about that. The New Haven line currently transports somewhere around 40 million passengers per year (up from 13.8 million in 1965), which parses out to approximately 109,000 people daily. Now imagine there were no passenger rail service and all of those people were driving on the highways. If you've ever had to drive on I-95 or Route 15 or I-84 during rush hour, just imagine trying to squeeze tens of thousands of additional cars onto the highway.

The future of the New Haven line was saved in 1970, although the odds were seemingly stacked against it. The president of Greyhound, Arthur S. Genet, boasted that all passenger railroads would be extinct by the end of the 1960s, replaced by bus service, which he imagined would become a billion dollar industry (Hartford Courant, 16 September 1956). Interstate highways were being built during the 1960s, and America's love affair with the automobile was in full swing. Freight shippers were choosing trucks over trains and manufacturers were fleeing from the northeast, reducing the commercial railroad companies' ability to make any profit from their business (Naugatuck Daily News, 27 September 1956). Use of the New Haven passenger line was in decline. The trains were dingy, the depots were dilapidated, and the system was antiquated (Carlton Hill, "Affairs of State," Naugatuck Daily News, 20 July 1967). Passenger trains in Connecticut were, as predicted by Greyhound's president, in danger of becoming a relic of the past.

New Haven Passenger Station, November 3, 1968.
Collection of Christopher Palmieri, photograph by Henry Frick,

Connecticut's elected officials were firm supporters of saving the New Haven line, recognizing that its elimination would have a negative economic impact on the entire state.

The Connecticut General Assembly approved short-term bailout money for the New Haven railroad in 1965, although at least one state legislator, Rep. Wilfred A. LeFleur, D-Thompson, spoke out against the bailout, saying "it is 25 years too late to save the New Haven railroad." LeFleur was not opposed to rail service, however, as he recommend that the state acquire the railroad itself, since it was spending so much money on it. (The Bridgeport Post, 17 March 1965)

 In 1966, Congressman John Monagan (Connecticut's 5th District) declared that it was "unthinkable that the State of Connecticut, with its population of more than 2 ½ million people should be without passenger train service.” He argued that “Public service demands the continuation of railroad passenger service in Connecticut, and this factor must be given preference over all other considerations.” (The Bridgeport Post, 11 January 1966)

Finally, in 1970, Connecticut and New York teamed up to take over the commuter line and the three branches running to New Milford, Danbury, and Waterbury. Federal aid helped pay to modernize the line. Nearly $100 million was committed to the project by the federal government and the two states. Passenger rail service to New York City was saved. (The Bridgeport Post, 28 October 1970)

Branch Service History

Train service for Waterbury was once far more robust than it is today. At its peak, when the Union Station opened in 1909, you could take a train to Bridgeport, Watertown, Torrington, Bristol, New Britain, Meriden, or Hartford. Train service from Waterbury to Massachusetts included routes to the Berkshires, Springfield, Worcester, and Boston. Connecting service was available to Rhode Island. Heading west, you could take a train from Waterbury to Brewster, NY, connecting to the Hudson line at Poughkeepsie.

New York and New England Railroad Map
(Map Archive - Connecticut Railroads and Trolleys)

Central New England Railway, 1901
(Wikimedia Commons)

Union Station took its name from the fact that multiple railroad companies shared the station as a unified whole. There were five companies running passenger service through Waterbury: the Naugatuck Rail Road Co.; the NY and New England; the Watertown and Waterbury; the Meriden, Waterbury, and Connecticut River; and the NY, New Haven, and Hartford.

Flood of '55

The rail lines were dealt a nearly fatal blow in August 1955, when back-to-back hurricanes caused massive flooding throughout Connecticut. Railroad tracks running along rivers were washed out. It took months to restore passenger service from Waterbury to the many towns connected by rail. Service to Torrington, for example, was restored after nearly 10 months.

Derby railroad tracks after the 1955 flood.
Archives & Special Collections of the University of Connecticut Libraries, and Connecticut History Illustrated.

Meanwhile, in Waterbury, train service continued to languish. Union Station was all but abandoned by the railroad, which deemed the building a "surplus station facility" (Hartford Courant, 25 March 1950). The Waterbury American and Republican newspaper took over most of the building in 1958 after years of negotiation, planning, and renovation.

Service to Torrington and New Britain

Service to the towns north of Waterbury was restored on a three-month trial basis after the flood of 1955. By the end of the trial period, the New Haven Railroad was ready to drop it entirely, asking for permission from the State Public Utilities Commission to do so.

As one Winsted resident wrote in a letter to the State Public Utilities Commission, "It was shocking to me as a member of this community to hear once again... that permanent discontinuance of the Waterbury-Winsted line was under contemplation. ... It was my understanding that the public interest that was involved was one that was being protected by the Public Utilities Commission of Connecticut." (Letter by Lucien R. Tharaud, Hartford Courant, 3 August 1956)

Much of the public debate centered on the role of passenger rail service. On the one hand, rail service was considered as essential a public utility as electricity; on the other hand, the private company running the rail service was losing money on it. As described by an editorial in the Hartford Courant, the railroad company was "given a franchise by the state to perform a service" and the railway "is a public utility on which the people depend" (Hartford Courant, 29 July 1956). The Courant called for the decision to be based on the branch lines' worth to the economy and to the public, not on the corporate balance sheets.

The railroad's interests won out over the public good. Passenger service from Waterbury to Winsted ended on October 28, 1956 (Hartford Courant, 27 August 1956). Freight service continued for decades longer.

Connecticut agreed to purchase and rehabilitate the Waterbury-Torrington line in 1982. Conrail, which had acquired the rights to run the freight service on the line in 1976, sold the freight service to Boston & Maine Railroad at the same time. B&M also took over the freight service between Waterbury and New Britain. They opened a sales office at Waterbury's former Union Station. (Hartford Courant, 2 June 1982)

One of the major challenges to running freight service were the surcharges that companies had to pay to the railroad. Conrail had been charging $420, which pushed many companies to switch over to trucks instead of trains. When B&M took over, they were able to reduce the surcharge and lure companies back to trains. Fifteen manufacturers had stayed with rail service despite the surcharge, claiming that they had no other way to ship their materials. Prior to the sale to B&M, they warned that they would have to close if freight service was eliminated (Hartford Courant, 18 September 1979).

Connecticut's politicians cheered the continuation of the freight lines to Torrington and New Britain when B&M took over. Lowell Weicker declared "You can only be a manufacturing state if you have a rail line." (Hartford Courant, 25 May 1982)

The "Budd and Branch" fantrip final stop at Waterbury, January 21, 1984.
Collection of and photographed by Tom Beckett,

By 1995, freight use of the tracks between Waterbury and Torrington had dwindled to almost nothing. In 1996, the Naugatuck Railroad Company, formed by the Railroad Museum of New England in Thomaston, took over operations on the Waterbury-Torrington line.

Freight service continues on the line to Torrington, but with only a handful of trains per year. The tracks are primarily used by a heritage train that runs themed excursions from the Railroad Museum of New England at the Thomaston Train Station to Waterbury and back.

Even the heritage train has met with challenges. In 2001, the Department of Transportation banned passenger service through a rock cut just north of the Thomaston Dam. Trains that used to run all the way to Torrington were curtailed to turn around at the dam. Two years later, the City of Torrington pushed for the state to make the needed improvements to restore their passenger connection to Thomaston. (Hartford Courant, 7 July 2003)

The Department of Transportation awarded a $1.6 million grant to the Naugatuck Railroad Company in 2013 for infrastructure improvements to the line (The Register Citizen, 6 June 2013). The Railroad Museum of New England continues to run scenic tours and theme tours on the rail lines north of Waterbury.

The Railroad Museum of New England had a Thomas the Train weekend every year during the height of the character's popularity. The event brought thousands of people into Waterbury, until the Parking Authority decided to charge for parking in the city's garage. After that, the event moved to Thomaston. This photo was taken in 2005.
Collection of and photographed by Bob Beaumont,

Service to Hartford, Willimantic, Boston, and Rhode Island

The rail line connecting Waterbury to Bristol, Hartford, and Rhode Island opened in 1855 by the Hartford, Willimantic, Providence and Fishkill Railroad. It was sold a few times during the next half century or so, eventually landing in the hands of the New Haven Railroad.

Service to New London from Norwich, with connections to Waterbury, was replaced by buses in 1946, which were also eliminated in 1950. Direct train service was resumed in 1952, part of an announced plan by the New Haven Railroad to improve train service for eastern Connecticut (Naugatuck Daily News, 3 June 1952). Those plans were derailed (literally) by the flood of 1955. After the flood, the New Haven Railroad decided to eliminate passenger service connecting Waterbury to eastern Connecticut, Boston, and Rhode Island.

Passenger rail service between Waterbury and Boston was never restored, despite pleas from the public and the state legislature's recommendation to resume the service through eastern Connecticut.
Approximately 4,000 residents of Putnam signed a petition protesting the plan to eliminate passenger rail service. The State House unanimously adopted a resolution stating that the discontinuation of service through Willimantic and Putnam (in the "quiet corner") had caused a "deterioration of economic welfare and retarded the growth of towns formerly served and is likely to result in depression, unemployment and hardship." (Naugatuck Daily News, 16 January 1957)

New York, New Haven, and Hartford DL-109 locomotive at the Putnam station, May 20, 1956.
Collection of and photographed by Edward J.Ozog,

Restoration of service through northeastern Connecticut became a priority for state officials. Governor Ribicoff stated that restored rail service was essential to the economic development of the entire state and urged the New Haven railroad, a public utility, to "render public service to all the area it serves." While the railroad cited declining demand for its refusal to restore service, Governor Ribicoff noted that passenger service was necessary to achieve any economic rebirth. (Bridgeport Telegram, 22 January  1957)

Willimantic eventually saw its train service restored, in 1991. Amtrak restored passenger service from New London to Boston. The return of the train to Willimantic was celebrated by about a thousand people at a midnight party at their train station (Hartford Courant, 2 November 1991).

Commuter service between Waterbury and Hartford ended in 1960. One former train rider reminisced about it nearly twenty years later: "On the last day, the train crew put a black cloth inside the cars." (Hartford Courant, 1 April 1979)

Rail service between Waterbury and Hartford was almost restored in 1979. Pauline R. Kezer, state representative from Plainville, secured $7 million in bonding to restore the commuter line. Restoration of service was expected to happen in 1981. State Transportation Commissioner Arthur B. Powers stated "The Waterbury branch will become an even more important rail line when we restore rail passenger service" to Hartford. (Hartford Courant, 7 December 1979)

They got as far as doing a dry run, stopping in Plainville to much applause from the local residents. Two years later, the Department of Transportation stopped the project, reallocating the bonding funds to buses. (Letter to the Editor, Hartford Courant, 13 August 1991)

Service between Waterbury and Hartford was finally restored, albeit in the form of the CTfasttrak bus transportation, in 2015. The commute takes the same amount of time, about an hour, as it did when there was a train. However, buses are usually not popular substitutes for trains. The aisles are narrow, the ceilings are low, the seats are just a little too close together, and there are far fewer seats, which means many passengers end up standing for at least half the trip. You're also more likely to suffer from motion sickness on a bus than on a train. And, of course, buses are more likely to have delays due to traffic.

Service to Bridgeport and NYC

One of the first efforts to reduce service on the passenger line connecting Waterbury to Bridgeport happened in 1949. The state's Public Utilities Commission proposed eliminating two trains daily, citing low ridership. Representatives from the towns in the Naugatuck Valley were unanimous in asking for improved service, not less service. At a public hearing in March, someone suggested doing a survey to find out exactly what the public wanted. Service was eventually modified, with six trains running each way daily at times that were best for the riders. (Naugatuck Daily News, 16 March, 9 April, and 31 May 1949)

Train Service Survey posted in the
Naugatuck Daily News, 23 April 1949

A national coal workers' strike in 1950 had an impact on passenger train service in Connecticut. The New Haven Railroad, which still had a number of coal-burning locomotives, temporarily reduced service between Waterbury and Hartford, and between Waterbury and Bridgeport, as well as between Danbury and Pittsfield, MA (Hartford Courant, 24 February 1950). Service was restored after about two weeks.

Two years later, in 1951, State Rep. James T. Patterson bemoaned the reduction in passenger service for the Naugatuck Valley, stating that it had "caused great inconvenience to residents." (Naugatuck Daily News, 30 April 1951)

Antiquated equipment and tracks have plagued the Naugatuck Valley rail line for decades. In 1953, the branch was briefly shut down following a collision of two freight trains which attempted to pass one another on a pair of tracks in Milford that were too close together. Service resumed after the wreckage was cleaned up. (Hartford Courant, 17 May 1953)

After the flood of 1955, there were concerns that full rail service would not be restored--concerns that proved to be justified for some train lines. The Waterbury Chamber of Commerce was active in petitioning the New Haven Railroad for full restoration of all rail service for Waterbury. Rail service to Bridgeport was finally restored in March, 1956, but on a six-month trial basis. Success was measured "from the railroad's point of view," not from the public's, despite the fact that passenger rail service was considered a necessary public utility. (Naugatuck Daily News, 17 January 1956) The railroad had been running deficits on the various Waterbury branch lines for years and preferred to just give up on them. A decade later, they would make the same proposal for the New Haven to NYC line.

Scandal emerged late in 1956, when it was discovered that the New Haven Railroad had actually lost millions of dollars through "ruinous speculations in securities" (Hartford Courant, 3 January 1957).

As mentioned near the start of this post, after more than a decade of teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, in 1970 the New Haven Railroad handed over the commuter line and the three branches running to New Milford, Danbury, and Waterbury to Connecticut and New York.

Since the 1970s (at least), passenger rail service has been disrupted numerous times due to the poor condition of the tracks. During those disruptions, buses are substituted.

Passenger rail service between Waterbury and Bridgeport was suspended from July 31, 1978 until December 10, 1979 for repairs to the tracks. Buses ran instead. When rail service was restored, the Department of Transportation's communications director, William Keish, declared "This is going to be a bigger event than the golden spike of Utah" which completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Bridgeport officials even handed out gold-painted railroad spikes to Waterbury's dignitaries at the reopening ceremony (Hartford Courant, 30 December 1979).

Despite the hyperbole and excitement, only four daily trains were scheduled to make the round trip, at least partly because the state didn't own enough trains to run more frequent service. At the time, the state was planning to purchase more cars for the main line between New Haven and NYC, transferring old cars to the branches. (Hartford Courant, 7 December 1979)

The Waterbury-Bridgeport Branch Line in the 21st Century

In 2010, Governor Jodi Rell proposed eliminating all service on the Waterbury branch line as part of overall budget cuts. Congressman Chris Murphy organized a press conference at the station to protest the cuts. Just before the conference was to begin, Murphy received notification that Rell had retracted her proposal and was supporting the branch service (The Waterbury Observer, 1 December 2010).

Reporters and railroad supporters at Murphy's press conference, November 29, 2010.

Fast-forward to 2018. Little has changed. Connecticut has been embroiled in a growing fiscal disaster for years. Governor Malloy has threatened to cut $4.3 billion from the state's transportation budget. The Department of Transportation has threatened to eliminate off-peak service for the three New Haven line branches and increase fares. Bear in mind that nearly all of the branch line service is off-peak.

The train line from Waterbury ends at Bridgeport. If you don't have access to a car, and there's no train service, you can take a Greyhound bus, but the trip takes more than six hours because you have to go to NYC first. Not really practical. There's also a CT Transit option which takes just over two hours if you catch the right bus, or over three hours if you catch the slower route (and that's assuming you walk fast enough and the buses are on time). You have to change buses in New Haven after stopping 154 times to get there. No, really. 154 stops between Waterbury and New Haven, and that's the fast bus.

There are people who live in Waterbury who take the train to Bridgeport for medical treatment. There are people who live in Waterbury and work in New York City. There are people who take the train to Bridgeport to visit relatives. And that's just the Waterbury riders. All of the towns in the Naugatuck Valley south of Waterbury rely on the train.

Just as the New Haven line to New York City languished for years before it was revitalized, I hope that the Waterbury branch line can be revitalized. If we had a rush hour express train to Stamford, Waterbury could very well become a boom town. Given the fiscal problems that have plagued Connecticut for so many years, though, the odds seem unlikely, at least for the near future.

MetroNorth passenger train diesel engine at the Waterbury station, 2018.

Editor's Note: There is no editor. A lengthy research post like this one probably has egregious errors or missing information. If you see something wrong, let me know. 

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