Branch line commuters air gripes and suggestions

“Ancient” locomotives, idling diesels, long travel times, a paucity of trains — these were some of the concerns raised by Danbury Branch line commuters at a public forum Monday night, April 10, at Wilton High School’s Clune Center.

The heavily used rail network that is supposed to make commuting quicker and more cost-effective for residents along the line is apparently not living up to its potential, according to the those who use it most often.

Speaking at the event was Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143), whose district encompasses Wilton, Norwalk and Westport. Stations along the route include Merritt 7, Wilton, Cannondale, Branchville, West Redding, Bethel and Danbury.

“The Danbury line has seven to eight hundred thousand passenger rides per year, currently,” Lavielle said. “In addition, there are a number of people who aren’t taking the train because they drive to the Metro-North stations in South Norwalk or Westport, or even to Katonah, N.Y., because of the more frequent service along those lines.”

The optimal solution, Lavielle said, would be to electrify the line, a move that is estimated at $400 million and has been proposed for decades. That is unlikely to happen in the near future, she said, especially given the state’s current budget woes.

“The purpose of this forum is to identify improvements that can be made cost-effectively to Danbury Line service in the near term,” Lavielle said. “The best way to understand what kinds of changes would really make a difference is to hear directly from commuters who ride the trains every day.”
Commuter concerns
Several dozen area residents attended the forum, which Lavielle noted was specifically designed to be a listening session. About half posed lively questions for the panel, with concerns ranging from schedule inadequacy to noise from midnight train horns.

James Redeker, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, fielded the lion’s share of attendees’ questions and comments at the forum. Also on hand to address concerns were state Reps. John Frey (R-111), Tom O’Dea (R-125), Will Duff (R-2), Chris Perone (D-137), Bob Godfrey (D-110), Fred Wilms (R-142), Adam Dunsby (R-135) and Michael Ferguson (R-138), as well as state Senator Toni Boucher (R-26). All represent towns served by the Danbury line.

Daily commuter and Wilton resident Andy Gilliard described the diesel locomotives used along the Danbury line as “ancient.” He asked whether the state plans to modernize the train fleet with newer locomotives.

“We are in the process of rebuilding locomotives,” said Redeker. Also in store over the next few years are new train cars offering improved amenities to riders, he added.

Redeker pointed out that funding for trains and infrastructure within Connecticut comes solely from the state. While the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provides funding for some of the operations and maintenance of the train system, the vast majority of its budget comes from Hartford. What’s more, the lines, stations and the trains themselves are state property.

Currently on the legislative agenda is HB 6553, which Lavielle introduced and would enable improvements along the Danbury Line. It relies on the reallocation of previously authorized bond funding and does not require any new bonding to be approved.
Station number eight?
Several attendees spoke in favor of reopening an abandoned train station on Wall Street in the downtown section of Norwalk, although another stop would add several minutes to each train’s schedule. These attendees cited the renaissance that area of Norwalk is enjoying, with several thousand new apartments either under construction or already in occupancy. Should this occur, it would be the eighth station along the Danbury line.

South Norwalk resident Mike Mushak expressed concern over idling diesel trains. This is needed to sufficiently heat or cool the train’s cars, but creates a public health issue, he said.

“A train will sit there a half-hour to an hour spewing pollution throughout a low-income part of South Norwalk,” said Mushak. “There is such a thing as a power hookup [which would eliminate the need for idling]. It would go very far toward improving the quality of life in South Norwalk.”

In the view of Manhattan commuter Richard Aquan, more trains are needed. When he knows it will be a late night, he instead will drive to South Norwalk for his morning commute knowing there will be a way home.

“I spend two and a half hours each way going to work,” said Aquan, a resident of Wilton. “When I first moved here 20 years ago, it was much quicker.”

Redeker pointed out that changing federal regulations have somewhat slowed the journey along the route, and that the eventual arrival of new train coaches will help the DOT create a more robust schedule. “Right now we are running the maximum number of trains given the fleet we now have,” he said.

Paul Merolla, another Wilton commuter, said there are an insufficient number of through trains — routes that skip down-county stops such as Rowayton and Darien. He also noted that his morning train had three stoppages this winter — one of which was for more than an hour.

Riders were never notified what was going on, he recalled. “There has got to be better communication while we are on the train,” he said.

Wilton resident Jeff Boehme pointed out that in earlier years, Danbury Line trains often bypassed Stamford as well. He contrasted Wilton’s service with that of nearby New Canaan. The latter town is at the end of an electrified line and offers commuters seven to nine direct trains.

New Canaan riders also pay a fare that is 11% lower than Wilton’s commuters do. “We are paying a premium for much less service,” Boehme said.
Gate to nowhere
Redding resident Michael Berman pointed out that near the Branchville station is an operating crossing gate that operates on a street that was closed several years ago. At one time the road was destined to be an entrance to an industrial site, but those plans were mothballed. Boucher said she would look into the matter.

“We must ensure that it [decommissioning the gate] won’t interfere with further development,” Boucher said.

Dottie Earle-Deluca, a Wilton native who now lives in West Redding, recalled being a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall during the 1980s. “I was not a nine-to-fiver… and I used to run for the 11:07 train home in full makeup,” she said.

Deluca’s current concern is the loudness of train horns that travel the Danbury line. In particular, a freight train makes a run in the wee hours of the morning. Horn blasts are both deafening and of long duration, she said.

The youngest attendee was Shane Miller, a student from Ridgefield. He noted that when his family visits New York City on the weekends, it will instead drive to Katonah because service along the Harlem Line is faster and more frequent. Miller also called upon leaders to eventually extend commuter service past Danbury – at least to New Milford – a proposal that has been raised in the past.

Phil Lauria, a member of Wilton’s Economic Development Commission, suggested that legislators focus initially on improvements from South Norwalk to Wilton. In particular, Wilton might eventually see a spillover from the current boom being enjoyed in the area of the Merritt 7 station.

“I see the number of people who get off the northbound trains at Merritt 7, as well as those who take the southbound trains from there,” said Lauria. “That can happen in Wilton.”

In a step forward for the legislation, the Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee voted on Tuesday to draft legislation based on HB 6553, allowing it to proceed as a committee bill.  Once fully drafted, it will await consideration by the committee on or before its April 28 bill deadline.