Commentary — Riding the Danbury Branch with DOT and Metro-North leaders
—Photos by H. John Vorhees III
Joe Giulietti donned his charcoal pin-striped suit, strapped on black boots with two buckles early Thursday and rode the rail back to the early days of his career.
Connecticut’s new Department of Transportation Commissioner is a railroad guy through and through, from his first job as a brakeman (now called assistant engineer) in New Haven to leading Metro-North railroad as its president for three crucial years.
Starting out while still a student at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven he “put air hoses together, worked on passenger trains one day, freight the next.” He was a conductor, a locomotive engineer and, long story short, “everything else is fate.”
Joe — he’s the sort of guy you want to call by his first name — caught the 9:05 out of Danbury on Thursday morning for the 54-minute trip to South Norwalk, just like an average of 1,100 people on that line every weekday.
The man who is in charge of every highway, bridge, airport, seaport and rail track in Connecticut was responding to a challenge.
I had written a column Dec. 30 — “ To the new DOT leader: Ride the Danbury line ” — after he was nominated as commissioner by then-Gov.-elect Ned Lamont. Come see first-hand, I wrote, why the Danbury branch line needs more attention. What will it take to get faster, more frequent service?
Joe agreed to ride the line and Catherine Rinaldi , now the president of Metro-North (the first woman in that position, by the way), wanted to join him. They gave Hearst Connecticut Media exclusive time; this was not an all-optics media stunt.
In the Danbury station, which could be a transportation hub, Mayor Mark Boughton greeted these rail leaders and made a pitch for a spur from the city to the Southeast, N.Y., Harlem Line. He knew that Joe had operated trains in Danbury early on, admiring that he knew “every spur, every line.”
We boarded the 9:05 (Boughton stayed in the Hat City) with a handful of other passengers who were in different cars. We didn’t notice the spring green of new leaves nor the scenic ponds nor blooming magnolias out the windows; there was much to talk about.
Cathy Rinaldi, who is a daily commuter herself on the Hudson Line into Grand Central Terminal, noted the importance of the New Haven Line, with its branches to Waterbury, New Canaan and Danbury.
“Half of the Metro-North ridership is on the New Haven Line,” she said. We are talking about the second-busiest commuter railroad in the country, with 86.5 million rides a year between Grand Central and 123 stations in Connecticut and New York.
But here’s the problem: Connecticut hasn’t kept up with funding the infrastructure. It is 20 years behind New York, she said, and that slows down the trains. (Connecticut owns the tracks, trains and such; Metro-North operates the service.)
While I would like to see electrification of the Danbury Line to improve the service, Joe explained why it is not a priority. Not only is it very expensive, last estimated at about $400 million-plus, but also it wouldn’t make a big difference. It would not bring added value, Cathy said.
The reason: There isn’t room at Grand Central for more trains to arrive or depart. It’s a bottleneck.
A $4 million rail car
As the train pauses at the downtown Bethel station, First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker comes aboard. Wearing a red tie with bicycles. It’s a good conversation starter.
Matt talks of Bethel developing a Transit-Oriented District around the station, a 15-year endeavor that is about two-thirds complete; a pedestrian walk bridge is needed.
But he also relates to commuting, which he did to Stamford and NYC for 43 years. He knew when the car we were riding went into service — April 1, 1986. It was better than the early years when water would get between the panes of glass and slosh around like an aquarium without fish. But now these trains “are getting old,” he conceded.
Joe doesn’t disagree, but he finds the diesel trains in use on the Danbury Line more reliable in bad weather than the overhead electric catenary system on the main line.
The time is near, though, to replace the cars. Joe wants new, lighter, cars for Danbury and the rest of the line. A minimum of 60 cars and as many as 110 are needed at an estimated cost of $3.5 million to $4 million each. (It hasn’t gone out to bid yet.) To make an understatement, this will take a serious commitment from the state.
The commissioner is neutral on whether Connecticut should reinstate tolls to pay for rail improvements and repair bridges and highways — all of which need attention. Recently he went to the Legislature saying transportation requires more funding.
The reception he gets these days is more cordial than in 2014 when he became president of Metro-North. A string of accidents, from a derailment in Bridgeport that injured dozens of passengers to several fatal crashes , called the safety of the rail line into question. There was “distrust,” Joe says.
He turned that around, even as the railroad struggled to meet deadlines for installing Positive Train Control, which can stop out-of-control speeding trains.
Joe retired from Metro-North in 2017, and as a consultant was the architect of the 30-30-30 plan touted by Lamont — to get from Hartford to New Haven in 30 minutes, New Haven to Stamford in 30 and Stamford to Grand Central in 30. There’s a ways to go.
He didn’t know Lamont when he got the call to join the administration as DOT commissioner. He liked Lamont’s commitment to improving transportation and his wife, who was working in Florida where they lived, said go for it.
A state ‘you can wrap your arms around’
To clear up that bottleneck at Grand Central, two other projects have to finish — an East Side Access involving the Bronx with completion expected in December of 2022, then shifting some Long Island Rail Road trips to Penn Station by 2024. That will free up tracks in Grand Central.
Catherine sees possibilities for Connecticut when the East Side Access improves worker flow to the state, sort of a reverse commute, with people coming from the Bronx to Connecticut daily for jobs. It will boost the economy, she says.
Improving the train times and frequency is crucial to economic development along the Danbury Line or the Waterbury branch from Bridgeport, I still maintain. The rail could be a great funnel bringing workers into Stamford or further into Manhattan and back again.
Along with transit-oriented districts that make it easier for people to get around, the over-reliance on individual cars (chugging down clogged highways) can shift.
Joe’s vision is bigger. As we near the South Norwalk station — the first time I thought the trip was too quick — he talks of linking the rails to other places people need to go.
“Connecticut is a state you can wrap your arms around,” he says. “Why not take a rail to the airport?”
As Joe, and Cathy, walk off the train to a meeting about the Walk Bridge replacement project, a tune hums from the distant past. “ I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live long day ....”
And that’s how he likes it — along now with highways and bridges and seaports and airports.
Jacqueline Smith’s columns appear Fridays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. Email her at email@example.com