Riding the Danbury branch line: A commuter’s life is not an easy one

Power problems, equipment problems, late connections. Almost every day it seems as if something is going on to prevent a smooth, timely ride from Wilton to Grand Central Terminal on Metro-North’s Danbury branch line. All you need to do is look at the Twitter feed.
A conversation with three veteran commuters reveals the belief that service has worsened over the years, rather than improved. It has affected their home lives as well as their professional lives.
The major complaints are the timeliness — or lack of it — and the slow pace of travel.
Nick Battista, Rich Aquan and Dave Moriarty have all been commuting into New York City for years and all take the 6:45 out of Wilton, which is supposed to arrive in New York at 8:08 a.m., but they say it is closer to 8:15 or even 8:20. For this they pay $343 a month, $336.14 if they buy their tickets online.
Mr. Aquan has been riding the New Haven line for 26 years, the last 18 from Wilton.
“It’s really gotten worse,” he told The Bulletin, stressing the problems of the last few months. “In two weeks my 90-minute train ride turned into three and a half hours. We ran the gauntlet of events, from hitting cars, someone jumping in front of a train, a fire.”
But all that aside, the system, he said, is stacked against commuters. For example, there is often a holdup in the tunnel leading into Grand Central. “If there is a train that’s due that’s late, they will hold up the others. It’s a waiting game. The last couple of months have been really bad. The worst it’s ever been.”
Dave Moriarty agreed. “I moved here in ’93. I’m 117 years old now,” he said with only half a laugh. “If you were on the train in 1959 and went into a coma and revived yourself last week you’d think two days went by.
“I just sort of take it, but it could be a lot better.”
He acknowledged that Metro-North “has had a very rough stretch,” adding, “at least we didn’t go up in a flaming fireball. That’s the bar.”
Again, time is of the essence when riding into the city, although heat in the winter would be nice as well.
“We expect it to be on time and get there on time. Otherwise I’ve got to explain at work. I’ve lost credibility saying that,” he added. An IT consultant, Mr. Moriarty makes a lot of conference calls. “I used to have 8:30 calls, but I don’t trust it anymore. I don’t make any calls until 9. It’s not a world where you can stroll in late anymore, particularly if you are a consultant.”
But it goes beyond work. “It hurts me here … going home,” he said. “I don’t plan on anything anymore. I can’t hold up my end of stuff. It’s 6 in the morning, I’m trying to support our world in Wilton. There’s a lot of us on that train.”
According to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, an average of 2,600 people ride the Danbury branch line on a weekday. That’s roughly 650,000 riders over the course of a year, not including weekends.
Mr. Battista also feels the stress at work. “I used to make 8:30 meetings. I can’t make them anymore,” he said, noting he has a 15-minute walk after he gets off the train.
When he moved here 24 years ago, the ride was one hour, 17 minutes. Today it is supposed to be one hour and 23 minutes, but it is often closer to 90 minutes.
“The average speed is 33 mph,” Mr. Battista said. “Open the bloody throttle! The exasperation [on the train] is palpable.”
If the train were to average 45 mph, Mr. Battista said, the ride would be just 65 minutes. “That would be perfection,” he said.
It is especially frustrating for Mr. Battista because he travels for his job and often rides superior trains in Europe and Japan.
“They have to address equipment breaking down,” Mr. Aquan said. “I think the other lines are treated better than Danbury. … The spur lines are sort of abused.” He added that one rider he knows keeps track of the engine numbers because some break down more than others.
Mr. Moriarty agreed that the branch lines get short shrift, asking why there are plans to spend millions on commutation around Hartford. “There’s not a big commuting crowd to Hartford compared to Fairfield County,” he said. More than 39 million riders use Metro-North’s New Haven line each year.

Future plans

A spokesman for Metro-North did not address the issue of a general slowdown over two decades, but did address the slower pace of travel now. After a disastrous derailment in May 2013 in Bridgeport, Metro-North began “an intensive effort to inspect all the track” over the entire system, Aaron Donovan said. The rail company used ground-penetrating radar to “look at the health of the rail bed” that cannot be seen by eye, and a “super-duper” heavy track loading vehicle that puts more weight on the rails than a typical commuter train to measure stress on the rails. Metro-North also used normal testing with a Sperry car that penetrates into the metal of the rail to detect any faults or fatigue.
The result has been identification of areas of track to be repaired or upgraded over time and a resulting slow-speed order over those areas. “That’s done for safety,” Mr. Donovan said, adding that “it is impacting schedules for now.” He said when the work is done, the slow-speed orders could be lifted and track speeds increased in a number of locations. He said completion of the work has been discussed in terms of months, not years.
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s 30-year transportation proposal, unveiled last month, includes making track, signal and catenary (overhead power lines) improvements up and down the 24-mile long branch line from Danbury to Norwalk. According to Judd Everhart, a state Department of Transportation spokesman, the work may be added to a project to replace the Walk Bridge on the main New Haven line. The proposed budget is approximately   $25- to $30 million and construction would start in 2016 and be completed in 2017.
“The Danbury Branch is a critical component of the New Haven line, which is the busiest commuter rail line in the country,” Mr. Everhart said. “Connecticut is making unprecedented investments in the commuter rail network, making it as safe, efficient and reliable as possible.”
State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) has sponsored a bill that would provide bonding to electrify the branch line, first from Norwalk to Wilton and then from Wilton to Danbury, as well as extend passenger service to New Milford. It would also offer upgrades to the Waterbury, New Canaan and Housatonic lines. SB 479 was referred to the Transportation Committee last week and will go to the Finance Subcommittee on Transportation Bonding. Ms. Boucher said she planned “to shepherd” the bill along. There is no guarantee it will pass, and even if it does, implementing it would take time.
That leaves commuters with little recourse right now.
Going to another station, such as South Norwalk, is not a good option, they believe. Mr. Moriarty said he lives too far from Norwalk to make it worthwhile. Going to Norwalk, he added, would “diminish the whole Danbury line. There’s not enough parking in Norwalk if you take away the Danbury line.”
Mr. Aquan likes the free parking in Wilton. “I don’t want to have to pay,” he said. “I live in a town that’s expensive enough. If they ever charge for parking in Wilton, everyone will go to South Norwalk. If you’re on a regular 9-to-5 schedule, it’s easier to take the train from Wilton.”
In the end, they feel they should not have to flee Wilton for better service.
“I want all my reps to bring a lot of pressure on the MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority] and Metro-North to bring it to what it was 25 years ago,” Mr. Battista said. “I don’t want to hear the talk, I want to hear results.
“If I were running Metro-North, a lot of people would be out. What does it take to run a railroad on time? All the people on the train are highly intelligent, sophisticated people. Ride a train in Europe or Japan and it is a very different world.”

Common sense

Mr. Battista offered many instances where it would seem common sense was nowhere to be found along the rail system. He was on one train that pulled into Grand Central to a platform with two exits. One exit was closed and the door to half the second exit was locked.
“You’ve got hundreds of people on the platform and 75% of the egress is gone. There are hundreds of volts of electricity on the tracks. These Metro-North guys are just standing there. I asked them why isn’t the door open? The guy just looks at me. There’s no care whatsoever.”
The use of buses brought a weary laugh. Most times, if buses are needed to substitute for trains, two buses will pick up passengers and make alternating stops.
“They never get straight who’s stopping where, and you find yourself on the wrong bus and they don’t start on time,” Mr. Battista said.
Mr. Moriarty described the scenario as “a nightmare” when there often is not enough room on the buses. “What is Metro-North thinking? Do the math,” he said. If it’s a regular breakdown, there will be enough seats. If it’s an emergency, “you get on that first bus, don’t dilly-dally.”

Speeding things up

Mr. Battista believes a time and motion study conducted by an independent organization would go a long way to alleviate the congestion that is often the cause of many delays and slowdowns. Such a study could look at how trains are run, scheduled, and dispatched to optimize speed for passengers.
“Speed and safety are not mutually exclusive,” Mr. Battista said. “In Japan we go fast and we go safe.
“And I’m not talking about something that’s two years long. Anyone who knows something about railroading can see in 30 days what it takes to get it running faster and safer.”
“I’d love a faster trip,” Mr. Moriarty said, adding that it would improve property values. But he is not optimistic.
“I’m a shrugger,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do. That’s why I bring two books with me. I’m very well-read.”