Latest Location Of Metro-North Woes: Danbury

February 24, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

Latest Location Of Metro-North Woes: Danbury
Commuter Rick Bauerfeld: ‘They took something that was working and made it not work’

By DON STACOM, [email protected]
The Hartford Courant
2:48 PM EST, February 21, 2014

Already plagued by crises, Metro-North has run into a failure of the new $70 million Danbury branch improvements so severe that its commuters are driving to trains on the Harlem line more than 10 miles away.

Malfunctioning signals have been making Danbury branch trains run late since November, and Metro-North and its contractors are offering no estimate of when the system will work correctly.

Instead, the railroad announced on Thursday that it has begun honoring Danbury branch tickets on the Harlem line. Its trains run in a roughly parallel directions, but commuters must drive 10 to 12 miles or more to reach its stations in New York state.

The defective signals are delaying both drivers and rail commuters alike. The new system designed by Alstom Signaling Inc. and manufactured by Siemens Automation is mistakenly activating lights and gates at grade crossings when trains aren’t approaching, according to Metro-North. And because the system isn’t working right, train crews now must come to a complete stop at each crossing to double-check that the gates are down – and then proceed at no more than 15 mph.

So cars are getting delayed by crossing gates for no reason, and trains are losing time for a series of unnecessary stops.

Commuters are even more incensed that Metro-North managers made the situation worse with a schedule change. The railroad rearranged the schedule in November on the assumption that the $70 million modernization would allow faster, more frequent service. But trains are running so late the new timetable simply doesn’t work, meaning that riders miss a key connection and end up getting to work late after being crammed into overcrowded New Haven line passenger cars.

“Metro-North is teaching Danbury line commuters like me that the early morning service is not dependable. A commuter needs dependable service, so we will start abandoning the line, which is bad for traffic, parking congestion, and the communities along the corridor,” Rick Bauerfeld of Wilton said in an email Wednesday to Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.

Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, spent years pressing the state transportation department to upgrade the Danbury line, and is furious that the long-awaited improvements have backfired so badly. Until the railroad fixes the defects, it should go back to the original timetable, she told transportation Commissioner James Redeker at a heavily attended commuters’ complaint session in Fairfield this week.

Lavielle said she has more than 200 signatures on petitions demanding Metro-North reinstitute the old schedule — at least until it gets the new signals working right.

“When there’s snow or a bad storm, you expect the commute to be difficult – nature has messed things up. But these are management decisions. They took something that was working and made it not work. Now the managers choose not to fix it,” Bauerfeld, a Metro-North commuter since 1996, told The Courant on Thursday.

Metro-North said it doesn’t know why the system isn’t working, but has assigned staff to work with Siemens and Alstom engineers to track down what’s wrong. Metro-North has maintained that testing throughout the construction showed no sign of trouble, but hasn’t explained why defective signals were put into service. It also hasn’t said whether there will be any contractual penalties for the contractors.

The new signals and sidings are intended to let Metro-North run trains in both directions simultaneously on the Danbury branch, which is a single track for most of its route. To increase service, the railroad in November changed the schedule of its first New York-bound train of the morning, which made all Danbury branch stops before heading into Grand Central Terminal. The new schedule has that train end in South Norwalk, then head back to Danbury; passengers disembarking at South Norwalk transfer to the 6:31 train to continue to Grand Central.

But because of the signal misfires, the first train usually arrives so late at South Norwalk that the 6:31 has already left, Bauerfeld said. So commuters, already late, wait for the next New York-bound train — which is often standing room only when it pulls in, he said.

“This week, the train hasn’t made the 6:31 connection once,” he said. “Some days I drive to South Norwalk so I can get it.

“We recognize that recurring delays on the Danbury branch are causing difficulties for our commuters’ daily schedules,” Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti said in a written statement. “We are working with the manufacturers of the newly installed signal system, Alstom and Siemens, to resolve the underlying issues affecting the signal system.”

Boucher said the DOT and Metro-North need to respond with more urgency, saying “The continuing problems plaguing Metro-North are hurting commuters, their jobs and our economy.”