Following a decline in ridership and increasing complaints about poor service, Metro-North has appointed a senior manager to turn things around on its Waterbury branch.
Mike Donnarumma of Cheshire is the new district superintendent of the railroad's New Haven line, with directions to focus on improving conditions on the Waterbury branch.
At a press conference with railroad President Joseph Giulietti, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy praised the move, and called existing service on the line "unacceptable."
Earlier this month, frustrated commuters staged a rally in Derby to complain about filthy passenger cars, failing locomotives and an attitude of arrogance by Metro-North managers. One rider called her daily train "an outhouse on wheels."
Donnarumma, a seven-year employee of Metro-North, pledged to listen to passengers.
"My goal is to provide the best service possible to the Waterbury Branch and to be a go-between to the customers and the railroad," said Donnarumma, who previously worked for Waterbury's chamber of commerce and the state transportation department.
"Commuters on the Waterbury line have expressed their frustration, and for good reason," Malloy said. "The state of this line is quite frankly unacceptable. If we want to give residents a better alternative to driving, then we need to ensure that they get the service they expect when they ride the train."
The 27-mile-long branch cuts through the Naugatuck Valley and joins the main New Haven line in Bridgeport. It has just one track, diesel trains and no signals, so service is severely limited. Even so, it was the fastest-growing segment of Metro-North's operations in Connecticut for several years, largely because rush-hour traffic on Route 8 has worsened with more Naugatuck Valley residents commuting to jobs in Fairfield County.
Last year the numbers started dropping, though. Many riders blame the railroad for giving Waterbury the worst equipment, and seeming to do little or no cleaning of passenger cars.
More often than in the past, Metro-North has been putting in substitute bus service so it can do track work or use the diesel trains on other lines. Riders uniformly complain that the buses are crowded and poorly scheduled, and run by out-of-area drivers who don't know the local roads and often miss stops. Passengers complain that there's frequently no sign of conductors or railroad managers when the buses are used, so there's no one to answer questions or supervise the operation.
The long-term problem with the Waterbury branch is that the schedule is limited because only one train can be on the line at a time. That leaves huge gaps between trains, forcing workers to either leave the jobs early or stay late — and if they miss a train, they're stuck waiting for hours. The weekday schedule from Bridgeport, for instance, has just three trains for returning commuters: 3:41 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8:32 p.m.
Malloy's administration has promised a new signal system and a study of ways to increase the frequency of service, most likely by installing sidings so that trains can run in opposite directions and pass each other.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said Donnarumma's appointment is good for Waterbury line riders, but questioned why there isn't a similar manager for the Danbury branch.
"Danbury line riders often tell me they feel that Metro-North is not listening to them. They have complaint fatigue," said Boucher, ranking member of the transportation committee. "They feel unsure if they'll get to work on time, or even get home safely. You can't keep a job if you can't show up on time on a regular basis. This is a rail line with more than 2,000 daily passengers."