City rails need repairs

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Broken-down commuter train cars may begin returning to service faster thanks to a new repair shop that opened in New Haven last month — but even with the new facility, local riders will still have to make do with decades-old trains for a few more years.

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell opened the new $33 million rail repair shop in the New Haven Rail Yard on Dec. 21, calling the facility’s construction an important step in improving the state’s rail service. The repair shop’s opening coincides with the release of a report on Monday by the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, a state-mandated advocacy group, that called on the state to replace its old, unreliable train cars, make improvements to decrepit stations and provide more parking at those stations.

The recent opening of a new train car repair shop represents a significant step in improving New Haven’s rail service, officials say, but commuters will have to wait a while longer for the city’s efforts to take effect.
Kathleen Koch
The recent opening of a new train car repair shop represents a significant step in improving New Haven’s rail service, officials say, but commuters will have to wait a while longer for the city’s efforts to take effect.

Rell said the New Haven Line will soon features cars that had previously idled in the rail yard waiting for service.

“Our passengers, who have experienced cold cars or hot cars, can take notice that the state and Metro-North Railroad have taken seriously the issues we face,” she said in a statement.

Though change might be on the way, the 55,000 daily riders of Connecticut’s branch of the Metro-North railroad, which is bemoaned for its aging train cars that are prone to breakdowns, still may be inconvenienced by overcrowding and uncomfortable conditions — at least until new trains arrive in three or four years, officials said.

Jim Cameron, the council’s chairman, said the State Department of Transportation and the Rell administration deserve credit for constructing the rail repair shop, although, he said, it should have been built years ago. Former Gov. John Rowland and the state general assembly largely ignored the pressing need to upgrade the state’s rail infrastructure during the 1990s, Cameron said, and now Connecticut is playing catch-up.

“The whole system is way too old,” Cameron said. “It really is the bitter fruit of years of neglect.”

Of the state’s 342 rail cars, 240 date back to the 1970s, and they have historically been vulnerable to winter weather because their electronics are located outside the cars and are exposed to the elements, said Michele Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Rell. But over 100 cars have already been refurbished to replace key components and reduce breakdowns, she said, and the repaired trains have proven very reliable.

Among local commuters and Elis who have made the hour-and-a-half to two-hour trip to New York City, Metro-North trains are notorious for their lack of reliable heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Other frequent complaints center on dirty train cars and sordid bathrooms.

Often because of their age, about 17 percent of Connecticut’s rail cars are out of service at any time, according to Metro-North statistics, while ridership continues to grow, increasing by three percent in 2006. The result is frequent overcrowding that will only get worse over the next few years, although the new repair yard will help broken rail cars return to service faster, Cameron said. The bottom line, he said, is commuters must be patient.

“Progress is being made,” Cameron said. “[But] from the consumer’s perspective, it’s the same old situation.”

That patience should pay off by the end of 2009, when the state’s first new M-8 rail cars are expected to arrive. The state has contracted with a Japanese company to deliver 210 cars at a cost of $522 million, with an option for purchasing another 170 after that. In the meantime, the state has purchased 33 used cars from Virginia’s commuter rail system at a cost of $13.4 million, and spent another $12 million repairing them. The cars’ arrival in Connecticut was delayed, however, and several have either not entered service at all or are running in Connecticut but have not yet been refurbished.

The condition of the state’s commuter rail system is improving and will continue to improve, assuming the legislature provides careful oversight in the coming years, said Sen. Donald DeFronzo, Democrat of New Britain and the newly appointed chairman of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee.

“I do think in the last couple years, the state has made an effort to turn the corner on [improving the rail system],” he said. “People in Connecticut have been very patient waiting for this.”

Ultimately, the state is moving further towards upgrading stations’ amenities and train platforms and also hopes to create 5,000 new parking spaces at stations in the coming years, Sullivan said. But the changes will take time as well as more funding, she said.

“There have been many years of neglect to the system,” Sullivan said. “It hasn’t just happened overnight, and it isn’t going to be solved overnight.”

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