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Towards a Connecticut S-Bahn: the Waterbury Line

I’ve been neglecting blogging recently because I’ve been hugely focused on my ongoing senior paper writing process, which is a lot of fun and very rewarding but also very time-consuming. One of the joys of that process, though, is that it occasionally prompts thoughts about other planning issues on which my research touches. Such was the case with the news that Connecticut has managed to find some funds to invest in its ugly-stepchild Waterbury Branch, and that Metro-North is re-opening the temporary Devon Transfer station to allow track work on the main New Haven Line.

Some of my senior paper work focuses on the S-Bahn paradigm of regional rail services common in the German-speaking world and beyond. Like other systems that rely on mainline rail, S-Bahns in major urban areas combine lines on major trunk lines in urban cores to provide rapid-transit-like levels of frequency. One of the distinguishing marks of the S-Bahn paradigm, however, is its emphasis on precisely timed transfers at outlying stops across a wide region–up to and including a whole country–an approach known as the Integraler Takftfahrplan, or, roughly, “Integrated Pulse Schedule.” Scheduled thus, transit services can avoid running at expensive overwhelming frequency, and rely on precisely timed transfers to maximize rider utility.

ITF schedule maps

Takt scheduling diagrams, from Maxwell 1999

One of the advantages of takt scheduling is that it can bring relatively frequent, useful transit to regions without a massive or dense population base. Indeed, some agencies have found the S-Bahn/takt system useful for serving polycentric, dispersed regions without one massive urban center. That got me thinking: where in the US, outside of core major urban areas, might such an approach be useful?

So, why not Connecticut? Connecticut has no dominant city; Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford are all roughly in the same size class, and there’s a coherent second tier of smaller cities such as Danbury, Waterbury, New Britain, Norwich, and New London.

new haven line getting back on track

Urbanized areas on the New Haven Line, from RPA’s Getting Back on Track report.

The New Haven Line–arguably the country’s best commuter rail line, and one that I have argued before should be turned into a rapid transit line–ties together three of those top-tier cities, with a new service to Hartford starting in 2018 and connections to several of the second-tier cities. And yet, the state’s rail service is still predominantly conceptualized as “commuter” rail intended to shuttle passengers to office jobs in Fairfield County and New York City. Rather than providing everywhere-to-everywhere connections, the system all feeds toward the state’s southwestern extremity.

Such is the case with the Waterbury Line. Currently, the branch operates only a skeleton schedule; completely unsignalized and nearly devoid of passing sidings, it can manage only one train every two hours in each direction. The diesel-powered trains offer transfers to other New Haven Line trains at Bridgeport, which eats up mainline capacity both because the short, slow Waterbury trains take up slots and because Bridgeport’s narrow, constrained station is a terrible place to turn trains. The new investment over the next few years will signalize the line and add a few sidings, bringing capacity to two trains per hour in each direction at peak.  That’s obviously a start, but what if we can make it better?

First, let’s think about where Waterbury Line passengers might actually be traveling. Here’s a look at the top 25 places where workers in the Naugatuck Valley are employed, courtesy of Census LEHD (the full spreadsheet is here for your perusal):

Place Count Share
Waterbury city, CT 17,215 12.7%
Milford city (balance), CT 9,421 7.0%
Shelton city, CT 7,752 5.7%
New Haven city, CT 7,093 5.2%
Stratford CDP, CT 6,497 4.8%
Bridgeport city, CT 6,343 4.7%
Naugatuck borough, CT 3,849 2.8%
New York city, NY 3,562 2.6%
Hartford city, CT 2,871 2.1%
Trumbull CDP, CT 2,569 1.9%
Stamford city, CT 2,494 1.8%
Derby city, CT 2,425 1.8%
Danbury city, CT 2,311 1.7%
Norwalk city, CT 2,226 1.6%
Orange CDP, CT 2,043 1.5%
West Haven city, CT 1,883 1.4%
North Haven CDP, CT 1,556 1.2%
Meriden city, CT 1,547 1.1%
Ansonia city, CT 1,369 1.0%
Bristol city, CT 1,140 0.8%
Torrington city, CT 1,094 0.8%
Westport CDP, CT 877 0.6%
New Britain city, CT 834 0.6%
Middletown city, CT 789 0.6%
Oakville CDP, CT 748 0.6%

Around 39,000, or 28.9% of the total, commute to Fairfield County, as the Waterbury Line is set up to serve. Another 2,500, or 1.8%, commute into Manhattan, and 700, or 0.5%, commute to Westchester. That’s a total of about 31.2%, as opposed to 65,255, or 48.3%, who stay within New Haven County–in the Valley itself, in the Shoreline towns, or in New Haven proper–and a further 1,600 who commute to Middlesex County and 1,163 New London County, further to the east. Which is to say: the Waterbury’s line’s emphasis on direct service to the southeast isn’t useless, but it’s not serving a majority of work-based trips particularly well. Can the area’s rail infrastructure help with that?

Perhaps the place to start is an emphasis on the power of connections. Offering a connection to mainline trains at Devon, rather than wasting crew and equipment time and mainline slots with a trip to Bridgeport, could free up the Waterbury Line to function more freely. Instead of rebuilding platforms all along the branch to fit level boarding for mainline rolling stock, the branch could use a dedicated fleet of European-style low-floor DMUs, making platform rebuilding much cheaper. (there is very little freight on the line, and a past study has found that electrification would only shave one minute off schedules because of the line’s extreme curviness) With trip times from Waterbury to Devon well under an hour, the line could run a train every half hour in each direction with four vehicles, plus one in reserve.

This is not, of course, a new idea. “Fixing” the branch by severing it at Devon is a common topic of discussion among railfans. A past study envisioned a reconfigured station at Devon looking something like this:

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Alternatively, the “new” Devon could be moved a little east, and lose the “T” structure:

devon 2.jpg

Of these two alternatives, I prefer the first–a two-track terminal offers more flexibility for frequent service, and the T-shaped platforms allow branch trains to operate different equipment than mainline trains. It wouldn’t be cheap–a substation located in the middle of the diamond would have to be relocated–but it also wouldn’t be as expensive as the study’s estimated $134 million price tag (the second alternative is projected at $73 million), mainly because there is absolutely no reason to build a parking garage under I-95. Instead of building a new pedestrian passage under or over the tracks, a future Devon station could retain the T format but rebuild the narrow Naugatuck Avenue bridge for use as an overpass.

With mainline trains now running every half-hour-albeit on a weird schedule with one 20-minute and one 40-minute gap–at off-peak times, the timing works out perfectly for branch trains to meet a mainline train at Devon every half hour throughout the day. The branch trains would, as in a takt system, be scheduled around their meeting time with a mainline train. With enough scheduling work, and as mainline frequencies increase as promised, the connection could become a three-way meet, with branch trains offering connections to mainline trains in both directions, thus increasing rider utility again.

One of the beauties of takt scheduling is that it can also offer connections to local transit. In this case, the trains meeting at Devon could also be met by a local bus feeding riders to the station from high-density  (by local standards) apartment developments near Walnut Beach in one direction, and from parts of Milford in the other:

circulator bus

Thus, a person arriving at Devon Station at the half-hourly takt mark would be able to choose to travel on transit in any one of four different directions aside from the one they came from.  Such a system requires hard scheduling work and good reliability of transit–but it is doable.

Turning the Waterbury Line entirely into a timed-transfer branch at Devon may or may not be the right concept. On the positive side, it would:

  • increase branch and mainline reliability by ending mixing of branch and mainline trains
  • allow timed transfers towards New Haven, where a not-inconsiderable number of Naugatuck Valley passengers are bound, without the extra travel to and from Bridgeport, as well as toward New York,
  • allow operation of low-floor DMUs on the branch
  • provide a rationale for a new connecting bus route

On the possible negative side, it would:

  • eliminate one-seat rides for branch passengers to Bridgeport
  • means that getting to an NYC-bound express train, which would stop at Bridgeport but presumably not at Devon, would require a second transfer
  • struggle to attract walk-up traffic, since the station itself is isolated, bordered by the Housatonic river on one side and I-95 on the other

So there’s a need for further study, hopefully with more realistic cost estimates than including a massive, stupid garage when there’s a nice commuter lot available to build on at Stratford less than two miles away. But as a thought experiment, and a way to illustrate the feasibility and desirability of takt scheduling and the S-Bahn rail concept, I think it works nicely. Just don’t build the damn garage.