Fewer power outages. Better-maintained rail cars. And rounder wheels.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised those improvements Thursday during an election-year tour behind the scenes at New Haven’s rail yard.
Malloy (at left in photo with state transportation chief Jim Redeker) spent part of the morning touring improvements to the 80-acre rail yard behind Union Station in New Haven, which has been in operation since the 1800s. Malloy was accompanied by a scrum of reporters and cameras and a gaggle of transportation and railroad officials.
Malloy, who’s running for re-election this year, touted the state’s $400 million investment in improving rail service at New Haven’s rail yard, catching up with advances that neighboring New York state has already made.
A 15-year plan to improve the rail yard was initially plagued by early delays and costs that exploded beyond estimates under the Rell administration. The first component reached completion in 2009. Since then, the rail yard has renovated or build anew a repair shop, storage facility, power substation, and a new facility for prepping new M8 Metro North cars to hit the rails.
A new “component change-out shop” and a wheel-truing facility are currently under construction.
Thursday’s tour began in the under-construction change-out shop (pictured), off of Brewery Street. The massive structure features hydraulic lifts and overhead cranes, able to work on 13 cars at once.
The new facility will be able to quickly swap out entire components—like heating, ventilation and air conditioning units—of the new M8 Metro North cars. Workers will be able to remove components that need repair, install working components and send a train on its way, rather than having to keep an entire car off the rails while one part is fixed. The modular system means broken components can be repaired separately and be ready to swap back into the fleet as needed.
Malloy said that of 405 M8 cars ordered, 360 have been delivered so far by the manufacturer. The rest are expected by the end of the year, continuing the phase-out of older train cars, some of which have been on the rails for 40 years.
Transit chief Redeker (at center in photo) said Thursday’s tour offered the first chance for people to see the “heart and soul” of the train system, the out-of-sight infrastructure that keeps trains running.
Redeker said the recently completed power substation will help to prevent power outages that can bring trains to a standstill. Power outages are unacceptable and preventable, said Gov. Malloy. For too long, the state has deferred investment or opted for short-term fixes to its train system, he said.
The improvements to the rail yard “are improvements that will return the New Haven line to best-in-class,” Malloy said.
The governor, commissioner and entourage boarded a bus to tour the yard. Ted Nezames, a state transportation department engineer, pointed out the sights as the bus rolled by.
John Hartwell, vice chair of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, took a seat near the governor. “We need a lot more money to be poured into” the railroad system statewide, he said.
A recent study found the state needs to invest some $3.6 billion in improvements, Hartwell said. Urgent and costly repairs are needed at four movable bridges, Hartwell said.
Malloy later said that the state is working with the federal government to secure funding soon for bridge repairs.
The tour stopped at the yard’s new wheel-truing facility (pictured), still under construction. In the old facility, nearby, a grinding machine installed in the 1960s mills wheels that have developed flat spots.
Jim Fox, principal engineer at the state transportation department, explained that train wheels have wear and tear just like any other wheels. Because they’re made of steel, the wear manifests differently than in cars. Most wear occurs during “slip and slide” season, in the fall. Leaves on the tracks can make train wheels stop and skid while braking, rather than simply slowing rotation. The resulting metal-on-metal skid of wheel against rail can create flat spots on the wheels, which then need to be ground back to round.
The new facility, to be completed this fall, will be able to do that work about four times faster. Trains will be able to pull into the building and workers can mill the wheels without removing them from the cars.
As the tour continued, Nezames (at left in photo) pointed out existing shops and storage buildings destined for improvements. As the bus headed back toward the change-out shop, Nezames described plans for a large pedestrian bridge that will span the yard, starting from the station. Being able to step off a train and walk to the yard will encourage yard workers to commute to work by train, he said.
“What a novel idea,” quipped Hartwell.
When all improvements are completed, the yard will employ about 1,600 workers, up from about 700 currently, Nezames said.
Two more years’ worth of construction is already funded, including a new warehouse, rail maintenance facility, power upgrade to the yard, and the pedestrian bridge. Last Friday, the state bonding commission approved $80 million for improvements.
Planned improvements beyond that—an inspection shop, a car washer, expansion of the diesel shop—have not yet been funded. All told, the yard improvements may cost about $1 billion, Nezames said.
Back at the change-out shop, Malloy addressed the press. “This stuff doesn’t get seen,” he said, but the behind-the-scenes work to make rail service better is a “massive investment,” he said. “This is big-time stuff.”
Malloy said the average train-rider will notice the difference. “The new fleet is a better fleet,” he said. It will be better maintained and cleaner, he said. It will be “a better customer experience.”
Asked about plans to bring back the Metro North bar car, Malloy said he’s working on it.