Housatonic line scrutinized after train derailment
NEW MILFORD — Although the images of Housatonic Rail Road Company cars on their side and damaged track in Gaylordsville were dramatic earlier this month, a recent train derailment itself isn’t raising alarm for town and railroad officials.
“It was just one of those flukes,” said Matthew Whitney, associate general counsel for Housatonic Rail.
The official cause of the June 4 derailment hasn’t been determined, but Whitney said the company believes it was caused by a small split in a piece of rail at one of the crossings, undetectable to the eye or by using special equipment that scans the rail for problems weekly. The train had left Danbury and was heading to Pittsfield, Mass., when it derailed at a private crossing off of River Road near Riverview Road.
“Generally these can be detected by our inspectors,” he said.
Officials consider the derailment minor because no one was injured, the seven cars involved were empty, and the track was cleared and repaired within a day and a half of the accident. They also don’t think the incident will have any effect on the line’s future, including the long-desired possibility of bringing passenger service back to the area.
A “significant amount of work” would have to be done before passenger service could be established, Whitney said.
“It would be completely new rail that passengers would be riding on,” Whitney said.
Plans to upgrade the line have been discussed for years, and recently gained traction when funding was approved by Massachusetts and Connecticut. Work is already underway to replace six miles of track and 11,000 wood ties in Kent for $1.6 million, which the state and Housatonic Rail are funding.
The project is expected to be completed by July 2017, according to the state Department of Transportation, and could be the first step in reopening the door for passenger rail, which Housatonic discontinued in the 1970s. Housatonic Rail expects this section to be completed by the end of the year.
Massachusetts, which owns all of the tracks in that state, including the section Housatonic Rail operates on, already invested $35 million into upgrading its rails and plans to invest another $80 million or so.
“It’s a massive effort,” Whitney said, adding there wasn’t a timetable to replace the entire Connecticut portion.
Whitney said the railroad industry is unique because it has to maintain and upgrade its infrastructure, unlike the trucking or busing industries that drive on roads maintained by the state or federal governments.
He said it’s no secret the railroad line is old and needs to be replaced.
“It’s been done in a piecemeal fashion and now it’s time to replace all of it,” he said. “We’re working to upgrade the entire system.”
Some sections of the rail that are being replaced date back to the 1920s, Whitney said.
The life of the track depends on a lot of factors, including the wear and tear on the line, how often it’s used, what travels on it and the grade of the steel, said Carl Jackson, rail administrator for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said derailments like the Gaylordsville one occur once or twice a day across the country.
In Connecticut, there have been seven freight derailments in Connecticut since 2011. Three of those were on the Housatonic line.
Mayor David Gronbach said you always have to be cautious and understand the possibility of derailments.
“I think there’s always a concern when you have a major infrastructure like rail in town,” he said.
Housatonic Rail has about two trains that travel the line daily.
The company is responsible for inspections of the rail line. The frequency and types of inspections are set by the FRA based on the type of train, Jackson said.
Housatonic Rail employees weekly inspect the entire 83.5 miles of rail it operates on, including the 36.4 miles of track the state owns from New Milford to the Massachusetts line. Although not required by the FRA, the company’s maintenance of way crew also uses a special car to scan the rail for abnormalities, Whitney said.
Bob Rush, chairman of the Rail Service Restoration Society, which is pushing for passenger service from Danbury to Pittsfield, remembers riding the train from New Milford to New York years ago and hopes to be able to do so again someday.
He said he doesn’t have concerns about the existing rail, but hopes the upgrades and pressure from elected officials will help passenger service back.
“All we can do is keep pushing it so people can get on board,” Rush said.
Jackson said the state doesn’t have any plans to have passenger service return to New Milford. Before it could be offered, a safety assessment and a study examining the community’s interest and possible usage of the line would be conducted. The FRA would also have to approve it.
“That would have to be a joint process,” Jackson said.
Whitney said passenger rail is an ongoing discussion.
“It’s something we’d like to see at some point,” he said.
Although there aren’t concrete plans to bring passenger rail back to New Milford, officials and rail advocates remain optimistic.
“There are other towns that are interested because it would be a great benefit,” Rush said.
Gronbach said allowing commuters in Northwest Connecticut to travel to work by train could open up Fairfield County.
“Passenger rail allows Stamford and Norwalk to expand and attract businesses that can pay mid-level salaries and allow people to have a beautiful place in the country and raise their families,” he said. “That’s where I see the potential of passenger rail.”
email@example.com; 203-731-3345; @kkoerting