Town talks about bringing back rail service
NEW MILFORD — The last passenger train left town in 1971 and for the past 25 years, residents and officials have been trying to get it back.
With renovations on the rail line up north in Massachusetts and a new governor coming, New Milford officials think they have the best chance now to bring the service back.
Residents and officials at a recent forum repeated long-discussed benefits passenger rail would bring to New Milford including helping commuters who work in southern Fairfield County or New York, bringing tourists to the area, increasing property values and reducing car emissions by offering an alternative travel option.
Freight trains still use the railroad, but the rails aren’t up to the standard for passenger rail and could not accommodate the passenger trains’ higher speeds. The biggest hurdle to restarting this service is the cost to redo the tracks.
Extending passenger rail in western Connecticut is generally split in two: south and north of New Milford.
The southern piece would connect New Milford to Danbury, which is about 13 miles. Passengers can then continue south to Norwalk on the Danbury line and then on to the New Haven line. There are talks about creating an express line from Danbury to Brewster, N.Y., which will let passengers connect there to continue into the city or the current proposal would be to have passengers change in Southeast to continue south on the Harlem line.
Officials agree that it makes the most sense to pursue the southern piece first because of the established ridership already on those Metro-North lines.
The northern piece would upgrade the rail from New Milford to the Massachusetts border. This section is owned by the Housatonic Rail Road Company, which has proposed passenger rail from New Milford to Pittsfield, Mass.
Massachusetts bought the section from the state line to Pittsfield in 2014 and just a few weeks ago began laying the new, upgraded steel for the 37 mile track. The project cost $30 million and will make the line passenger ready in two years, said Karen Christensen, president of the Train Campaign, an initiative dedicated to bringing passenger rail back to Litchfield County and Berkshire County, Mass.
Previous estimates to complete the entire line is about $200 million, Christensen said.
However Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s 30-year transportation plan had the estimate for the Danbury to New Milford piece at about $450 million. This would include upgrading the tracks, adding passing sidings, renovating or building stations compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, installing a new signal system and buying new locomotives and passenger cars.
A study in 2016 projected low ridership and the state decided to not renovate the line base on that and the projected cost.
However, state Rep. Bill Buckbee said there is interest from state representatives and senators from all along the rail line for this project. He has introduced two bills since joining the General Assembly as the representative for the 67th District, but neither have passed.
He’s optimistic this time though because it seems like federal money might be available, in addition to the support from his colleagues.
“We’re actually starting to get a little traction,” Buckbee said.
Tom O’Brien, Buckbee’s challenger in the November election, also fully supports passenger rail in New Milford.
Mayor Pete Bass said the first selectmen and mayors in the Western Connecticut Council of Governments also recognize the need and demand for this and unanimously approved applying for a grant that would study alternative funding sources to restore passenger rail.
At the recent forum, officials encouraged residents to advocate for this service because a groundswell of support could finally make it a reality.
“Political will is by the people,” Bass said. “Politicians answer to the people. If there’s a swelling base of support that wants this project, comes to meetings, talks to their reps, I think you will see a change.”