Connecticut's Aging Rail Technology Is Causing Breakdowns From Both Heat and Cold

New Haven Line train.

(New York, NY - WNYC) Performance on a major New York commuter rail line during last week's heat wave was a tale of the two states it serves. Outdated technology in Connecticut led to multiple train breakdowns and stranded passengers on the New Haven Line, which connects that state to Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. One train stalled between stations when overhead power lines sagged and tangled, leaving passengers sweltering and stuck for almost an hour.

All the while, trains on New York tracks ran smoothly.

The NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority says that's because New York State invested early last decade in a new overhead power system that automatically takes up the slack when wires start drooping in the heat. New York also bought new train cars that held up fairly well during the Northeast's bitter and blizzardy winter of 2010-2011.

MTA spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said Connecticut did neither, and paid for it during both seasons.

The authority was forced to curtail service on the New Haven line by 10 percent in January when the old trains broke down faster than Connecticut's cramped work yards could repair them. But Metro-North's Harlem Line, which runs newer trains purchased by New York in 2000, didn't have those problems.

Similarly, New York invested in overhauling its overhead power system for trains in the last decade. Towers that hold up the wires now have counterweights that lower and tighten the wires when they sag. Connecticut has no such system. Last week, the NY MTA tried to prevent the overhead lines from tangling by ordering trains on its lines to slow from a normal cruising speed of 70 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h. It worked in New York but not Connecticut.

Ms. Anders said the overhead wires provide electrical current by making contact with a four-foot wide metal bar on the top of a train. Last Friday's high temperature of 104 degrees caused the overhead wires in Connecticut to sag so much that they slipped off the side of the metal bar on some trains and tangled, cutting off power and halting those trains.

"It goes without saying that antique fleet and an antique infrastructure and power system is not going to perform well in any temperature or weather extremes, whether it's snow or heat," she said.

Connecticut has been trying to catch up. Governor Dannel Malloy agreed to spend $400 million dollars on new overhead wires and $750 million dollars on new train cars better suited to the cold weather. The new cars have started arriving but the new overhead power system won't be done until 2016.