NJT Debates Electric-Car Options

NJ Transit has invested heavily in new passenger equipment in recent years; customers note the “multilevel” (double-deck) equipment in service on most lines, but the railroad has also purchased new diesel and electric locomotives, and most recently a fleet of “dual-mode” locomotives has begun arriving—these units can operate both as ordinary diesels or as electric locomotives, allowing the possibility of a single-seat ride from nonelectrified stations through to Penn Station in New York.  However, on some lines, much service continues to be provided by self-propelled, “electric-multiple-unit” cars.  This type of car is used on subway lines and on most of the electrified commuter lines in the United States; however, NJT is fairly unique in its emphasis on locomotive-hauled equipment, even on electrified lines.

Locomotive-hauled trains are cheaper to buy and maintain, but they have the disadvantage of lower power and slower acceleration, which makes for slower schedules, particularly on lines that have frequent stops or are hilly—a particular concern on NJT’s Morris & Essex lines.  NJT’s electric fleet uses the stainless-steel-sided “Arrow III” equipment, now 35 years old and well beyond its expected lifetime.  Customers on other area systems, such as the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and SEPTA in Philadelphia, have enjoyed new electric cars, delivered in recent years, but on NJT, the Arrows continue to soldier on.

The Arrows are mainly used in long trains on the Northeast Corridor, and to Hoboken on the Morris & Essex lines; the old design suffers from an inability to change voltage while running, which prevents them from running from the M&E into Penn Station, or south of South Amboy on the North Jersey Coast Line.  Now NJT is considering its options, according to reporting by Larry Higgs in the Asbury Park Press—but instead of buying conventional equipment as have neighboring systems, NJT is proposing to have consultants design a new type of car: a self-propelled, electric, multilevel design, which could then pull additional, unelectrified multi-level cars.

This has led to conflict between NJT and its Board of Directors, and with state Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, according to Higgs’ article; this came to a head at NJT’s October 15 Board meeting, which decided after some debate not immediately to proceed with a $1.4-million contract with LTK Engineering to design an electric version of the existing locomotive-hauled multilevel design.  The debate was unusually intense; the Board normally approves NJT management proposals with little discussion.  Board members questioned why NJT wanted to proceed with its own design, which could be risky; Commissioner Simpson said, “I’m not in favor of moving forward, because I’m afraid of saddling this agency with something for the next 50 years … that could be a disaster.”

Lackawanna Coalition Chair David Peter Alan, speaking at the Board meeting, said, “We don’t see how converting this (multilevel) equipment to self-powered would help.  We suggest testing SEPTA’s (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) new Silverliner V cars, which already run on the Northeast Corridor.  It’s far less expensive than building something new.”  Board members were also skeptical; board member Myron Shevell said, “I’m afraid we’ll be the guinea pig.”  Commissioner Simpson had the last word: “We spend money around here like it’s water. Let’s make sure we get the best water.”