Idyll in Jersey (Avenue, Main)

Last Thursday Lynn and I had a leisurely lunch with an old friend at the Sakura Japanese buffet in North Brunswick.  It was a beautiful day with cloudless blue skies, and since the NJT Jersey Avenue station is only a 10 minute trip, we decided to check it out.
 
Jersey Avenue is, basically, an enormous park-and-ride facility; it attracts riders from a wide area, since the next stop west is Princeton Junction, a whopping 14 miles away.  In the days when the area was nothing but farms, PRR had at least three intermediate stops; now, it’s wall-to-wall condos, but no stations.  NJT wants to build a new one, but even advocates can’t agree that it would be a wise investment.
 
Since we’d have to park the car, we had to watch out for parking cops looking to see if we’d paid, but none appeared. I hadn’t been to Jersey Avenue in a long time, and was unfamiliar with the layout.  We drove through the large lot, looking for spaces; then something appeared I had forgotten about, a railroad grade crossing—which leads to a separate parking lot immediately adjacent to the Trenton-bound platform (“Jersey Avenue Main”) on the outbound NEC main line. The somewhat decrepit single track we crossed is the famous, or infamous, Delco Lead, a track used for switching industrial freight customers; it begins at this point and extends for miles. NJT plans to convert it into a refuge for NEC equipment in case Superstorm Sandy returns and floods the Meadows Maintenance Facility again.  They also plan a loop to turn trains without fouling the NEC, and an inspection facility; all of  this is controversial in the advocate community—some think they have better uses for the money, or maybe they’re just protecting the interests of taxpayers in Iowa.
 
The train-watching was pretty good: the first westbound to come along was Amtrak’s Crescent, just starting out on its long trip to New Orleans. A westbound Keystone, a westbound Regional, and finally an Acela, running at blinding speed, (150 mph? What is the track speed here?) followed.  Eastbound, several  NJT trains came along on the inside track, Track 2, and crossed over to Track 1 (more usual) at County interlocking, just up the track.  Perhaps there was track work in progress on Track 1 farther west? Eventually a third NJT train ran through normally on the outside track, Track 1, followed by an eastbound Amtrak Regional on inside track 2.

How do you get to New Brunswick?

While all this was going on we noticed a youngish gentleman wandering about the station, carrying some bags, and looking confused. He came to the platform, then turned around and headed to the station building again, which is on the diverging branch line (at one time the Millstone Branch) on which all trains to New York board. Around this time a Trenton-bound NJT train made its stop at our platform, and a few boarded, and another was due less than half an hour later.
 
We were preparing to leave after observing an arriving train on the branch platform (Arrows, which soon reversed and headed back to New York, empty), but the wandering traveler then returned to our Trenton-bound platform, and I decided to see if he needed any help.  He turned out to be a recent arrival from the Czech Republic, who had business at the nearby Social Security office, he said. He wanted to get back to downtown New Brunswick, just 1.7 miles away.  He had already bought his ticket, he said.
 
I had the honor to inform him that the next train to New Brunswick, sadly, would not be until tomorrow morning, and explained the purpose of the station was mainly for commuters to New York. Somewhat bewildered, he asked if there are many station like this in New Jersey—I assured him that no, this was the only one, just his luck. He wondered how people get to the Social Security office; I said, well, most of them drive. As the Acela thundered by, I said that this is the best railroad in the US—he replied that they have nothing like it in the Czech Republic.
 
He figured out a solution to his problem: he would board the next westbound train, due in about 10 minutes, ride to the next station, and take a train back to New Brunswick.  I said that should work, but he’d better buy a ticket to Princeton Junction (PJ), because they’d charge him five dollars extra on the train.  There is no TVM on the main line platform, so he had a 500-foot walk to the branch station building and back.  I suggested he show both tickets to the conductor and explain his predicament, and they’re probably let him ride to PJ for free, and he could use the two tickets to get back to New Brunswick.  He asked and I told him that service is fairly frequent coming back from PJ; there was no timetable posted for eastbound service on the westbound platform, only a westbound version.
 
As we left, his train arrived; I hope he made it: a 30-mile ride to travel 1.7 miles. Several other riders boarded the train too, and I wonder how they get to Jersey Avenue from points south, as there are no trains at all that provide service; maybe they ride to New Brunswick and return west!

The Future

Long-range plans are to build a platform for eastbound trains there, but with the ADA requirements and whatnot, this will not be a simple, or cheap, solution.  Jersey Avenue Main is, I believe, the only NJT NEC station remaining with a low-level platform. (I assume the branch platform is also low level, but did not go over there to inspect it.)

Less Is More?

A visit to the LIRR’s main concourse at NYP reveals that the LIRR’s only restrooms, and the dingy waiting room between them, have vanished behind a wall of plywood. (Not noticed: did we also lose that famous overhead structure said to be one of the last pieces of the old Penn Station?). A sign only says, “Rest rooms available on the upper level.” (Those would be those of NJT and NJT/Amtrak; there was no signage pointing the way.) What’s going to replace them?  Dunno; perhaps they are building new facilities and a waiting room, possibly expanding into the space of the now-gone Tracks bar, which should be right behind the closed restrooms.  Or maybe instead it will be something that makes money for the MTA, like a pot dispensary maybe?
 
I have to say that a lot of the vaunted “improvements” that MTA and NY State in general have been making to NYP have not produced much for the actual riders who are supposed to benefit.  Within the last year, they opened what looks like a magnificent set of escalators to a new LIRR entrance at 7 Av and 33 St.  It looks great in the politicians’ photo ops, but the foot of the new escalators is smack in the way of the great number of riders who arrive or depart the station via the 7th Ave. subway, and also those who rely on the corridor to the years-ago-added entrance on 34 St just west of 7th Ave. (For those who haven’t been to the city in a few decades, this was all directly in front of the old LIRR ticket windows, and roughly where the octagonal information booth once stood—all gone now.)  All of these crowds collide with the folks using the new 33 St entrance.  At peak hours, like when I was there yesterday at 5:10 p.m., it becomes downright dangerous, with lemmings headed for their trains colliding with arriving passengers and themselves.  Many of these “dashing commuters” are running full-tilt to make their trains.  It’s a real zoo.
 
Also noted was the crowding, under what seemed to be normal rush-hour conditions, of the area in front of the LIRR’s track gates.  Getting through that area was not easy.  I am starting to believe that what NYP needs most is expanded areas where people can just stand and wait for trains. 
 
The best thing that’s ever happened to NJT customers is the one thing they can’t use: Moynihan. As I predicted for years, it has cleared out the 8th Ave. concourse of Amtrak and particularly Amtrak’s conga lines of waiting passengers—and it has secured for NJT riders the best waiting room anywhere, although it could use more power plugs, as the ones at the white tables are always in use for laptops and cellphone charging.  Maybe the NJT IT department could reprogram the departure monitors—there are two of them in the waiting room, stacked—so the top one shows the first set of departing trains, and the bottom one shows the second set.  As it is now, both monitors show the same display, alternating between the two sets—infuriating when you have to wait 10 seconds to find out the track of the train you hope to board in the next 2 minutes.

Side Issues

Side issue, uptown: Lincoln Center.  The new Geffen Hall has opened to rave reviews, and its glass wall opening to the Lincoln Center Plaza is truly beautiful.  Lost in all the hoopla is the underground passage under Geffen Hall that allows access to the Metropolitan Opera House from the subway without braving the weather.  Closed for the Geffen rebuilt, it’s still closed.  A peek around the barriers revealed it is, like the NJT passageway between upper levels at the 7th Ave end of NYP, still full of construction-type trash.  So opera-goers still have to cross the Plaza to get to the subway, which is longer and no fun at all in foul weather.  (A long underground detour all around the Plaza via the basement of the Koch Theater may still work—and fear not: users of the underground parking garage still can get into the Met without having to mix with the weather . . . or, of course, the lowlife that uses the subway.)
 
Side side note: On the 10:13 local to Dover last night, train ran on track 1 (center track) Newark to Millburn, necessitating delays and confusion at the 3 stops (Orange, Highland Av, Mountain Station) that lack track 1 platforms.  Work equipment was sighted on track 3, the normal (westbound “local”) track.  Dunno how long this persisted . . . and there are weekend travel alerts posted that track 2 at Newark Broad will be out of service, expect delays “in addition to the Amtrak track work delays.”

History of the Orange Branch

According to the Erie RR operating timetable, the Orange Branch began at Forest Hill on the Erie’s Greenwood Lake Branch (on the portion where passenger service ceased once NJT completed the Montclair connection to the Newark Branch).  To elaborate a bit on the Newark Branch, AFAIK there is still freight service on the western (geographically northern) section.  Its drawbridge across the Passaic is just upstream from the M&E bridge and I-280 in Newark, but has been in the open position for decades, so this section is not in service.  All the Erie lines, including the original “main line” through the city of Passaic, the “Bergen County RR”, and the branches such as the Northern Branch, New Jersey and New York RR (Pascack),  Orange, Caldwell, Newark, and Greenwood Lake lines, all ran to the Erie’s terminal in Jersey City—gone since about 1958 when the Erie’s trains moved to the Lackawanna’s Hoboken terminal, anticipating the merger of the two railroads into Erie-Lackawanna. (The NY Susquehanna & Western also used the Erie’s terminal, but its trains never moved as there was no direct track connection; the Northern Branch, to Nyack, also suffered from the lack of a direct connection and required a backup move to get to Hoboken.) The Jersey City terminal is at the location of the current PATH Pavonia-Newport station, originally called “Erie”, and unless something’s happened the letter E still stands on the original columns on the platforms.
 
The former Erie and Lackawanna lines have been much realigned over the years.  The Lackawanna’s Boonton Line, IIRC conceived as a freight bypass of the congested commuter main line Dover-Hoboken, but also used by some passenger trains, was abandoned through Paterson and replaced by the current Interstate 80. South (railroad east) of Paterson through Hoboken the line very much still exists, and is called NJT’s “Main Line”, an echo of the Erie’s original Main Line through Passaic—which was abandoned and its trains rerouted onto the former Lackawanna Booonton Line to eliminate the troublesome grade crossings through the city of Passaic. Even though the line today may seem to be for ex-Erie trains (to places like Suffern and beyond), stations such as Delawanna should let you know of the Lackawanna heritage.  To connect the “real” Erie Main Line in the city of Paterson to the “new” ex-Boonton line, trains operate over a short stretch of what was the northern (RR western) end of the Erie Newark Branch.  All this happened around 1960, I believe.
 
The Greenwood Lake line of the Erie started off the Erie’s main line in the Jersey Meadows.  Its abandoned drawbridge over the Hackensack is immediately upstream from Portal Bridge on the NEC; the line is scheduled to become a rail-trail (if anyone can figure out how to get the users across the Hackensack!); the line then went under the NEC, clearly visible from any train today. It then crossed the Passaic and went through North Newark, then coming close to the Lackawanna’s stub-ended, electrified Montclair branch at that line’s terminal in Montclair. It then when north, eventually crossing the Lackawanna’s Boonton line at grade in the area of Mountain View.  It continued all the way to, you guessed it, Greenwood Lake.
 
When the Lackawanna’s Boonton Line had to be abandoned through Paterson, its trains were rerouted on a more circuitous route, using the Erie’s Greenwood Lake line between Mountain View and Hoboken.  Still later, NJ Transit finally accomplished its long-time goal of connecting the Lackawanna’s Montclair Branch to the Erie’s Greenwood Lake line at Bay Street, Montclair, which involved abandoning the original terminal, building a new station and the connection, and extending the overhead wires to Montclair State on the Greenwood Lake line; at this time service on the Greenwood Lake ended east of Montclair, although there may be some local freight service (as there is on the former Boonton Line for a few miles east of Mountain View).  NJT  calls this combination of Lackawanna Montclair Line, Erie Greenwood Lake line, and Lackawanna Boonton line the “Montclair-Boonton Line,” which is where we are today.
 
One final detail: for years after the move of Erie trains to Hoboken, the “Main Line” and “Bergen Line” (together with the Pascack Line) trains joined at a point in the Meadows; this was the site of a head-on collision of an in-bound Bergen Line push-pull, cab car leading, with an outbound Main Line train, diesel-hauled. The in-bound engineer had successfully concealed a color-blindness problem and he ran a stop signal, colliding nearly head-on with the outbound train where their paths crossed in the junction, killing both engineers and one passenger, seated just behind the in-bound train’s cab. This junction was abandoned when it became necessary to reroute the Bergen/Pascack trains over to the “Main Line” so that all could stop at the new Secaucus Junction station. As a final reminder, although the lower level at Secaucus serves trains from the old Erie lines, it is actually located on the right-of-way of the original Lackawanna Boonton Line.  Amtrak’s interlockings on each side of Secaucus’ upper level on the NEC memorialize the history: they are ERIE (on the east of the station) and LACK (on the west).

Update:

Forest Hill was a passenger stop on the Erie, probably not on NJT to the end. The next station to the east is North Newark, 0.6 mi, and to the west, Belwood Park, 0.9 mi.

Further trivia: The Greenwood Lake line of the Erie passed under the Lackawanna Boonton Line (which is now NJT’s Main-Bergen-Pascack lines) between West End and Secaucus, near the site of the recently removed coal power plant. After the Erie trains moved to Hoboken, they used a ramp up to the Lackawanna—all this should be easily visible from trains between Hoboken and Secaucus. The Greenwood Lake then runs under the ex-PRR NEC, crosses the Hackensack and shortly, at a place in Kearny that Erie called DB Jct., the Newark Branch diverged to the left through Harrison, crossed the Passaic (drawbridge stands open today), then ran north along the river, crossing under the Greenwood Lake at North Newark, eventually crossing the Boonton Line at Newark Junction near Clifton (this is where today’s NJT Main Line trains leave the Boonton Line and join the former Newark Branch) and finally, at South Paterson, the Newark Branch ended as it joined the original, now abandoned, Erie Main Line, thence on to Paterson (and eventually Chicago).

EWR Monorail, Station to Close May 1 for 75 Days

Newark Liberty International Airport’s monorail system is showing its age, and it will shut down May 1 for a 75-day overhaul, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the transportation system, reported by Steve Strunsky in the Star-Ledger (April 9).  The monorail is the only way to get from NJ Transit’s airport station to the airport’s terminals, so train service will also be suspended during the repair period.  The repairs include fixes to the steel and epoxy running surface; the years of service have eroded 60 spots along the 6.3-mile system.  Buses from airport terminals to Newark Penn Station will replace the monorail.

Read the complete story here.

NJT Plans Safety Review

In part reacting to the recent fatal train wreck on Metro-North Railroad, NJ Transit announced on April 8 that they would spend half a million dollars on an outside consultant to review NJT’s safety practices, according to media reports.  The railroad also plans a 17-member internal committee to monitor safety.  Investigations of Metro-North’s safety practices after the wreck yielded multiple criticisms of Metro-North, including assertions that Metro-North lacked a “safety culture” and placed on-time performance ahead of safety.  NJ Transit has had a good record on train operations safety; a head-on collision of two trains in 1996 on NJT caused the death of two locomotive engineers and one passenger and led to installation of advanced safety systems on a number of NJT’s rail lines. That accident was eventually attributed to color blindness in one engineer; advanced train control systems might have prevented his train from passing the red signal that he apparently failed to perceive.

PATH May Miss Safety Target

Despite an ongoing weekend shutdown of World Trade Center service, PATH may miss its own safety program deadlines, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal by Ted Mann (March 21). The 45-weekend shutdown is needed, PATH said, to allow it to meet deadlines to install “positive train control” (PTC) technology by December, 2015. The advanced safety system was mandated by Congress for commuter railroads after a fatal train wreck in California in 2008, attributed to engineer inattention. Proponents say that wreck, and other accidents such as a recent fatal derailment on Metro-North in the Bronx, could have been prevented by PTC.

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PANYNJ Lease Deal Fracas May Affect Fares

A controversial deal in which the Port Authority leased the North Bergen park-and-ride lot to NJ Transit for just one dollar a year may be coming undone, and it may have implications for NJ Transit fares, according to reporting in the Star-Ledger by Steve Strunsky (March 20).  The deal is under scrutiny because of conflicts-of-interest allegations involving Port Authority Chairman David Samson, whose law firm had been retained by NJ Transit to help maximize revenue from park-and-ride lots.

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M-N: Heavy Demand May Have Affected Safety

Responding to a Federal Railway Administration (FRA) critique of the railroad’s “safety culture”, which the FRA characterized as “deficient”, Metro-North (M-N) Railroad president Joseph J. Giulietti raised the possibility that the line’s attempt to cope with mushrooming ridership may have negatively affected safety.  Quoted in reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (March 15), Giulietti said of mushrooming demand, “That’s a fantastic problem to have . . . if you’re a well-run railroad.” He said that M-N would study whether the increasing ridership had caused it to neglect safety.  The total number of weekday trains the railroad operates increased to 690 in 2013, a 15% increase over 2004.  “At some point, this culture turned into one of, ‘How many trains can we get in there and how fast can those trains get in there?’,” Giulietti said.

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NJT On-Time Performance Declines

Delays to NJ Transit trains are increasing, and commuters are not happy, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (March 14).  In all but one of the last 9 months, Frassinelli writes, NJT fared worse than in the previous year.  February, in fact, was the worst month for train delays in 18 years, even worse than January’s experience, which was the worst month in 9 years. In February, just 87.4% of trains received an “on time” rating—but the standard used for determining whether a train is late allows arrival at the destination of 6 minutes later than the time printed in timetables, so trains can be behind schedule but not counted as ”late.”  Of the 15,565 trains were operated in February, 2088 were late.  Trains on the Morris & Essex Lines and the North Jersey Coast Line seemed to fare the worst, with only 74.6% of trains arriving within the 6-minute window.  February was one of the worst months for weather-related events, which may explain why the overall performance was so bad.

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Feds Hit Metro-North on Safety

A Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) study of operations at Metro-North Railroad has concluded that the rail line suffers from a “deficient safety culture” that emphasized on-time performance while not putting enough priority on the safety of riders and employees.  The report, resulting from an FRA inquiry dubbed “Operation Deep Dive,” was reported in The New York Times (March 14) by Matt Flegenheimer, who also appeared on WNYC radio to discuss the findings.  Prompting the federal inquiry was a fatal derailment on December 1 in which a Poughkeepsie-New York express attempted to round a sharp curve at well over the speed limit.  A fatality March 10 on the railroad’s Park Avenue elevated trestle in Manhattan, in which a track worker was killed by a train, again brought the railroad’s practices into the public eye.  Among the practices cited by the report was a tendency for the line’s operations center to pressure workers to respond quickly to maintenance issues such as signal failures that would have an impact on on-time performance.  The workers said they did not get enough time to properly perform their work.

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