Winter Woes Ad Nausuem

New York area transit operations have suffered through a difficult week. On the evening of Tuesday, January 28, an NJ Transit train inbound to New York got stuck in the tunnel, and it took hours to pull the train into Penn Station, where it arrived after 1 a.m. Fortunately, only 23 riders were aboard the middle-of-the-night run. But just hours later, in Wednesday’s morning rush, an inbound train from Dover became disabled in the Jersey Meadows.  This time, 800 riders were aboard, and it was hours before the train was finally dragged by a “rescue engine” to Hoboken, not to its original Manhattan destination. Delays persisted for hours, with the system back to normal at about 10 a.m., only to be followed in midday with several hours of delays as “ice patrols” occupied the Hudson River tunnels, delaying regular service. But travel woes weren’t over; for the day; in the evening rush, gremlins returned as a Long Island Rail Road train encountered smoke and lost power in the East RIver tunnel to Penn Station; NJ Transit also uses the tunnels to store some trains in Sunnyside Yard in Queens, east of Manhattan. The LIRR suffered the most dramatic impact, cancelling 19 outbound trains and suspending inbound service completely for a period. But NJT was also affected, and things got worse when NJT’s 5:43 departure to Dover had mechanical problems and was delayed, apparently in Penn Station, for about 45 minutes. Since every track in Penn Station is used continuously at peak periods, any disruption causes cascading delays that can continue for hours. Unfortunately, this reporter got caught up in the mess; read on . . .

David Peter Alan and I met up today at South Orange aboard a Gladstone train for the express purpose of touring the entirety of the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton, and Gladstone branch. Including a fine lunch at an Indian restaurant in Montclair, this went off without hitch or problem, from my leaving my doorstep in Roebling on NJT’s RIver Line light rail between Trenton and Camden, through the trip to Gladstone, back to Newark Broad St. station, out to Montclair, on to Hackettstown on the the Montclair/Boonton Line via Dover, and back to Newark Broad via the M&E. Even the trip from Broad St. Station to Newark Penn on the Newark Light Rail was timed perfectly . . . to deliver me into the depths of hell.

Upon arrival at Newark Penn, I encountered a scene the likes of which I have not encountered before. Despite the fact that this was 7 p.m. and I have been to Newark before, for people- and train-watching in the depths of rush hour. This time, thousands of people were crowded throughout the concourse. Police with dogs were everywhere, complete with signs claiming an intent to search anyone with bags beyond a certain point, although they were set up so haphazardly, what that point was was unclear. Avoiding the signs, intending to avoid the hassle of a police search, I got on the Platform 3-4 escalator and rode it up. The waiting room was so crowded, I literally had to push the clueless lady in front of me out of the way, lest I and the people behind me on the escalator get fouled and disaster occur. Why the escalator had not been stopped due to this overcrowding is beyond me.

I moved through the crowd to the exit door for that waiting room to see literally thousands more standing on the platform.

Not long after, a train announced as the 6:32 New York to Trenton run arrived at the station; it was around 7:00. I bulled my way through the line and boarded the train: I justify this action because I was starting to reach the end of my tether to catch the last River Line train to Roebling; any further delay might strand me in Trenton. The train to Trenton was completely standing-room-only, and crowded to the gills. The train stopped at Newark Liberty Airport, then ran express to Metropark, where enough of the crowd had left so I was able to find myself a seat.
Upon leaving Metropark, the train then slowed to a crawl. It is scheduled to make the run from Metropark to Trenton in 50 minutes. It ran 15 minutes over. I made, through sprinting, the 8:28 River Line train, and got home around 9:00.

New Jersey Transit says it is ready for the Super Bowl. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. However, it does not seem to be ready to handle the fairly standard woes of the five-day-a-week evening commute (They’ve only done it approximately 7800 times during their history!) during the perils of a cold winter, which comes every year (They’ve only endured 90 months of it so far!) in a reasonable and flexible manner.

1000 Stranded by Downed Wire

On the coldest night of the year, 1000 riders on a packed rush-hour NJ Transit train from New York to New Brunswick got no farther than a little beyond Newark on Tuesday evening, January 7, after an overhead wire fell on the train.  Heat and main lighting immediately failed, and the train sat from 6:15 p.m. until shortly after 8 p.m., according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli and Richard Havkine in the Star-Ledger (Jan. 8).  Published photos suggest that the downed wire was part of the overhead catenary system that supplies electricity to electrically-operated trains.  The long delay in pulling the disabled train back to Newark was apparently caused by the need to investigate the problem and deenergize any live wires.  Commuters were cheered by frequent announcements by train crew, who tried their best to keep the riders informed.  However, with only one working toilet for 1000 customers, patience wore thin as the evening progressed.  Once passengers left the train, some reported a chaotic situation without clear instructions as to how to continue their journey.  According to NJ Transit, passengers were transferred to another train to continue their travel—about 2 hours late.

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Gladstone Service Returns Aug. 25 after Storm Disruption

Less than 10 months after Hurricane Sandy devastated NJ Transit’s rail operations, the railroad received a sharp reminder of the power of nature on Thursday, August 22, as intense local storms struck northern Somerset County and wiped out the roadbed on the line’s Gladstone Branch in multiple places, disrupting train service for days.  Local weather observers recorded 4″ or more of rain in downpours over several midday hours, causing rapid flooding of the North Branch of the Raritan River and tributary streams—the hilly rail line runs in the upper Raritan watershed in its westernmost section, from Bernardsville to the Gladstone terminus. According to a staff report in the Courier News regional newspaper the next day, there were 4 to 6 significant washouts, each 10′-15′ wide by 50′-60′ long; the damage was generally in the area between the Far Hills, Peapack, and Gladstone stations, with major washouts reported on both sides of the Far Hills station.  A “washout” is a condition in which powerful water current undermines the track, often leaving the track suspended in midair.  The condition can occur suddenly and can be highly dangerous to train operations, as the track often remains connected and the damage cannot be detected by the signal systems; in this case, fortunately no damage to train movements was reported.

NJT’s planning for storm damage includes avoiding equipment stranded at outlying points; after Hurricane Sandy, emphasis on flood-proof storage yards has increased.  Had the August 22 event occurred at night or on a weekend, many trainsets would have been stranded in the Gladstone yard; but at midday on weekdays, the yard is typically empty, so stranded equipment was not a serious problem.  However, with the line out of service in the area, normal service could not be provided.  By 1 p.m. on Aug. 22, NJT had announced suspension of all service between Bernardsville and Gladstone.  By 4 p.m., all inbound service on the entire Gladstone branch had been cancelled and evening outbound commuters were being accommodated by bus service west of Bernardsville, through the damaged area.  NJT’s inability to offer inbound service was likely caused by the erratic outbound service (delays of 30-45 minutes were reported), and the consequent inability to schedule inbound trains on the single-track line.

Service disruptions continued on Friday, Aug. 23, as repair crews struggled to repair the railroad.  For some reason, NJT chose not to provide any substitute bus service through the affected area; instead, riders were advised to find their own transportation to Bernardsville, where 5 trains departed between 6 and 9 a.m. (normal service would be 8 trains in that period, plus 2 runs even earlier).  After 9 a.m., only bus service was available between Bernardsville and Stirling, where trains were available.  In the evening, again trains ran only as far as Bernardsville and a number of trains were cancelled or truncated, with passengers sometimes asked to transfer at Summit, the eastern end of the Gladstone branch.

Weekend service on the branch was provided on normal schedules, but only as far as Bernardsville, as repairs continued.  Normal service had been predicted for Monday morning, but in fact NJT was able to resume service between Bernardsville and Gladstone at about 8 p.m. Sunday evening, August 25.  However, further repair work was needed, so buses again provided midday service on Monday.

The destruction of track structure by rampaging water has always been a serious event for any railroad, and NJT is to be commended for the rapid restoration of the line, in contrast to the experience after Hurricane Sandy, when service on the Gladstone line was suspended completely for an astounding 5 weeks. However, the inability for more than 3 days to provide bus service to the outermost 3 stations is troubling, particularly on the weekend, when hundreds of buses stand idle throughout the state and could easily have been pressed into service.

Gladstone Branch Service Disrupted by Washouts

NJT Repairs Line Quickly, But Substitute Bus Service Was Questionable

Less than 10 months after Hurricane Sandy devastated NJ Transit’s rail operations, the railroad received a sharp reminder of the power of nature.  On Thursday, August 22, intense local storms struck northern Somerset County and wiped out the roadbed on the line’s Gladstone Branch in multiple places, disrupting train service for days.

Local weather observers recorded 4 inches or more of rain in downpours over several midday hours, causing rapid flooding of the North Branch of the Raritan River and tributary streams.  The hilly rail line runs in the upper Raritan watershed in its westernmost section, from Bernardsville to the Gladstone terminus.  According to a staff report in the next day’s Courier News, the regional newspaper, there were four to six significant washouts, each 10–15 feet to 50–60 feet long. The damage was generally in the area between the Far Hills, Peapack, and Gladstone stations, with major washouts reported on both sides of the Far Hills station.

A “washout” is a condition in which powerful water current undermines the track, often leaving the track suspended in midair.  The condition can occur suddenly, and can be highly dangerous to train operations as the track often remains connected and the damage cannot be detected by the signal systems.  In this case, fortunately, no damage to train movements was reported.

Continue Reading Gladstone Branch Service Disrupted by Washouts

Gladstone Service Disrupted, But NJT Says It Will Be Back on Monday

No Bus Service Offered West of Bernardsville

Service on the western end of the Gladstone Branch was disrupted Thursday by a washout between Bernardsville and Far Hills.  Trains were delayed and terminated at Bernardsville.  On Thursday, substitute bus service was provided so customers could get to Far Hills, Pepack, and Gladstone.

NJTransit has said that trains will run to Gladstone again on Monday, but there was no service beyond Bernardsville on Friday, and there will be none over the weekend.

NJT Executive Director Blames Sandy Indirectly for Service Outage during Snowstorm

NJT Executive Director James W. Weinstein indirectly blamed the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy for a shutdown of rail service on the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton, and Gladstone Lines during the snowstorm on Friday and Saturday, February 8th and 9th.  He said that, with the Mason Substation out of service and only a substation in Summit to supply power to trains, it would be unduly risky to operate under those conditions.  Mason Substation was washed out in flooding caused by Sandy, and there are still no electrically-powered trains running to or from Hoboken.

M&E, Montclair Restored after Storm

 Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton lines are scheduled to restore service at noon, Saturday, Feb. 9; service had been suspended at 8 p.m. on Friday during  the snowstorm.  NJT attributed this action to the vulnerability of those lines to tree damage, citing the experience of Superstorm Sandy in October (which has resulted in continuing reduction of service on those lines).  It had originally been announced that service would remain suspended through Saturday.

 NJT’s action appears to conflict with weather forecasts that, at the time of the announcement, were actually becoming less severe; once the storm began to abate on Saturday morning, total snowfall reports did not exceed 12″ in the M&E territory, although wind gusts remained a threat on Saturday, especially with tree limbs already weighted with snow.  In general, however, the experience in the M&E territory was no more severe than elsewhere on the NJT system, which remained in operation.  Bus services north of Interstate 195 (that is, all of north Jersey) were also suspended at 8 p.m. on Friday, and restored at 8 a.m. on Saturday.

The short suspension may be attributed to an overabundance of caution, but the selection of the M&E and Boonton lines for suspension suggests that NJT may not have enough equipment to keep all lines running during an emergency.  Weather forecasts were equally severe or even worse for other lines, which were not suspended.  The NJT press release announcing the suspension noted a lack of “system redundancies”, which supports the notion that the system is stretched thin after Hurricane Sandy, and that the suspension of the M&E and Boonton lines was a question of priority-setting rather than prompted by unusual risk to those lines.

Coalition Says Information Flow Lacking

Although most rail transit services in the Northeast have been restored after Superstorm Sandy, in New Jersey most NJT commuter rail services remain severely curtailed or totally suspended.  As the outage nears its third week, many users of the service find little information available as to when it might resume, or even what is being done to restore service.  NJ Transit has established a network of emergency bus and ferry services to substitute for rail service, but these are largely targeted toward peak-hour riders with Manhattan as their destination; riders seeking to travel elsewhere find few or no alternatives.  The Lackawanna Coalition has received many comments on the situation, and has written the following communication to NJ Transit executives:

 Dear Messrs. Simpson and Weinstein,

I am the treasurer of the Lackawanna Coalition.  In the absence of our Chair, who is out of town, I am writing on behalf of the Coalition.  In regard to the damage from Hurricane Sandy, I have questions on behalf of myself, of the Lackawanna Coalition, of the counties and municipalities we represent along the former Erie-Lackawanna lines and especially the riders of the lines we represent.  I am not writing this letter to complain about the effort that NJ Transit is making towards the restoration of rail service.  I hope, like the other operations, that you are working with all possible speed to restore your physical plant to working order.  I further understand why NJT is not specifying the details of damage to the general public, as those are details they will not understand.  However, for us (members of which Mr. Simpson has previously addressed as personal advisors) that is information we will understand fully, and appreciate the knowledge of.  We know and understand, for instance, why the North Jersey Coast Line is not yet operating.  The damage to the Raritan Draw Bridge is there for us to see in vivid color.  It  makes no sense to operate trains on the line just to Avenel and Woodbridge when capacity on the Corridor is so constrained.

However, while we do not expect the public to be informed of the minutiae of damages along the lines, the amount of information being offered is too limited.  All our riders know is that the trains aren’t running, and that you do not mention when they will be.  The riders knowing that the line is damaged, that your rolling stock is constrained, as we understand it to be, and that the time frame for partial and then full restoration is days or weeks or months would help ease their minds, or at least let them make longer term temporary plans for substitute mobility if need be.  It has been two weeks almost since the service was ceased.  With this much time, at least a ballpark timeframe is a reasonable expectation.

In our capacity as a representative of the riders of NJ Transit’s M&E and M-B lines, we want to be able to honestly give our personal assurances to our constituents that NJ Transit is working towards service restoration as quickly as humanly possible, and that all effort is being made to provide as much mobility as possible.  The details listed on your website are not enough to allow us to report that to our constituents.  It is our mission to provide representation for all riders of our lines, and that not only includes the riders that ride MidTown Direct into Manhattan, and those that ride trains into Hoboken Terminal, but also those who do not.  The Morris and Essex line, as you know, has the highest level of intra-line travel of any American commuter rail line.  We applaud your efforts to provide shuttle service from several park-and-ride locations along the route.  We are, however, disturbed that you are not providing at least some bus service directly and fully paralleling the rail line to provide mobility for those riders that travel to destinations along the line.  It is a serious problem, one which our members are demanding explanations for.  Several of our members are unable to get to work because of the lack of connectivity along the line.  Many commuters can take advantage of the park and rides.  But other riders cannot, because they do not or cannot operate a car.  This is not small, this is people’s livelihood.  They can’t get to work, they can get fired, they are not being paid, and they can’t feed their families.  Our non-New York-bound constituents need that intra-line service desperately.

As such, we request the following.  First of all, we would like to have an open discussion about the condition of the lines that are presently not operating.  Secondly, we would like to have your assurance that as soon as bus equipment is available, frequent and effective service will be operated along the line servicing stations as a temporary replacement for trains to provide mobility for intra-line riders.  Thirdly, we would like you to provide us, in the strictest of confidence, your estimates of when service will be restored, to where, and at what level of frequency.  With this information, we can assure our riders of the best possible service given the dire circumstance the state finds itself in.  Thusly, we help our riders by providing  them with the best information we can.  And we can help you by assuring our riders that you, NJ Transit and the NJDOT, are doing the absolute best you can, from a source they can trust to be objective.  Finally, some of our associate members have connections and friends within the national rail and transit communities.  Our chair, David Peter Alan, has authorized me on behalf of the Coalition to offer our good offices to help with whatever we can in terms of procuring assistance.

Jesse S. Gribin,
Lackawanna Coalition

Area Transit Shuts Down for Storm

As tropical storm Sandy neared the area, all transit systems in the region shut down on Sunday, October 28.  By Monday morning all trains and buses in the region were at a standstill, and states of emergency were in effect.  NJ Transit announced that major stations such as Newark Penn Station, Secaucus Junction,  and Trenton would remain open as storm shelters; in contrast, the Long Island Rail Road announced that the LIRR portion of Penn Station in New York and the major station in Jamaica, Queens, were “restricted”.  Accessibility of other major facilities remained unclear.  Shutdown of facilities was handled differently by the various agencies; NJ Transit announced an orderly shutdown, with most train lines having service until late in the evening, and buses running until 2 a.m.  An exception was NJT’s services to Atlantic City, directly in the path of the storm; trains there completed their runs at 4 p.m. on Sunday, while buses ran until midnight.  In contrast, in New York, all subway and suburban rail services ended at 7 p.m., with New York City buses continuing until 9 p.m.  In the Philadelphia area, SEPTA shut down its rail network at the end of regular service, and the PATCO high-speed line connecting Phiadelphia with New Jersey set a 2 a.m. Monday shutdown.  Amtrak cancelled all services in the area as well.

Computer Strands JFK AirTrain Riders

A computer problem left about 140 passengers stranded on the popular AirTrain serving Kennedy International Airport on Saturday evening, August 25, according to reporting by John Leland in The New York Times (Aug. 27).  Three 2-car trains were stranded, and some passengers were forced to walk almost a mile to the nearest station.  The disruption lasted from about 5:30 p.m. to after 10 p.m.  The situation was compounded by an apparent failure of personnel of Bombardier Inc., which operates the system under contract, promptly to inform owner Port Authority of NY and NJ of the situation.  Once informed, the Port Authority dispatched officers to evacuate the trains, and organized a substitute bus service.  The Port Authority claimed they were not notified for 1 hour, 45 minutes after the trains became stuck; Bombardier officials said they were in touch with the Port Authority within half an hour, but may not have made clear that trains were stranded.  Passengers reported a lack of air conditioning in the hot weather, and unhelpful announcements that said they would be moving shortly and eventually that help was on the way, but none arrived quickly.  The problem was eventually traced to a loose wire in the main computer, according to a Port Authority spokesperson.