Americans Driving Less: Study

Analysis of date from the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that Americans are driving less and using mass transit (and bicycles) more in 2013, compared to 2004 data; the peak of American driving, in miles per capita, peaked in 20014, according to reporting in USA Today (Larry Copeland, from the Daily Record, December 5).  The average American’s miles driven has declined by 7.6% over the period.  Meanwhile, use of public transit has increased in most metropolitan areas.

Is the shift permanent?  Perhaps, but maybe not, given that automobile driving typically declines in recessions.  Actually, total driving for the first 9 months of 2013 actually increased slightly—0.4%—over the corresponding period in 2012, but allowing for likely increase in population the per-capita driving probably declined nonetheless.  Declines in driving seem to have occurred in diverse areas of the country.  The largest decline in driving was in New Orleans, followed by cities such as Milwaukee; Madison, Wisconsin; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Poughkeepsie-Newburgh, N.Y.  Other cities in the top 15 include Denver, Colorado; Jacksonville, Florida; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Interestingly, the group of 15 cities with the top reductions in driving come out better than average in a number of economic statistics, including changes in median income, changes in unemployment, and changes in the poverty rate.

Deaths on Tracks Surge

Despite NJ Transit and Amtrak efforts, deaths of pedestrians on passenger-rail trackage in New Jersey continue to increase, according to reporting by Mark Mueller in the Star-Ledger (August 28).  In 2012, 22 such deaths occurred; so far this year, 23 deaths have taken place, and if the carnage continues at the current pace 2013 will be the highest in history, eclipsing the peak of 34 in 2010.  A peak this summer—7 people died in an 18-day span beginning July 31—contributed to the total.  Explanations vary, including the convenience of tracks as a shortcut and the effectiveness of trains as a method of suicide.  Railroads generally classify anyone on the tracks as a “trespasser”, which tends to put the responsibility for accidents solely on the individual.  This is similar to the railroads’ “Operation Lifesaver” campaign against grade-crossing accidents nationwide, which emphasizes motorist responsibility but avoids mentioning any need for improved grade-crossing gates and other protection, which would cost railroads money.  However, in New Jersey there has been some investment in deterring pedestrians from entering upon tracks, beyond advertising campaigns (One public service announcement bluntly proclaims, “You’re Dead.”)  In Garfield, the scene of more fatalities than any other New Jersey community, fencing has been erected to deter “trespassing”, and cameras now watch over Amtrak tracks in Hamilton Township, the site of several apparent suicides involving Amtrak high-speed trains.  However, in other countries, railroad rights-of-way are often much more secure; in Great Britain, for example, it is standard practice to fence off all rail lines, to the point that traditionally trains there do not use headlights, there being no need to warn anyone on the tracks.

Report Warned NJ Transit Officials of Flood Risk

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A report on climate change completed for NJ Transit months before superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey urged the agency to begin planning for higher storm surges that could envelop rail yards, destroy track beds and corrode switches, gates and signals.
The Oct. 29 storm caused more than $400 million in damage to the agency’s system.

The $45,990 study included a map that shows the Kearny and Hoboken rail yards sit squarely in “storm surge areas.”  Sandy floodwaters inundated both yards, swamping locomotives and rail-cars — including 84 new multilevel passenger cars — and damaging spare parts.  In those two yards, damage to railcars and locomotives was estimated at $100 million.

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Talking Crossing Gates to be Tested

After 3 teenagers were killed by trains in 2 incidents on successive days in October 2011, NJ Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson convened a task force of experts to find ways to improve grade-crossing safety. (Two of the youths died not at a grade crossing, but while trespassing on a railroad trestle, on a line that sees no scheduled train traffic on the Sunday of the tragedy.) The death of 13-year-old Michael Cabaj involved a too-often-repeated scenario: on a double track rail line, one train passes and pedestrians attempt to cross, unaware of an approaching train on the second track, this time at the Outwater Lane crossing in Garfield.  Now, that crossing will receive an experimental system, according to Mike Frassinelli’s article in the Star-Ledger (Sept. 22): when a second train is coming, a talking sign will shout an audible warning: “Danger! Another train coming!” Other improvements include “skirts” below crossing gates to discourage pedestrians from ducking under the gates: these are being tried at the Aberdeen-Matawan station on the North Jersey Coast line.

Study Highlights Transit-Oriented Development

Once upon a time, trolley lines built amusement parks at the end of their lines to encourage ridership.  The modern-day equivalent may be the “Transit Village”: development at transit hubs, where transit users can live, work, or shop just steps from their train or bus.  A report due out on September 24 by New Jersey Future assesses development opportunities at New Jersey transit hubs, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (September 22).

Recently, NJ Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson attended a ceremony to name an old railroad town (Dunellen in Middlesex County, on NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley Line) the state’s 26th Transit Village, a community built around a transit hub.  The forthcoming report from New Jersey Future has been 3-1/2 years in progress under the group’s research director, Tim Evans.  Some interesting statistics dot the report:

  • the highest population densities in the state can be found in Hoboken near Hoboken Terminal and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail;
  • several Newark Light Rail stations are in areas where less than 1/3 of households have a vehicle;
  • stations with the highest home values include Millburn, Summit, and Peapack on the Morris & Essex Lines; and, unbelievably to some motorists,
  • there are NJT Rail stations where less than 1/3 of parking spaces are typically occupied (Point Pleasant Beach on the North Jersey Coast; Cinnaminson and Florence on the River Line Light Rail).

An example of a burgeoning Transit Village is Morristown on the M&E, with the newly-constructed Highlands at Morristown Station apartment building development.

Aging Infrastructure Blamed for NJT Delays

Aging infrastructure, and the lack of cash to fix it, particularly on the Northeast Corridor, are cited as a main cause of service delays on NJ Transit, according to reporting by Karen Rouse and Dave Sheingold of The Record (reported in the Star-Ledger,  August 8).  An NEC commuter is quoted as saying that conductors frequently blame signal problems, and Amtrak (which owns and maintains the Northeast Corridor track) as the cause of delays.

The Record (newspaper) analyzed operating records from 2002 to 2012 in the study, which showed that the NEC had the worst on-time performance, 91.7%.  In contrast, the Main/Bergen and Pascack Valley Lines, which do not connect physically with the Northeast Corridor, posted the best performance: about 97.5% for both.  Morning rush hour is the worst time to ride the trains, with 1 in 12 delayed; the evening is better, with 1 in 18, and off-peak best of all, with 1 in 24 delayed.  The study noted the difference between operating and capital funding: NJT sends Amtrak about $70 million a year for operating costs, but its contribution to capital projects remains stuck near 1996 levels: $55 million was spent in the past year; $50 million in 1996.  Amtrak notes that there has not been significant funding increases from Congress since 1976.

Also, while track and signal problems are a significant cause of delays, bad rolling stuck (locomotives and rail cars) are actually the leading cause of delays.  Dispatching delays, when Amtrak and NJT trains compete for scarce track space, also are significant.  Key infrastructure components at risk include the power system that supplies the signals, and the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, over which all NJT trains to Manhattan must pass; the bridge is 100 years old, dating from the original Penn Station, and Portal failures accounted for roughly 75 NJT train delays last year.  Additional delays occur when the bridge must be opened for marine traffic, and trains must travel at reduced speeds over the span at all times.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that infrastructure conditions have reached a critical point, especially on the Northeast Corridor, and must be addressed immediately; replacement of the Portal Bridge is an essential component of any plan going forward.