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!
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.)