Rail Users’ Conference Calls for More “Southern Comfort” in Travel

RAILGRAM Nov-Dec 2022v3

The Rail Users’ Network (RUN) held an online conference on Saturday, October 29. The event focused on Amtrak, private-sector passenger rail, and rail transit in the South. It was the latest in a series of semi-annual conferences that placed the spotlight on rail in different regions across the country. Presenters included advocates in the South and managers there who are developing new rail services.

Topics included expansion of Amtrak services in Virginia, construction of a new line by Brightline (a new private-sector passenger railroad) to expand service to Orlando Airport and later to Tampa, the ongoing battle to establish Amtrak trains between New Orleans and Mobile, and expanding rail in Texas.

I delivered the closing remarks, stressing the importance of the role of politics regarding both local transit and the way a state (or in-state region) deals with Amtrak. Both Amtrak and rail transit are weak in the South, which can be explained in large part by politics. Virginia is the only truly “purple state” in the region, with Republicans dominant elsewhere. Although RUN is a nonpartisan organization, effective advocacy requires knowledge of state and national political scenes and how politics can affect trains and transit.

RUN hopes to return to in-person conferences soon; maybe even next spring in Newark, to focus on rail–transit connectivity in the area. Before SARS-CoV-2 struck, RUN was planning such a conference for the spring of 2020, with help from the Lackawanna Coalition and NJ Transit.

If you would like to learn more or to join RUN, they are online at www.railusers.net. RUN advocates for more rail transit, an improved Amtrak, and better connectivity between the two. The Lackawanna Coalition is an organizational member of RUN.

Report from the Chair

RAILGRAM Nov-Dec 2022v3

Our Website update had the unexpected consequence of knocking our forum offline temporarily—we are getting that restored to its old spot on the original Website, as connecting it to the new site will take some creativity and technical magic (we do have someone working on the latter option; watch for updates as we figure out what is possible). What is working well on the new site is our updated Station Inspection form. The Lackawanna Coalition is reviving our 1990s practice of checking on station conditions and reporting our findings. Members will be watching their local stations, and we hope all our readers will take advantage of the form to let us know what is good or bad at their local station and at others that they visit, so that we can compile information for NJ Transit. We and NJ-ARP have been advocating for riders for a long time, and with your help in documenting station conditions, we can make our case—and yours—at NJ Transit.

Earlier this month, I attended a virtual meeting held by our host municipality, Millburn Township, about planned improvements around the Short Hills train station. Although I looked for the video recording on the town website, it has apparently not yet been posted, so my thoughts later in this article are from my participation late in the program. What was clear is that community suggestions are being accepted and given due consideration.

Short Hills Station Traffic Improvements Planned

Checking on room availability for our October meeting, I noticed two information-gathering sessions by the Millburn town council: one in person, on October 26, and one virtual, on November 1. The sessions were listed as discussions of the concept plan for proposed pedestrian and circulation improvements in the vicinity of the Short Hills train station. Consideration is being given to traffic and parking patterns at busy intersections near the station. Residents are being asked for their perspectives on the plans that are being developed, as well as their own suggestions and concerns. Although I could attend only the last half of the online presentation, it was clear that residents were engaged and informed, with questions raised about pedestrian safety, congestion, and pick-up locations. Both automobile routes and pedestrian pathways are being considered to ensure the optimum decisions are reached. Residents provided information based on their experience with the Short Hills station and its surrounding roads and intersections.

The portion of the meeting that I attended covered the western side of the station, and a possible one-way traffic pattern was discussed. Questions were raised about possible unintended consequences of drivers finding short-cuts to avoid a longer one-way trip. One resident suggested that an additional, onsite session at the Boxcar at the station would be helpful, and that suggestion was well-received. It is clear that the planners are putting a lot of thought into the options to make arrival, departure, and movement through the area as efficient as possible for pedestrians, rail passengers, and motorists alike.

Essex County Transportation Plan 2045 Comes to Lackawanna Coalition

On October 24, David Antonio, Director of Planning for Essex County, came to the Lackawanna Coalition meeting to present Essex County’s “Essex 2045” transportation project. The project is to create a plan for all aspects of transportation in Essex County and to have a vision for what Essex Country transportation will be like in the next 20 years. A grant for this project came from North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. The previous plan was the Essex County Comprehensive Plan of June 2013.

Input on improving public transportation was, of course, the reason for Mr. Antonio’s invitation. Gathering of public input comes through a web-based application via survey questions and a mapping tool. A major point of the presentation was pedestrian safety. Bloomfield Avenue is one of the busiest and most dangerous streets in New Jersey. Although upgraded infrastructure has been installed on Bloomfield Avenue in recent years, more work needs to be done to ensure pedestrian safety.

After the presentation, Lackawanna Coalition members gave comments. Some highlights: improving bus service on Bloomfield Avenue; pedestrian crossings working properly, including audio and visual countdown clocks; more weekend service on Montclair-Boonton line, Newark light rail, and various New Jersey Transit bus routes.

Essex County can be a leader in improving public transportation in New Jersey. Essex County is second densest and third most populated county in New Jersey. Multiple rail lines run through the county. Newark is a hub for multiple transportation modes, and two-fifths of residents do not own an automobile.

Submit your input on Essex 2045 by the end of the year. To do so, you can send e-mail messages to essex2045@gmail.com. Also, all are welcome to use the county’s survey and mapping tool: https://bit.ly/Essex- Survey

For more information on the program, go to the Essex County Department of Public Works site: http://www.ecdpw.org/essex-2045.php.

Ten Years Ago: Hurricane Sandy Devastated Our Transit and More

It has been 10 years since Hurricane Sandy pounded this part of the country, bringing transit in New York City and New Jersey to a standstill. Sandy was one of the worst storms in history, causing $70 billion in damage and killing 233 people in eight countries, from the Caribbean to Canada. Sandy has often been compared to Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005.

Even though Sandy hit the region on Monday, October 29, with barely hurricane strength, the unique configuration and the extreme extent of the region’s damage led local media and even the National Weather Service to dub the extra-tropical cyclone “Superstorm Sandy.” Low-lying areas were particularly hard-hit; among these were the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, the Jersey Shore, and Hoboken, and unexpectedly, some inland areas across the region. Millions were left without power, and millions were left without transit.

Transit Hit Hard

Transit came back in the Philadelphia area within a few days, and the New York subways came back over the course of a week, as did Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. It took longer in New Jersey, as New Jersey Transit (NJT) chronicled in a number of press releases, which can still be found on the NJT website.

Amtrak trains began to return to the Northeast Corridor late in the first week after the storm, and NJT trains to Trenton and on the Raritan Line returned shortly thereafter. The North Jersey Coast Line (NJCL) was devastated, as was much of the Shore. Photos of the line showed small boats and even a freight container washed up onto its track. River Draw, the bridge between Perth Amboy and South Amboy, was damaged and a replacement bridge is now under construction. The region’s damage was so extensive that county transportation agencies did what they could to provide food and mobility to the seniors and persons with disabilities who needed those services.

During the first few weeks, NJT ran shuttle buses during peak commuting hours from emergency park-and-ride locations to points where riders could get to Manhattan on ferries and PATH trains that had started running again. Later, the buses ran to and from NJT’s train stations.

The Morris & Essex (M&E) line was out of service for two weeks, returning on Monday, November 14. Limited service on the Main/Bergen, Port Jarvis, and Pascack Valley Lines also returned that day. The Montclair-Boonton Line came back two days later. The last line to return to service was the Gladstone Branch, which came back on December 1, after a five-week absence. Full pre-Sandy service did not return until January 14.

Sandy’s Aftermath Still Brings Controversy

One of the most-lasting parts of Sandy’s legacy was the flooding of about 400 pieces of rolling stock (locomotives and railcars) that were left in low-lying yards in Hoboken and the Meadowlands. Some of

that equipment was flooded beyond repair. Today, NJT’s “Sandy Resiliency Program” plans to build new yards for emergency purposes. Advocates question the cost-effectiveness of such projects, claiming that preparedness and good practices could have prevented the loss, noting that losses on the New York side were minimal.

One component of the program is the proposed NJ Transitgrid, which would be fired by natural gas, despite Gov. Murphy’s campaign promise that the state would not build new facilities powered by fossil fuels. Coalition Chairperson Sally Jane Gellert is a member of the Don’t Gas the Meadowlands Coalition, which opposes the project. The controversial Transitgrid is outside the Lackawanna Coalition’s core purview area.

For more-extensive coverage of Sandy’s impact on our region and its transit, see my article, Hurricane Sandy, Ten Years Later , posted on October 27 on the Railway Age website.

RUN South on Saturday, October 29!

The Rail Users’ Network (RUN) will hold an on-line “virtual” conference on Saturday afternoon, October 29, from 12:30 until 5:30. RUN conferences have been featuring efforts by rail managers and advocates to bring more trains and better rail transit to various regions of the country for the past two years, and the theme for the October event will be “Southern Comfort – how new and expanded rail service will improve the lives of everyone in the Southern U.S.”

Continue Reading RUN South on Saturday, October 29!

Essex County Conducts Transportation Planning Study; Seeks Public Input

Essex County has announced that it is developing a transportation plan for 2045. An announcement from the county said, “To support this effort, we want to understand the needs of our transportation system users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders so we can address emerging issues in mobility, access, safety, economic opportunity, social equity, and post-COVID-19 needs.”

Continue Reading Essex County Conducts Transportation Planning Study; Seeks Public Input

From Newark to Bay Head: LC Inspection Trip on the NJCL

On Friday, August 12th, the Lackawanna Coalition, along with members from SCDRTAC, made an inspection trip on the North Jersey Coast Line. The weather was warm and sunny, and none of the trains was empty. We chose this itinerary to accommodate anyone coming in from Southern New Jersey or Philadelphia to have enough time. This trip was more inspection than excursion, as our stopovers in Red Bank and Bay Head were 60 minutes and 45 minutes, respectively, not enough time to see the towns.

Continue Reading From Newark to Bay Head: LC Inspection Trip on the NJCL

Meeting Needs of Disabled Riders

As a public transportation agency, NJ Transit has an obligation to meet the needs of all riders, regardless of their mobility, visibility, or auditory challenges. Over time, we have reported on how well—or not well—they are providing services. We know that Access Link, which provides services to medical appointments and other destinations for those unable to independently ride scheduled transit, shadows NJ Transit bus lines—but what about those who can, with reasonable accommodation, navigate regular bus and train routes? One thing that is imperative for such individuals is good signage—where am I, where are elevators or restrooms, when is the next train coming, etc? Our inspection trip to Hackettstown showed the deficiency of such signage at Secaucus, where finding the elevator was a noted challenge. We also learned that NJT policies, which look good in theory, are not always put into practice—a number of our South Jersey members missed their connection when it came in on a different track than originally planned.

Continue Reading Meeting Needs of Disabled Riders

Report from the Chair: Sept./Oct. 2022

In addition to my role as Lackawanna Coalition chairperson, I am a member of SCDRTAC, the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee of NJ Transit, and I find more and more common concerns. At the last SCDRTAC meeting, member Sara Thompson gave a presentation on issues that affect riders with hearing limitations, and they are some of the same issues that have been discussed recently on our informal e-mail list: quality of PA announcements on trains and in stations; use of the visual station announcement system on railcars, and even the translucency, rather than transparency, of train windows, especially on the newer dual-level cars.

Continue Reading Report from the Chair: Sept./Oct. 2022

RUNning in the Spring

The Rail Users’ Network (RUN) held their annual spring conference virtually on Friday, April 29. The theme was “Look West— here’s where advocates are fighting to restore/expand rail service in the Western U.S./British Columbia.” Seven advocates from the Rockies, Southwest, Pacific Coast, and British Columbia gave presentations on their specific region’s transit situation.

Continue Reading RUNning in the Spring