NJ Transit to the Hicks Tract in Millington
One of the few parks in Morris County that is accessible by public transportation is the Hicks Tract in Millington, which is less than half a mile from the Millington station on the Gladstone Branch of NJ Transit. It’s a rather small park, and hardly worth the long train trip to get there — if hiking is the only purpose of the trip. But if you view the trip as a day-long excursion, in which the train ride and the hike have equal significance, it becomes a great opportunity to spend a day riding trains and taking a hike.
Today (Wednesday, March 16) was an ideal day for taking this excursion. It was a beautiful, warm day — perfect for hiking — but it also was the second day in which a special schedule was in effect for the Morristown Line and Gladstone Branch, following significant storm damage last week, which resulted in a week-long suspension of service on both lines. Under this special schedule, all Gladstone Branch trains terminated in Summit, with the result that I would have the opportunity to take three separate trains each way! (As it turned out, this special schedule would be in effect for only two days, with close-to-normal service resuming on Thursday.)
I began the trip by driving to the New Bridge Landing station on the Pascack Valley Line, where I boarded Train #1625, scheduled to depart at 10:24 a.m. This train is unique, as it is the only train that originates at the New Bridge Landing station. The trainset arrives as Train #1651 at 10:01 a.m. and remains in the station for the next 23 minutes, with passengers welcome to board whenever they arrive.
We departed on time at 10:24 a.m. but lost three minutes waiting on the siding for northbound Train #1607. We lost another four minutes due to restrictive signals between Wood-Ridge and Secaucus, and we arrived at the Secaucus Junction station at 10:56 a.m., seven minutes late. This was a problem, as I was hoping to connect with Morristown Line Train #6621, scheduled to depart Secaucus at 10:56 a.m. It takes at least two minutes to get from lower level tracks at Secaucus to upper level tracks via the rotunda, and if my connecting train had departed on time, I would have missed it. But there is always the chance that the train might be a few minutes late.
I quickly made my way up to the rotunda, where I noticed that Train #6621 was still displayed on the Solari board — a hopeful sign that the train had not yet departed. I then went through the fare gates and down the escalator, and just as I reached the platform at 10:58 a.m., my train was pulling into the station on Track B. I had lucked out! Train #6621 was pulled by dual-mode engine 4533 and consisted of six multi-level cars. I found an unoccupied four-seat group and sat down for my ride to Summit. Interestingly, although we were several minutes late and hardly anyone boarded or detrained at Secaucus, we spent two minutes at the station. Possibly, this time was used to lower the pantograph on the dual-mode engine.
West of Newark, we used the center express track. This was because there was track equipment on the westbound local track in the area of the damaged catenary between South Orange and Maplewood. There are platforms for the express track at Brick Church, South Orange and Maplewood, but for the stop at Orange, passengers had to detrain across the westbound track, and only the first two cars of the train opened at this stop.
We arrived on Track 1 in Summit at 11:38 a.m., four minutes late. The eastbound train to Hoboken, scheduled to depart at 11:42 a.m., was boarding passengers on Track 2, and my shuttle train to Gladstone would be departing from the Wall Track. I walked upstairs to the waiting room on the bridge over the tracks and then went down to the platform serving the Wall Track, where I boarded Gladstone Branch Train #415. The train consisted of three Arrow III cars, of which only the middle car was open to passengers (the first car served as a “hangout” for the four crew members who were on board). Sixteen people boarded the train, and we departed on time at 11:47 a.m. When we arrived at the Stirling station, we took the siding and stopped to detrain the one passenger who got off here. We then moved ahead before the opposing train proceeded into the station.
We arrived at the Millington station at 12:09 p.m., two minutes late. Three passengers detrained and one boarded. I walked up Long Hill Road and then over to the Hicks Tract, where I spent close to an hour hiking around this small but delightful park. I then returned to the station, where I arrived about 1:45 p.m., leaving me with about 20 minutes to wait for my eastbound Train #426. The Millington station is now the location of a café, and there are very nice round tables between the station building and the tracks, which are available both to patrons of the café and to people waiting for trains. This proved to be a very delightful place to wait for my train. While waiting for the train, I asked an employee of the café whether commuters accounted for a significant percentage of the café’s customers. She replied that that used to be the case prior to the pandemic, but that few commuters now patronize the café, although many local residents still do.
Train #426, also a three-car set of Arrow III equipment, arrived four minutes late at 2:06 p.m. The conductor greeted me and jokingly told me that he had reserved a seat for me. In fact, I was the first passenger to board this train since it departed from the Gladstone station. The middle car of the train, where I sat, was entirely empty, and the conductor assured me that no passengers had boarded between Gladstone and Millington. Passengers did board the train at each of the stops between Millington and Summit (except for Gillette), and by the time we arrived at Summit, there were nine passengers onboard. When we pulled into the Stirling station, a man wanted to board the train but didn’t have a mask. The conductor told him to sit in the back of the car, away from everyone else, and let him board.
We arrived on the Wall Track at Summit at 2:25 p.m. My train to Hoboken was not scheduled to depart until 2:45 p.m., so this gave me some time to explore the station. Summit features an historic brick station, built by the Lackawanna Railroad in 1905, but the station building has been completely reconfigured, and the waiting room moved to the bridge that spans the tracks. I walked upstairs to the waiting room, where I noticed that the departures board indicated that both the 2:45 p.m. train to Hoboken and the 2:47 p.m. train to Gladstone would be departing from the Wall Track. This didn’t make any sense, as it’s not feasible for two trains heading in opposite directions to depart from the same track only two minutes apart. I looked around the waiting room and noticed that there was a sign stating that the maximum occupancy of this area is 700 people. I cannot imagine trying to get even half that number of people into this relatively small space!
I went back down to the platform, where the crew of the Gladstone train told me that notwithstanding what the electronic message board said, my Hoboken train would be departing from Track 2. That is indeed what happened. At about 2:45 p.m., westbound Midtown Direct Train #6631 pulled into the station on Track 2. When that train moved on, the equipment set that had been parked beyond the station on Track 1 (that was the consist of Hoboken-Summit Train #321 that had arrived at Summit on Track 1 at 2:30 p.m.) moved onto Track 2, and a verbal announcement was made that Train #326 to Hoboken would be departing from Track 2. Train #326 was pulled by a dual-mode engine and consisted of seven Comet cars, of which three were open to passengers.
My train departed Summit at 2:51 p.m., six minutes late. We lost another three minutes between East Orange and Newark. As we approached Newark, we switched onto the center track and passed a train that was apparently stopped on the eastbound local track. That was presumably Montclair-Boonton Line Train #6242 that was scheduled to arrive at Newark at 3:18 p.m. but was being held so that our train could stop at Newark ahead of it. Interestingly, we pulled into the Newark station on Track 1, which is normally used for westbound trains.
When we arrived on Track 14 of the Hoboken Terminal at 3:40 p.m., nine minutes late, I detrained and walked over to Track 5, where my Pascack Valley Line Train #1623 was boarding. The train consisted of four Comet V cars, all of which were open to passengers, and I took a seat in the front car. Relatively few people boarded the train in Hoboken, but when we departed the Secaucus station, nearly every seat group in my car was occupied by at least one person. This amounts to about 50% occupancy on this shoulder rush-hour train, which indicates that rush-hour ridership is beginning to rebound somewhat. Our ride was uneventful, and we arrived at the New Bridge Landing station one minute late at 4:36 p.m., thus concluding a very enjoyable day of train riding and hiking.