NJ Transit Rail Celebrates 40th Anniversary

It has now been slightly more than 40 years since NJ Transit started running its trains under its own flag. While the different lines were originally operated by historical railroads, such as the Morris & Essex (M&E), Gladstone, and Montclair lines by the Lackawanna Railroad until 1960, the statewide system was run by the Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail), with help from the Commuter Operating Agency (COA) at the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

According to Coalition member Jim Blaze, who worked as a manager for Conrail at the time, Congress mandated in 1981 that Conrail had to give up its local passenger operations by the end of 1982. In a hurry, and just in time for New Years’ Day1983, 3 regional railroads were born: Metro-North in New York State, NJ Transit Rail, and SEPTA Regional Rail in the Philadelphia area.

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Bill Would Cut Bergen Fares

A proposed law to reduce NJ Transit fares for some Bergen County riders was released on June 10 by the State Assembly Transportation Committee.  The bill would rescind a fare increase, effective March 1, that affected certain stations on the Main, Bergen, and Pascack Valley Lines.  NJ Transit said that fare increases on those lines were “triggered” by higher fares instituted by Metro-North, which owns the portion of those lines in New York State; NJ Transit operates the trains to Metro-North station for the account of Metro-North.  The bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Tim Eustace and Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, both Bergen County Democrats, who noted that transportation costs were outstripping household income growth.

However, the reporting and the legislators’ reported statements did not disclose the background of the increase, which has roots in the last NJ Transit general fare increase, in 2010, which raised most fares by a whopping 25% and worse, eliminated off-peak round-trip fares, forcing most occasional riders to pay an enormous 47% fare increase.  However, Metro-North at that time did not raise its fares, which created an anomaly: if NJT had applied to Bergen riders the fare increases imposed elsewhere in its system, Metro-North fares from New York points would actually have been lower than NJT’s fares on the same trains for shorter trips.  To avoid this, the NJT fares were raised only enough to be equal to the longer-trip Metro-North fares.  As Metro-North imposed subsequent increases on its riders, the temporarily-limited NJT fares increased an equal amount.  In summary, while the March 1 increases for some Bergen County riders may be unwelcome to NJT customers, they were simply the last phase of an increase that other NJT riders have been paying for 3 years.

 The Lackawanna Coalition believes that the 2010 fare increases were ill-advised, particularly in the disproportionate increases imposed on off-peak riders; a well-run business should charge the lowest rates when demand is lowest (off-peak), and the highest rates when demand is at the highest.  NJT does exactly the opposite.

Metro-North Boosts Off-Peak, Weekend Schedules

On NJ Transit, schedules have been largely unchanged for years, with minor changes from time to time, and elimination of many off-peak trains to Hoboken the major event.  However, on many off-peak trains, particularly on weekends, traffic continues to build, often threatening to reach train capacity.  On New York’s Metro-North Railroad, off-peak traffic is also building, but Metro-North has the spare capacity into Grand Central Terminal to do something about it: substantial increases in off-peak service have been announced by M-N, with the first round coming on October 14, when 79 new trains per week will begin to operate: all off-peak weekdays and on weekends.  A further increase of 151 trains per weeks is slated for April 2013.  The new trains focus on the New Haven and Harlem lines of Metro-North; on the New Haven line, there will be 15 additional trains on weekdays, and 30 trains on weekends, and on the Harlem, 24 additional weekend trains.  In addition, on the NJT-operated Pascack Valley line, which originates in Spring Valley, N.Y., there will be a new round trip each weekday, plus a new Friday-afternoon-only pre-rush-hour “getaway” train.  Finally, existing trains that are overcrowded on the Grand Central lines will get additional cars to address the problem.

MTA says the new schedules will provide half-hourly service at weekend key-ridership hours at many stations on the Harlem and New Haven lines.  The railroad also announced a substantial schedule of holiday shoppers’ trains to reduce crowding during the preholiday period.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that off-peak and weekend service on the Morris & Essex lines needs study and improvement.  Many trains are close to capacity, with hapless riders forced to take long treks through the train in search of seats.  Service is hourly at best; as Metro-North has learned, such infrequent service discourages ridership.  NJ Transit’s policy of discouraging off-peak and weekend travel via the Hoboken Gateway has exacerbated the situation; weekend service to Hoboken runs on an unacceptable 2-hour headway (with an astonishing gap from 8 to 11 p.m. returning from Hoboken, just when those out for a “night on the town” need to return).  There seems to be an NJT unwritten policy to favor service at peak hours, when most riders travel at the lowest rates, and ignoring all others; new trains are seldom added, following the idea that “since we lose money overall, every new train will just increase our deficit.”   A more business-oriented approach is needed.

Metro-North Plans Off-Peak Service Increase

New York’s Metro-North Railroad, which provides commuter services to northern suburbs in New York and Connecticut, plans a substantial increase in rail service in response to increasing customer demand.  The railroad plans to add 230 trains per week, the largest increase in service since the company took over the commuter services in 1982, according to Matt Flegenheimer’s report in The New York Times (July 20).  Most of the new trains will run during weekday off-peak and weekend hours; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro-North’s owner, notes that “non-commutation ridership” is increasing at 6% per year, and that overall commuter train ridership is approaching record highs.