Idyll in Jersey (Avenue, Main)

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.

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On the Rails with the Coalition

On Friday, May 20, folks from the Lackawanna Coalition teamed up with some folks from the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC) on an inspection trip on the Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton lines. We left from Newark Broad Street on the 2:16 P.M. Montclair-Boonton train and stopped in Dover for dinner at Ohh Que Rica, an informal Colombian restaurant a short walk from the station. A few of us turned back there, having early-evening appointments, while the rest went on to Hackettstown. There we had a half-hour layover; a few of us stayed at the station or on the train: others braved the oncoming rain to head downtown for a quick beer.

We returned on the Morris & Essex line, some of us peeling off at stops along the way, others going as far as Secaucus, where adventures ensued.

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AmeriStar Rail: More Service on the NEC, Rail Plans for LaGuardia

As we learned at our November, meeting, there could be a lot more trains on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) with AmeriStar Rail’s operating plan ( Chief Operating Officer Scott R. Spencer presented that plan to us, saying that the NEC is currently underutilized. The restructured plan for intercity trains would not affect NJ Transit (including Morris & Essex and Montclair) trains using all or part of the railroad from Trenton to Penn Station, New York.

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Weekend Trains Return to the Gladstone Branch

After an absence of 2 years and 8 months, weekend train service returned to the Gladstone Branch on June 6. Trains run hourly as shuttles between Gladstone and Summit, connecting there with Morris & Essex Line trains between Dover and New York Penn Station. For Hoboken or Montclair passengers, there is a train connecting at Broad Street Station in Newark approximately every other hour. The schedule is similar to the one in effect until October 2018, when substitute bus operation began. Running time is 44 minutes eastbound and 54 minutes westbound, compared with 57 minutes eastbound and 62 minutes westbound for the bus operation.

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Amtrak Reaches for Highest Speed

All the talk is of high-speed trains, but NJ Transit commuters wonder whether they will ever benefit, as commuter trains with their many stops, long loading times, and terminal congestion delays seem to be bogged down in a 19th-Century era, often managing less than 30 miles per hour average end-to-end.  Still, it’s possible to run trains at breathtaking speeds on some of the same tracks that NJT commuters travel every day.  Monday night, September 24, Amtrak tested an out-of-the-box Acela trainset on the Northeast Corridor between New Brunswick and Trenton, the same tracks used by dozens of NJT trains every day.

However, Amtrak’s train was trying for a new speed record of 165 mph, according to the story in the Star-Ledger the next day (by Mike Frassinelli).  Even Amtrak’s fastest trains are limited to 135 mph on that stretch of track.  Engineers were still bent over their slide rules and calculators, trying to figure out if the 165 mph goal had actually been acheived.  Motivation for the test runs includes a project to upgrade the overhead “catenary” power-supply wires, which suffer from a design dating from the original electrification in the 1930s; the new system, to cost $450 million, will allow speeds up to 160 mph—hence the Sept. 24 tests aiming for 5 miles faster.  Simiilar tests are scheduled up and down the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that infrastructure improvements on all lines are essential, and notes that bridge replacement, new trans-Hudson tunnels, and catenary upgrades on the Northeast Corridor all will be vital to ensure that the transportation system continues to meet the needs of the region.

Amtrak Sets Records on NEC

A decade or so ago, airlines were the dominant players in the Northeast Corridor transportation market.  However, today air travel suffers from high fares, frequent delays, and time-consuming airport security checks; meanwhile, Amtrak offers its Acela premium service, on-line ticketing, and, importantly, workstation access; the result has been to tip the market share in favor of Amtrak’s trains, according to Ron Nixon’s reporting in The New York Times  (August 16).  Amtrak reports that now 75% of travelers between New York and Washington choose the train; in 2000, before Acela and post-9-11 airport security, the rail carrier had only one-third of the market.  Between New York and Boston, bolstered by electrification of the rail line east of New Haven and the same disincentives to fly, Amtrak’s share grew from 20 to 54%.  The high usage is causing the infrastructure to fray, however; most days, Northeast Corridor trains are full, and some rolling stock is pushing the 30-year-old mark.  Amtrak estimates that demand could increase by a factor of four by 2040.  Amtrak improvements are stuck in Congress, like almost everything else; meanwhile, cheap buses have had an impact, with their $1-to-$40 pricing and wireless access attracting riders despite somewhat longer travel times.  Airlines fight back with brand-loyalty programs, noting that while trains and buses can compete over a few hundred miles, “The train can’t take you to South Africa.”

 The Lackawanna Coalition supports infrastructure investments that will enable all Northeast Corridor service providers, including Amtrak and NJ Transit, to meet the increasing rider demands in the future.

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.

NJT Relaxes Some Weekend Bicycle Restrictions, but It’s Little Help on Our Lines

New Jersey Transit announced on Monday, August 6th, that it would relax some of the weekend restrictions against the use of bicycles on trains, beginning on Saturday, August 11th.  The restrictions that went into effect in July prohibited bicycles on all inbound trains that would arrive at their terminals in Newark, Hoboken, or New York between 9:00 and 12:00 in the morning, and leaving those terminals between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m.  The regulation does not apply to trains going in the opposite direction, which would carry New York-based cyclists to New Jersey.
NJT announced that the weekend restriction would no longer apply to trains that terminate in Hoboken, or Raritan Valley Line trains that terminate at Newark.  The restrictions on weekend bicycle use on the Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast, and Morris & Essex (M&E) lines remain in full force and effect.
Cyclists on the M&E line must take the 7:05 train from Dover, or an earlier train, to reach their destination before the restricted period begins.  They must also leave Penn Station on the 4:11 train, or wait until 8:11; a gap of 4 hours.  Although trains on the Gladstone Branch may now carry bicycles, Gladstone trains terminate at Summit on weekends.  Cyclists cannot use M&E trains east of Summit during the restricted hours, so they are subject to the same restrictions as M&E riders.
The only improvement for riders on our rail lines is that cyclists getting on trains at Bay St. (Montclair), Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, or Watsessing Avenue can now use 2 trains to Hoboken and 1 train from Hoboken that they could not have used before.

Funding Increase Coming for Northeast Corridor; Benefits Our Trains, Too

The New Jersey Legislature has authorized funding for Northeast Corridor (NEC) improvements of $35.7 million for fiscal year 2013—an 81% increase over the $19.7 million originally proposed by the New Jersey Department of Transportation.  The NEC line is important for rail riders in our area, because Midtown Direct trains on the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton, and Gladstone trains use it to get to and from Penn Station.
Coalition Political Director Jim Raleigh and Technical Director Joseph Clift campaigned in Trenton for this increase, with help from Coalition member Brad Payeur.  A story by Clift, with bar chart detailing NEC funding, is in the June-July issue of the Railgram.

NJDOT Chief Wants to Work on Reliability

This article was published in the Asbury Park Press. It is quoted here as a matter of interest, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Lackawanna Coalition.

If it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a transportation commissioner riding the trains to make them run on time?

New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, fresh from a Northeast Corridor Line ride to Wednesday’s NJ Transit board meeting, ordered the agency to do a study of what it would take to bring the corridor’s state of good repair to the same level as the rail lines NJ Transit owns and to meet with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Amtrak President Joseph Broadman to find a way to make those upgrades happen.

About 80% of NJ Transit’s commuters either use the corridor or, in the case of North Jersey Coast, Morris & Essex, and Raritan Valley Line riders, have their trains use the corridor for the sprint to and from New York, officials said.

Simpson said he got a taste of the commuting life when he took the train to Wednesday’s NJ Transit board meeting and left 30 to 40 minutes earlier to ensure he’d make the 9 a.m. meeting.

This article was formerly available at