River Line Repairs Enter Final Stage

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene struck the New Jersey area.  One of the casualties was the River Line light rail of NJ Transit, which operates between Trenton and Camden.  A hillside adjacent to the River Line tracks was extensively damaged, and the passing siding adjacent to the hillside was taken out of service.  Fortunately, the main track remained in service, albeit with speed restrictions.  However, without the passing siding, NJT was unable to operate rush-hour trains on the usual 15-minute headway; instead, the off-peak and weekend schedule of 30-minute headways has been provided ever since. (Three additional trains operate to Camden in the weekday morning rush, and three return in the evening, but only between Camden and Florence, not through the area damaged.)  To repair the damage required extensive engineering and construction work, removing the siding track and building a complex retaining wall to stabilize the hillside.  The repair work is now nearing completion; although NJT has not announced a date for resumption of full service, the final phase—reinstallation of the siding trackage—will begin on June 18, 2012.  Long-suffering commuters are hoping that full service won’t be far off.

The roadbed used by the River Line between Bordentown and Camden is one of the oldest railroad rights-of-way in the United States; service commenced by the Camden & Amboy Railroad in 1833, nearly 179 years ago!  At that time, the rail line formed a main route between Philadelphia and New York; travel involved a complex arrangement of stagecoaches and steamboats as well as the train.  Initially, the trip took 9-1/2 hours and cost t$3.  In 2012 money, it is estimated that is worth about $68.  Today, the River Line forms an economical route for travelers between New York and Philadelphia; total fare via NJ Transit is $18.30, including bus from Camden to Center City Philadelphia; the trip can be made in about 3 hours, depending on connections.  Alternatives include NJT to Trenton and SEPTA rail to Philadelphia, total fare about $25 and roughly 15 minutes faster; or Amtrak, 1-1/2 hours, $50 and up.

LIRR To Be Nearly Shut Down for Two Weekends

NJ Transit customers have a quick and valuable connection in New York at Penn Station, both to Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).  However, it won’t be so easy on two weekends in October and November: the LIRR has announced the final phase of repairs to the signaling system at their busy Jamaica transfer point that caught fire in August, knocking out most service.  On these two weekends, October 23–24 and November 6–7, the railroad will be nearly shut down to replace the antiquated system that caught fire.  Michael M. Grynbaum, writing in The New York Times on September 28, reports that the railroad is instructing customers to “use LIRR for essential business travel only”.  (The line’s Web site suggests that travel be undertaken only by first responders who have no other choice.)  Only 3 trains per hour will operate between New York Penn Station and Jamaica; no service at all to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.  Service on the Hempstead, Far Rockaway, and Port Jefferson lines will consist of diesel trains on 2-hour headways—and sorry, no bicycles will be allowed on the trains.  According to the line’s Web site, many passengers will have to use the subway to reach Jamaica from Manhattan and some customers will have only bus service between Jamaica and Mineola.  Ronkonkoma Branch trains will be rerouted via the Babylon Branch to Babylon and then to Farmingdale.  Special timetables will be available.  The Port Washington Branch, which does not pass through Jamaica, will not be affected; the railroad suggests those interested in “recreational travel” confine their trips to that branch.
Note that NJ Transit’s plan for a new “ARC” tunnel under the Hudson would bring many NJT customers, including all from the Morris & Essex and Montclair/Boonton lines, not into Penn Station but into a new “deep cavern” station under 34th Street.  This would make connecting to Amtrak and the LIRR much more difficult, and is one of the reasons that the Lackawanna Coalition advocates that the new tunnel lead instead to Penn Station as originally planned: “Penn Station First”.