Less than 10 months after Hurricane Sandy devastated NJ Transit’s rail operations, the railroad received a sharp reminder of the power of nature on Thursday, August 22, as intense local storms struck northern Somerset County and wiped out the roadbed on the line’s Gladstone Branch in multiple places, disrupting train service for days. Local weather observers recorded 4″ or more of rain in downpours over several midday hours, causing rapid flooding of the North Branch of the Raritan River and tributary streams—the hilly rail line runs in the upper Raritan watershed in its westernmost section, from Bernardsville to the Gladstone terminus. According to a staff report in the Courier News regional newspaper the next day, there were 4 to 6 significant washouts, each 10′-15′ wide by 50′-60′ long; the damage was generally in the area between the Far Hills, Peapack, and Gladstone stations, with major washouts reported on both sides of the Far Hills station. A “washout” is a condition in which powerful water current undermines the track, often leaving the track suspended in midair. The condition can occur suddenly and can be highly dangerous to train operations, as the track often remains connected and the damage cannot be detected by the signal systems; in this case, fortunately no damage to train movements was reported.
NJT’s planning for storm damage includes avoiding equipment stranded at outlying points; after Hurricane Sandy, emphasis on flood-proof storage yards has increased. Had the August 22 event occurred at night or on a weekend, many trainsets would have been stranded in the Gladstone yard; but at midday on weekdays, the yard is typically empty, so stranded equipment was not a serious problem. However, with the line out of service in the area, normal service could not be provided. By 1 p.m. on Aug. 22, NJT had announced suspension of all service between Bernardsville and Gladstone. By 4 p.m., all inbound service on the entire Gladstone branch had been cancelled and evening outbound commuters were being accommodated by bus service west of Bernardsville, through the damaged area. NJT’s inability to offer inbound service was likely caused by the erratic outbound service (delays of 30-45 minutes were reported), and the consequent inability to schedule inbound trains on the single-track line.
Service disruptions continued on Friday, Aug. 23, as repair crews struggled to repair the railroad. For some reason, NJT chose not to provide any substitute bus service through the affected area; instead, riders were advised to find their own transportation to Bernardsville, where 5 trains departed between 6 and 9 a.m. (normal service would be 8 trains in that period, plus 2 runs even earlier). After 9 a.m., only bus service was available between Bernardsville and Stirling, where trains were available. In the evening, again trains ran only as far as Bernardsville and a number of trains were cancelled or truncated, with passengers sometimes asked to transfer at Summit, the eastern end of the Gladstone branch.
Weekend service on the branch was provided on normal schedules, but only as far as Bernardsville, as repairs continued. Normal service had been predicted for Monday morning, but in fact NJT was able to resume service between Bernardsville and Gladstone at about 8 p.m. Sunday evening, August 25. However, further repair work was needed, so buses again provided midday service on Monday.
The destruction of track structure by rampaging water has always been a serious event for any railroad, and NJT is to be commended for the rapid restoration of the line, in contrast to the experience after Hurricane Sandy, when service on the Gladstone line was suspended completely for an astounding 5 weeks. However, the inability for more than 3 days to provide bus service to the outermost 3 stations is troubling, particularly on the weekend, when hundreds of buses stand idle throughout the state and could easily have been pressed into service.