Service was suspended on most of the Morris & Essex (M&E) Line, along with the Gladstone Branch, for an entire week, beginning on Monday evening, March 7. A strong storm blew a large tree onto the elevated M&E right-of-way near Jefferson Avenue in Maplewood, between the Maplewood and South Orange stations. It pulled down the overhead wires (“catenary”) that power the trains running on the line and damaged the wires’ supporting structure. On Tuesday, nothing ran anywhere on either the M&E or the Gladstone Branch. By Wednesday, hourly service (different from and slower than normal) had been established between South Orange and New York Penn Station. However, there was no service at all—not even limited diesel service—past South Orange.
Most service was restored on Tuesday, March 14, with full restoration 3 days later. Meanwhile, area residents had only limited bus service west of South Orange. East of there, riders in the Oranges kept basic service, although modified, starting on Wednesday, March 9. A special operation on the unaffected Montclair-Boonton Line allowed a few trains to serve Denville, Dover, and points west to Hackettstown. During the disruption, some Montclair-Boonton trains ran nonstop between Newark and Denville.
For riders past Maplewood, regardless of branch, no alternatives were offered. A few local buses in Essex County run near the line, such as the #70. Local buses in Morris County provide limited service—infrequent on weekdays and Saturdays, with none in the evening. There is essentially no bus service along the Gladstone Branch. The #986 route runs between Summit and Plainfield only during peak commuting periods on weekdays, stopping at the Murray Hill station. Otherwise, there was no transit at all between Summit and Gladstone; the only way to go east from Summit was to take the #70 bus, going through Millburn on its slow journey to Newark.
Lackawanna Coalition member Joseph M. Clift, former planning director for the Long Island Rail Road, was one of those criticizing the lack of alternatives. He also remarked on the lack of preparedness at NJ Transit, saying, “Service on 90% of New Jersey Transit’s second-largest service line, the Morristown and Gladstone branches combined—39,000 pre-covid weekday trips—have been dead for a week. . . . It should not take a week to remove a tree, damaged catenary, and track, and build temporary catenary structure. . . . Why was there no anticipation of entirely predictable catenary structure damage from a tree fall by holding replacement pieces . . . in inventory?” He noted that diesel service on the line should have been provided in 1 or 2 days: “There should be an investigation into this poor response—A week without service is not acceptable.”
In her statement, Coalition Chairperson Sally Jane Gellert said, “Today, 1 week after the first tree fell on the Morris & Essex line and took down the catenary, and days after a second tree fell, not only is service limited or nonexistent, but there were days without any service at all, not even substitute buses. A transit provider must . . . have procedures in place to take action quickly and restore service.”
NJT’s Chief Communications Officer Nancy J. Snyder defended the agency in a statement prepared for Railway Age: “Certainly all prospective travel alternatives were examined, as well as the necessary resources to reliably support those alternatives and, more importantly, the impact on the quality of the customer experience for those who would have to endure a three (or more) seat ride transferring from train to bus and back to train again adding a significant amount of one-way travel time.” As for substitute busing, she said that it “would require moving those resources away from existing bus service.”
Snyder especially praised the crews on the scene making repairs. She added, “In the meantime, NJ TRANSIT has offered numerous transportation options for impacted customers along the M&E and Gladstone since the onset of the disruption,” mentioning alternatives that are well-suited only for motorists, not for riders who depend on transit.
Modified service was restored on Tuesday, March 15, with approximately regular service, but with some trains combined. Gladstone trains went only to Summit, where riders could change trains,. More service was added on Thursday, and full service on both lines came back on Friday, March 18.