The March meeting of the NJT Board (actually a phone conference, the practice for the 2 years since the COVID-19 virus struck) was dominated by the historic votes to deny Academy Express, LLC, 2 contracts to operate bus routes in Hudson County, and to award them to Coach USA. Even the week-long service disruption on the Morris & Essex and Gladstone lines was not emphasized, perhaps because of the announcement that the trains would run again the next day.
There was an unexpected topic addressed by high-profile speakers during the public comment period: running trains on some restored track on the Lackawanna Cutoff.
The Cutoff was built by the Lackawanna Railroad to save time and distance en route to the Pocono Mountains, Scranton, and through New York State’s Southern Tier to Buffalo. It opened for service in 1911. It branched off the railroad in use today near Port Morris Yard, located between the Lake Hopatcong and Netcong stations, serving passenger schedules until January 4, 1970—the last run of the Lake Cities train from Hoboken over Lackawanna (to Binghamton) and Erie RR heritage rails to Chicago. Freight still ran on the Cutoff through the 1970s, along with occasional passenger specials. The last was an inspection train operated by Amtrak in the fall of 1979.
The Pennsylvania part of the line still hosts freight service and some passenger excursions. The New Jersey track was removed in 1984, and there have been ongoing efforts to restore it.
Today, NJT is slowly extending service only Andover Township, Sussex County. Amtrak’s Connect US 2035 project list includes the restoration of the Cutoff to Scranton; this appears to have spurred renewed interest in the project, particularly among local elected officials. Representative Josh Gottheimer and others have started advocating for the project in Congress. At one time, NJ Transit’s current plans call for a 7.3-mile extension to a 55-parking-space station with a 200-foot platform, with service slated to start in 2026. Extension to Scranton would have to wait another 10 years or so, under Amtrak’s proposals.
At the March meeting, political leaders from West Jersey called for progress; some complained that an item about it had been taken off the board’s agenda. We asked NJ Transit’s chief communications officer, Nancy J. Snyder, who replied, “Board members had additional questions about the project, and we work toward presenting this Board item during next month’s meeting.”
There is some local opposition to restoring the line, but advocates from the Lackawanna Coalition and the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) have consistently supported the idea of restoring passenger trains to the Poconos and Scranton. Tim Sevener of NJ-ARP made a statement calling for the project to get back on track.
Phase I construction was approved in July 2021. That cost is now set at $61.6 million, funded by a federal earmark grant from the Federal Transit Administration and New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund. With 55 parking spaces leading to an expected 60 commuters, the money for construction would amount to slightly more than one million dollars per rider, though surely passengers will join the trip from closer-in stations as well. Scranton and the Poconos seem an important part of a cost-effective project.