NJ Transit, in efforts to avoid equipment damage such as occurred with Hurricane Sandy, on January 8th approved engineering contracts for its plan to build and expand storage yards in the New Brunswick area, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (January 9). The Sandy disaster unfolded after NJT stored equipment in yards in Hoboken and the Jersey Meadows that proved vulnerable to storm-surge flooding; hundreds of cars and locomotives were damaged, and some have still not been repaired more than a year later. The railroad had already activated plans to make safer storage locations available in Linden and Garwood. The $7.64-million design and engineering contract will be for the County Yard, at the Jersey Avenue station south of New Brunswick, and the adjacent Mile Run Yard, not presently in service. A recent report on the Sandy disaster, commissioned by NJT from the Texas A&M Engineering and Extension Service, concluded that NJT needed better flood protection models to predict storm impact. Critics have said that NJT ignored reports that forecast the flooding that took place, relying instead on overly optimistic forecasts. Phil Craig of the NJ Association of Railroad Passengers called the Texas A&M report “a whitewash, pure and simple.”
NJ Transit will partner with the US Department of Energy to study the design a new kind of “electrical microgrid” to make the railroad’s electrical power and control systems more resilient. NJ Governor Christie characterized the effort as part of the program to make NJ Transit less vulnerable to events such as Hurricane Sandy, which crippled the transit system in October, 2012. According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (August 27), Christie and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced the program in a press conference at the Secaucus Transfer train station on August 26. Moniz also stressed the vulnerability of New Jersey to rising sea levels.
It was not immediately clear just which NJT power systems would be covered by the new “microgrid,” dubbed “NJ Transitgrid”; reports suggested that parts of the railroad’s electric traction system, rail yards, and key passenger stations would be covered by the plan. Reportedly, the speakers stressed the key position of NJT train operations within the Northeast Corridor and the potential effect on NJT power failures on the entire Northeast; however, most of the NJT facilities in the Northeast Corridor are actually operated by Amtrak, and there was no mention of Amtrak participation in the study or program.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that improvements in the electric traction system used by NJT is critical to long-term service reliability; however, the most vulnerable areas are in the Amtrak power systems, which should be the main focus of any improvements of the power systems.
On NJ Transit’s Morris & Essex lines, the busiest stations are Newark Broad Street and Summit; both have 3 station tracks and 2 platforms, and when several trains arrive at once, a traffic jam can ensue, particularly if 1 or more trains are running behind schedule. Summit can be particularly bothersome, as some trains “turn back” to New York or Hoboken, so they must have some place to wait until it’s time to depart on their return trip. However, there is no convenient place for these trains to wait, so they sit out on the main line; schedules are carefully constructed to allow for this, but if trains get behind schedule the whole house of cards can begin to collapse, as a waiting train then blocks through trains trying to find their way past Summit.
Compounding the problem is the set of “crossovers” at Summit, which allow trains to change tracks. These have sharp curves and require low speeds, which makes everything take that much longer; even when there are no problems, riders will notice how slowly trains move through this trackwork, particularly to or from the Gladstone Branch, which begins at Summit. Now NJT is planning to do something about the situation. According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (May 9), NJT plans to construct a new siding or “pocket track” with a capacity for 12-car trains; this will allow trains reversing direction to be parked without blocking through trains. The improvement should allow more flexible scheduling of the entire M&E system. On May 8, the NJT Board approved a $2 million contract for engineering design work for the project; the contract went to Jacobs Engineering Group of Morristown. The new siding is scheduled to be ready by 2017. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the slow-speed crossover problem may be corrected as part of the same project.
Plans to extend the New York City Transit No. 7 subway line, which runs between Flushing and Times Square in Manhattan, onward to NJ Transit’s Secaucus Junction transfer station have surfaced again. The idea was first proposed more than 2 years ago by Mayor Bloomberg’s administration; then-chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Joseph Lhota dismissed the idea about a year ago, saying the line was “not going to happen in anybody’s lifetime”. However, now it’s back in the news, following a report prepared by the engineering consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, according to reporting by Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (April 11). The MTA continues to be skeptical, noting that the new report does not contain any cost estimates. Plans for new trans-Hudson rail capacity have been in flux since Governor Christie of New Jersey scuttled plans for a new heavy-rail tunnel, called “access to the region’s core”, in October 2010. More recently, Amtrak has proposed new tunnels that could be shared by Amtrak and NJ Transit. Governor Christie’s office, reacting to the new study, noted that the Governor had been “intrigued” when the No. 7 extension had been originally proposed and that the Governor would continue to explore its viability.
Since service to the Meadowlands Sports Complex begain in 2009, business has been booming. This is according to NJ Transit, which operates rail service from Hoboken via Secaucus to the Meadowlands station, but only when major sports or other events are happening. Enter the Super Bowl, scheduled for the Meadowlands in February 2014. How many people will use the train to the Super Bowl? It’s hard to predict, but about 10,000 people routinely use the service for Giants and Jets games; the record is 22,000 for a U2 concert. Most of the customers (90% it turns out) are from New York; New Jerseyans seem to prefer their cars for some reason. However, there’s a bottleneck: many of the Meadowlands patrons change trains at the Secaucus transfer station, most heading to or from Penn Station in New York—but while the Meadowlands station was built with capacity for 10-car trains, Secaucus can handle only 8-car trains. According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (March 10), NJT wants to lengthen the lower-level Secaucus platforms, which the Meadowlands trains use, to accommodate 10 cars. The cost? Up to $2.5 million. Fortunately, when Secaucus was built, foundations were included for the longer platforms, expediting the improvement project.
According to reporting on WNYC (Oct. 9), New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considering a completely new line of rail service, using the Hell Gate Bridge to allow trains to run from Connecticut and Westchester through the Bronx and into Queens, Manhattan, and possibly Brooklyn. MTA reportedly has asked residents of the East Bronx how they would react to the possibility of 4 new stations on the line. Reaction has been generally positive, although residents question what the fares would be. One estimate is that fares other than to Manhattan would be no more than $5 (half for seniors/disabled), which would be the lowest on the MTA commuter rail system. The report suggested that trains might also stop in Queens and Brooklyn. The Hell Gate Line, owned by Amtrak, passes through northwestern Queens enroute to Penn Station in Manhattan, and hosts only Amtrak trains bound for New England, usually no more than 1 per hour in each direction; there would seem to be substantial unused capacity. No details were mentioned about Brooklyn service; the logical route would be via the Long Island Rail Road’s Bay Ridge branch, underutilized for decades but with a direct connection to the Hell Gate Bridge. The Bay Ridge line, once a heavy freight route, currently sees only occasional freight trains from the New York & Atlantic freight carrier and various connecting systems. The new line would give MTA rail commuters access for the first time to a terminal on the west side of Manhattan in addition to current service to Grand Central Terminal on Manhattan’s east side. The new line would reportedly be funded out of MTA’s own capital budget.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that underused rail corridors must be exploited to fully serve the population of the Tri-State region. In addition, all commuters to Manhattan deserve access to terminals on both sides of Midtown; MTA is to be commended for planning to expand the options available to its riders. Although New Jersey planners have paid lip service to the idea of east-side access for NJ commuters, this always seems to vanish as new projects are planned.
According to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), if plans for new trans-Hudson rail tunnels are not made final soon, the tunnels may become much more difficult to construct. According to reporting by Illya Marritz on WNYC (transportationnation.org), Schumer said that the problem lies in a new multiuse real-estate development, Hudson Yards, being planned for the west side of Manhattan on Long Island Rail Road property: Schumer said that Amtrak engineers have determined that the only practical route for the new “Gateway” tunnels would be under the LIRR property, and, he said, once the new buildings are being built, it may be impossible to route the tunnels under them. Schumer said that the Related Companies, builders of Hudson Yards, are prepared to cooperate with Amtrak and the federal government to coordinate the tunnel project, but since the new development will start construction by the end of this year, Schumer said that the window to coordinate may be as short as 6 months. Schumer pledged to seek federal funding for the Gateway project.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that new tunnels under the Hudson will be essential for a rational regional transportation system, and that they should be built so as to afford maximum use by both NJ Transit and Amtrak, and eventual access to Manhattan’s East Side.
The town of Livingston, which has no direct rail service, plans to institute a “jitney” feeder service from the Livingston Mall to the South Orange station of NJ Transit”s Morris and Essex Lines; the new service is expected to start in September. There will be 2 services each hour during weekday peak periods: 6–10 a.m. and 4–9 p.m.; the one-way fare will be $2.
Including with a monthly commutation ticket on the railroad ($193), the total cost to commuters will be $277, according to Mike Frassinelli’s report in the Star-Ledger (July 25). The competition is Community Coach’s #77 bus line, which has come under fire for poor service; a bus pass costs $314, significantly higher than the new jitney-rail option.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that feeder services and coordinated rail-bus services form an essential part of an effective public transportation system.
Increasingly, transportation experts and politicians are getting behind a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel plan, the so-called Gateway project, according to Steve Strunsky, reporting in the Star-Ledger (June 14). The catchier “Gateway” name isn’t the only advantage over the now-defunct Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, derided as “the stop in Macy’s basement”. Like ARC, Gateway would double rail capacity into Manhattan by constructing 2 additional trans-Hudson rail tubes, and would also encompass smaller projects, including the Moynihan Station expansion of Penn Station passenger facilities into the main Post Office and replacement of the aging Portal bridge over the Hackensack River. However unlike ARC, Gateway would be fully integrated into the existing Penn Station.
Amtrak board member Anthony Cosca, speaking at a Regional Plan Association conference, said, “What should be clear is that nobody, nobody is debating that we need this.” Where the money might come from remains unclear; estimated cost of the project is $13–15 billion, higher than the ARC project estimates. New Jersey Gov. Christie, who killed the ARC project as an unaffordable cost to NJ taxpayers, has not ruled out support for Gateway. Amtrak supports the project as essential to eliminate a bottleneck limiting Amtrak’s long-range high-speed rail plans. If Gateway goes forward, it would take until 2025 to complete the project. NJ State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson said that Gov. Christie would be fully briefed on Gateway; “We’ll see where it goes,” Simpson said.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has announced the imminent start of the first phase of the expansion of Penn Station, a long-term project that will eventually reconstruct the main Post Office west of Eighth Avenue into the new Moynihan Station, mostly to be used by Amtrak. According to the Associated Press, published in the Star-Ledger (May 9), Port Authority chairman Patrick Foyle said, “From the point of view of NJ Transit Riders, this is going to be a significant advancement.” The first phase concentrates on improved access to the west end of Penn Station and will expand an existing concourse that today serves only Long Island Rail Road riders; the concourse is at the northwest corner of Penn Station and is actually under the Post Office. There will be new escalators and elevators and new street-level access to Eighth Avenue at 31th and 32t Streets. This first phase is due to begin this summer and be finished by 2016.
The Lackawanna Coalition is concerned that the existing access to NJ Transit trains at Penn Station, despite improvements over the years, remains inadequate and sometimes even dangerous as heavy passenger loads attempt to board and leave trains, sometimes simulataneously on the same platform. Access to the west end of the platforms, as planned by the new program, is particularly critical, given that many NJT off-peak departing trains inexplicably are positioned so that the only open cars are at the extreme west end.