In early 1979, passenger rail service in New Jersey had just about hit its lowest point. NJ Transit Rail operations had not yet been established, and NJDOT had contracted out the operation of the state’s commuter rail lines.
Conditions were especially bad on the electrified lines running from Hoboken to Dover, Gladstone and Montclair, which now comprise NJ Transit’s Morris & Essex Lines
(M&E). The trains were old; the right of way, stations and structures were in sore need of major maintenance or replacement; equipment problems were common; shortened or canceled trains had become a regular occurrence; and on-time performance was lackluster at best. To make a bad situation worse, the ongoing $500 million project to re-electrify the line—which promised new trains; fast, frequent on-time service; and eventually direct service into Midtown New York—was plagued with increasing delays and problems.
In April of that year, gravely concerned with the impact the deteriorating service and escalating delays in the re-electrification project was having on their citizens, several of the counties and municipalities served by the “Lackawanna Electrics” met at the invitation of then-Mayor of Millburn—later Assemblywoman—Maureen Ogden to develop a united approach to: 1) “promote improvements in all aspects of rail passenger service,” 2) “promote safety in rail passenger service” and 3) expedite the re-electrification project. It was from this meeting that the Lackawanna Coalition was born.
The Coalition is a nonprofit corporation “organized for civic and educational purposes.” Its Principal Members are the counties and municipalities served by NJ Transit’s Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair/Boonton Lines. Rail riders, and other interested individuals, are eligible to become Associate Members. The Coalition’s main function is to act as a conduit between its Principal Members and NJ Transit, and to keep the Principal Members informed of developments relating to rail service on the M&E and Montclair/Boonton Lines. The Coalition also acts as an advocacy organization for better rail service and connecting transportation in the region.
Day to day operations are run by an Executive Committee (ExCom) whose members maintain regular informal contact with NJ Transit personnel to stay current on matters which will affect the M&E lines and to apprize NJ Transit of views and concerns on a wide range of matters including fares, schedules, parking, train cleanliness and maintenance. In turn, NJ Transit personnel attend ExCom meetings to update the Coalition on current matters and projects and to review plans for future projects affecting the M&E and Montclair/Boonton Lines.
The Coalition communicates directly with its Principal Members through its Outreach Programs. It communicates with rail riders, including its Associate Members, through Railgrams, which are issued quarterly and distributed at rail stations and other places where riders have access to them.
During its earlier years, the Coalition concentrated its efforts on pushing for: the earliest completion of the electrification project, improving maintenance and cleanliness of the old electric cars the in service, improving schedules and on-time performance and—above all—passenger safety.
Later, the Coalition shifted its attention to: promoting the installation of continuously welded rail—which provides a smoother ride—along the M&E; station, structure, and right-of-way maintenance problems—including litter and graffiti; the reintroduction of ferry service from Hoboken terminal to Manhattan; and two major interconnection projects: the MidTOWN DIRECT service, and the Montclair Connection, including the extension of electrified service to Great Notch. The Coalition also supported the Secaucus Transfer project which was completed in 2003, and now enables passengers to transfer between the M&E and most of NJ Transit’s other commuter rail lines.
While many of the projects and problems which prompted creation of the Coalition have been completed or resolved, there have been other key issues that have arisen over the years, and the Coalition has advocated for solutions to benefit riders along the M&E lines. Recently, the Coalition successfully advocated for fuller disclosure of NJ Transit Board meeting agenda items. It also worked with NJ Transit to realize weekend schedule changes on the Newark Light Rail line that improve connectivity for passengers traveling from Newark Broad Street Station to board trains at Newark Penn Station. However, the Coalition continues to push for a stable source of funding for NJ Transit operations, and to argue for alternatives to the Trans Hudson Express Tunnel project that would cost less and would be safer and more convenient for riders. The Lackawanna Cutoff project, which the Coalition endorsed years ago as a means of extending M&E service into Pennsylvania, has not yet gotten underway, although funding has been approved for the first few miles. Since our service was drastically reduced in May, we have benn focusing much of our effort on having those trains restored to the schedule.
In addition, reasonable fares; fast, frequent schedules; clean, well-maintained equipment and facilities; courteous service; “on time” performance; and passenger safety all remain as continuing agenda items. The Coalition also works with other transit advocacy organizations, such as the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, the Essex County Transportation Advisory Board, the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), and the Rail Users’ Network (RUN).