Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim replaced James W. Weinstein as New Jersey Transit’s Executive Director on March 1. She was hired at a special meeting of the NJT Board on Feb. 24, although neither she nor Weinstein were present. Commissioner James S. Simpson praised her, and advocates hoped for positive changes at NJT. They included this writer, other members of the Lackawanna Coalition, and members of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP). Simpson said that Hakim would meet with our organizations soon. We look forward to the opportunity to express our concerns and suggestions to her, as well as to learn about her plans for NJT and its riders.
According to New Jersey State Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, NJ Transit is probably the most complex transportation company in the country; “It’s more complex than United Airlines—it’s United Airlines on steel wheels and rubber tires”, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Jan. 30). Therefore, says Simpson, NJT Executive Director Jim Weinstein needs an assistant. Simpson said that although the job posting appeared after the recent hundred-million-dollar flood damage, which has prompted some to call for heads to roll, the need for a deputy executive director had been in the works for some time. Simpson said he and Weinstein discussed the idea of an assistant 3 years ago and decided at that point to save the money, but it has since become apparent that more help is needed. Simpson said that when things go wrong, commuters blame NJ Transit and, “Even if everything goes perfect, it”s a lot of work.” About 40 résumés have already been received, Simpson said.
Although most rail transit services in the Northeast have been restored after Superstorm Sandy, in New Jersey most NJT commuter rail services remain severely curtailed or totally suspended. As the outage nears its third week, many users of the service find little information available as to when it might resume, or even what is being done to restore service. NJ Transit has established a network of emergency bus and ferry services to substitute for rail service, but these are largely targeted toward peak-hour riders with Manhattan as their destination; riders seeking to travel elsewhere find few or no alternatives. The Lackawanna Coalition has received many comments on the situation, and has written the following communication to NJ Transit executives:
Dear Messrs. Simpson and Weinstein,
I am the treasurer of the Lackawanna Coalition. In the absence of our Chair, who is out of town, I am writing on behalf of the Coalition. In regard to the damage from Hurricane Sandy, I have questions on behalf of myself, of the Lackawanna Coalition, of the counties and municipalities we represent along the former Erie-Lackawanna lines and especially the riders of the lines we represent. I am not writing this letter to complain about the effort that NJ Transit is making towards the restoration of rail service. I hope, like the other operations, that you are working with all possible speed to restore your physical plant to working order. I further understand why NJT is not specifying the details of damage to the general public, as those are details they will not understand. However, for us (members of which Mr. Simpson has previously addressed as personal advisors) that is information we will understand fully, and appreciate the knowledge of. We know and understand, for instance, why the North Jersey Coast Line is not yet operating. The damage to the Raritan Draw Bridge is there for us to see in vivid color. It makes no sense to operate trains on the line just to Avenel and Woodbridge when capacity on the Corridor is so constrained.
However, while we do not expect the public to be informed of the minutiae of damages along the lines, the amount of information being offered is too limited. All our riders know is that the trains aren’t running, and that you do not mention when they will be. The riders knowing that the line is damaged, that your rolling stock is constrained, as we understand it to be, and that the time frame for partial and then full restoration is days or weeks or months would help ease their minds, or at least let them make longer term temporary plans for substitute mobility if need be. It has been two weeks almost since the service was ceased. With this much time, at least a ballpark timeframe is a reasonable expectation.
In our capacity as a representative of the riders of NJ Transit’s M&E and M-B lines, we want to be able to honestly give our personal assurances to our constituents that NJ Transit is working towards service restoration as quickly as humanly possible, and that all effort is being made to provide as much mobility as possible. The details listed on your website are not enough to allow us to report that to our constituents. It is our mission to provide representation for all riders of our lines, and that not only includes the riders that ride MidTown Direct into Manhattan, and those that ride trains into Hoboken Terminal, but also those who do not. The Morris and Essex line, as you know, has the highest level of intra-line travel of any American commuter rail line. We applaud your efforts to provide shuttle service from several park-and-ride locations along the route. We are, however, disturbed that you are not providing at least some bus service directly and fully paralleling the rail line to provide mobility for those riders that travel to destinations along the line. It is a serious problem, one which our members are demanding explanations for. Several of our members are unable to get to work because of the lack of connectivity along the line. Many commuters can take advantage of the park and rides. But other riders cannot, because they do not or cannot operate a car. This is not small, this is people’s livelihood. They can’t get to work, they can get fired, they are not being paid, and they can’t feed their families. Our non-New York-bound constituents need that intra-line service desperately.
As such, we request the following. First of all, we would like to have an open discussion about the condition of the lines that are presently not operating. Secondly, we would like to have your assurance that as soon as bus equipment is available, frequent and effective service will be operated along the line servicing stations as a temporary replacement for trains to provide mobility for intra-line riders. Thirdly, we would like you to provide us, in the strictest of confidence, your estimates of when service will be restored, to where, and at what level of frequency. With this information, we can assure our riders of the best possible service given the dire circumstance the state finds itself in. Thusly, we help our riders by providing them with the best information we can. And we can help you by assuring our riders that you, NJ Transit and the NJDOT, are doing the absolute best you can, from a source they can trust to be objective. Finally, some of our associate members have connections and friends within the national rail and transit communities. Our chair, David Peter Alan, has authorized me on behalf of the Coalition to offer our good offices to help with whatever we can in terms of procuring assistance.
Jesse S. Gribin,
NJ Transit has invested heavily in new passenger equipment in recent years; customers note the “multilevel” (double-deck) equipment in service on most lines, but the railroad has also purchased new diesel and electric locomotives, and most recently a fleet of “dual-mode” locomotives has begun arriving—these units can operate both as ordinary diesels or as electric locomotives, allowing the possibility of a single-seat ride from nonelectrified stations through to Penn Station in New York. However, on some lines, much service continues to be provided by self-propelled, “electric-multiple-unit” cars. This type of car is used on subway lines and on most of the electrified commuter lines in the United States; however, NJT is fairly unique in its emphasis on locomotive-hauled equipment, even on electrified lines.
Locomotive-hauled trains are cheaper to buy and maintain, but they have the disadvantage of lower power and slower acceleration, which makes for slower schedules, particularly on lines that have frequent stops or are hilly—a particular concern on NJT’s Morris & Essex lines. NJT’s electric fleet uses the stainless-steel-sided “Arrow III” equipment, now 35 years old and well beyond its expected lifetime. Customers on other area systems, such as the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and SEPTA in Philadelphia, have enjoyed new electric cars, delivered in recent years, but on NJT, the Arrows continue to soldier on.
The Arrows are mainly used in long trains on the Northeast Corridor, and to Hoboken on the Morris & Essex lines; the old design suffers from an inability to change voltage while running, which prevents them from running from the M&E into Penn Station, or south of South Amboy on the North Jersey Coast Line. Now NJT is considering its options, according to reporting by Larry Higgs in the Asbury Park Press—but instead of buying conventional equipment as have neighboring systems, NJT is proposing to have consultants design a new type of car: a self-propelled, electric, multilevel design, which could then pull additional, unelectrified multi-level cars.
This has led to conflict between NJT and its Board of Directors, and with state Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, according to Higgs’ article; this came to a head at NJT’s October 15 Board meeting, which decided after some debate not immediately to proceed with a $1.4-million contract with LTK Engineering to design an electric version of the existing locomotive-hauled multilevel design. The debate was unusually intense; the Board normally approves NJT management proposals with little discussion. Board members questioned why NJT wanted to proceed with its own design, which could be risky; Commissioner Simpson said, “I’m not in favor of moving forward, because I’m afraid of saddling this agency with something for the next 50 years … that could be a disaster.”
Lackawanna Coalition Chair David Peter Alan, speaking at the Board meeting, said, “We don’t see how converting this (multilevel) equipment to self-powered would help. We suggest testing SEPTA’s (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) new Silverliner V cars, which already run on the Northeast Corridor. It’s far less expensive than building something new.” Board members were also skeptical; board member Myron Shevell said, “I’m afraid we’ll be the guinea pig.” Commissioner Simpson had the last word: “We spend money around here like it’s water. Let’s make sure we get the best water.”
After 3 teenagers were killed by trains in 2 incidents on successive days in October 2011, NJ Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson convened a task force of experts to find ways to improve grade-crossing safety. (Two of the youths died not at a grade crossing, but while trespassing on a railroad trestle, on a line that sees no scheduled train traffic on the Sunday of the tragedy.) The death of 13-year-old Michael Cabaj involved a too-often-repeated scenario: on a double track rail line, one train passes and pedestrians attempt to cross, unaware of an approaching train on the second track, this time at the Outwater Lane crossing in Garfield. Now, that crossing will receive an experimental system, according to Mike Frassinelli’s article in the Star-Ledger (Sept. 22): when a second train is coming, a talking sign will shout an audible warning: “Danger! Another train coming!” Other improvements include “skirts” below crossing gates to discourage pedestrians from ducking under the gates: these are being tried at the Aberdeen-Matawan station on the North Jersey Coast line.
Once upon a time, trolley lines built amusement parks at the end of their lines to encourage ridership. The modern-day equivalent may be the “Transit Village”: development at transit hubs, where transit users can live, work, or shop just steps from their train or bus. A report due out on September 24 by New Jersey Future assesses development opportunities at New Jersey transit hubs, according to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (September 22).
Recently, NJ Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson attended a ceremony to name an old railroad town (Dunellen in Middlesex County, on NJ Transit’s Raritan Valley Line) the state’s 26th Transit Village, a community built around a transit hub. The forthcoming report from New Jersey Future has been 3-1/2 years in progress under the group’s research director, Tim Evans. Some interesting statistics dot the report:
- the highest population densities in the state can be found in Hoboken near Hoboken Terminal and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail;
- several Newark Light Rail stations are in areas where less than 1/3 of households have a vehicle;
- stations with the highest home values include Millburn, Summit, and Peapack on the Morris & Essex Lines; and, unbelievably to some motorists,
- there are NJT Rail stations where less than 1/3 of parking spaces are typically occupied (Point Pleasant Beach on the North Jersey Coast; Cinnaminson and Florence on the River Line Light Rail).
An example of a burgeoning Transit Village is Morristown on the M&E, with the newly-constructed Highlands at Morristown Station apartment building development.
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.
More than two years ago, NJ Transit changed its policy on the use of trains by bicyclists, publishing (in timetables) rules that restricted boarding or leaving trains with bicycles to stations with high-level platforms: it’s more difficult and perhaps less safe to do this at stations with low-level platforms, which requires the cyclist to carry the bicycle up or down the train-door steps. Within the last year, NJT has begun enforcing the new rules. Unfortunately, many NJT stations do not have high-level platforms, which severely restricts the use of the rail system by cyclists. (NJT’s three light-rail lines, in contrast, are bicycle-accessible; and many NJT buses also are bicycle-capable.) Bicycle advocates, including the New York Cycle Club, protested the changes and began working with NJT’s advisory committee on the issue. Now, change may be in the offing, according to reporting by Larry Higgs in the Daily Record. The advisory committee has recommended that cyclists be allowed to board and get off at all stations, although rush-hour trains would continue to prohibit bicycles. Transportation Commissioner James Simpson noted that New Jersey is “one of the most bike-friendly states”, and said “we’ll try to put the issue to bed at the next (NJT) board meeting”. Meanwhile, NJT staff will do some trials, loading and unloading bikes at low-level platforms. The advisory committee also proposed increased signage showing where bikes could be stowed on various rail-car types, and increasing the number of bikes allowed to be carried on each car. Segway motorized devices also fall under the bicycle policy.
New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson suggested on May 9 that some NJT buses might pick up passengers on the streets of Manhattan, rather than just at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Simpson broached the idea at NJT’s monthly board meeting; the idea was reported by Karen Rouse in The Record (May 10). Although any such street pickups would fall under the jurisdiction of New York City’s Department of Transportation, Simpson noted that New York Waterway ferry shuttle buses already pick up passengers on city streets. NJT spokeswoman Nancy Snyder noted that NJT pays the Port Authority $1.78 million a year for the use of its bus terminals (the midtown Port Authority and the uptown George Washington Bridge terminals).