After an absence of 2 years and 8 months, weekend train service returned to the Gladstone Branch on June 6. Trains run hourly as shuttles between Gladstone and Summit, connecting there with Morris & Essex Line trains between Dover and New York Penn Station. For Hoboken or Montclair passengers, there is a train connecting at Broad Street Station in Newark approximately every other hour. The schedule is similar to the one in effect until October 2018, when substitute bus operation began. Running time is 44 minutes eastbound and 54 minutes westbound, compared with 57 minutes eastbound and 62 minutes westbound for the bus operation.
All the talk is of high-speed trains, but NJ Transit commuters wonder whether they will ever benefit, as commuter trains with their many stops, long loading times, and terminal congestion delays seem to be bogged down in a 19th-Century era, often managing less than 30 miles per hour average end-to-end. Still, it’s possible to run trains at breathtaking speeds on some of the same tracks that NJT commuters travel every day. Monday night, September 24, Amtrak tested an out-of-the-box Acela trainset on the Northeast Corridor between New Brunswick and Trenton, the same tracks used by dozens of NJT trains every day.
However, Amtrak’s train was trying for a new speed record of 165 mph, according to the story in the Star-Ledger the next day (by Mike Frassinelli). Even Amtrak’s fastest trains are limited to 135 mph on that stretch of track. Engineers were still bent over their slide rules and calculators, trying to figure out if the 165 mph goal had actually been acheived. Motivation for the test runs includes a project to upgrade the overhead “catenary” power-supply wires, which suffer from a design dating from the original electrification in the 1930s; the new system, to cost $450 million, will allow speeds up to 160 mph—hence the Sept. 24 tests aiming for 5 miles faster. Simiilar tests are scheduled up and down the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that infrastructure improvements on all lines are essential, and notes that bridge replacement, new trans-Hudson tunnels, and catenary upgrades on the Northeast Corridor all will be vital to ensure that the transportation system continues to meet the needs of the region.
A decade or so ago, airlines were the dominant players in the Northeast Corridor transportation market. However, today air travel suffers from high fares, frequent delays, and time-consuming airport security checks; meanwhile, Amtrak offers its Acela premium service, on-line ticketing, and, importantly, workstation access; the result has been to tip the market share in favor of Amtrak’s trains, according to Ron Nixon’s reporting in The New York Times (August 16). Amtrak reports that now 75% of travelers between New York and Washington choose the train; in 2000, before Acela and post-9-11 airport security, the rail carrier had only one-third of the market. Between New York and Boston, bolstered by electrification of the rail line east of New Haven and the same disincentives to fly, Amtrak’s share grew from 20 to 54%. The high usage is causing the infrastructure to fray, however; most days, Northeast Corridor trains are full, and some rolling stock is pushing the 30-year-old mark. Amtrak estimates that demand could increase by a factor of four by 2040. Amtrak improvements are stuck in Congress, like almost everything else; meanwhile, cheap buses have had an impact, with their $1-to-$40 pricing and wireless access attracting riders despite somewhat longer travel times. Airlines fight back with brand-loyalty programs, noting that while trains and buses can compete over a few hundred miles, “The train can’t take you to South Africa.”
The Lackawanna Coalition supports infrastructure investments that will enable all Northeast Corridor service providers, including Amtrak and NJ Transit, to meet the increasing rider demands in the future.
Aging infrastructure, and the lack of cash to fix it, particularly on the Northeast Corridor, are cited as a main cause of service delays on NJ Transit, according to reporting by Karen Rouse and Dave Sheingold of The Record (reported in the Star-Ledger, August 8). An NEC commuter is quoted as saying that conductors frequently blame signal problems, and Amtrak (which owns and maintains the Northeast Corridor track) as the cause of delays.
The Record (newspaper) analyzed operating records from 2002 to 2012 in the study, which showed that the NEC had the worst on-time performance, 91.7%. In contrast, the Main/Bergen and Pascack Valley Lines, which do not connect physically with the Northeast Corridor, posted the best performance: about 97.5% for both. Morning rush hour is the worst time to ride the trains, with 1 in 12 delayed; the evening is better, with 1 in 18, and off-peak best of all, with 1 in 24 delayed. The study noted the difference between operating and capital funding: NJT sends Amtrak about $70 million a year for operating costs, but its contribution to capital projects remains stuck near 1996 levels: $55 million was spent in the past year; $50 million in 1996. Amtrak notes that there has not been significant funding increases from Congress since 1976.
Also, while track and signal problems are a significant cause of delays, bad rolling stuck (locomotives and rail cars) are actually the leading cause of delays. Dispatching delays, when Amtrak and NJT trains compete for scarce track space, also are significant. Key infrastructure components at risk include the power system that supplies the signals, and the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, over which all NJT trains to Manhattan must pass; the bridge is 100 years old, dating from the original Penn Station, and Portal failures accounted for roughly 75 NJT train delays last year. Additional delays occur when the bridge must be opened for marine traffic, and trains must travel at reduced speeds over the span at all times.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that infrastructure conditions have reached a critical point, especially on the Northeast Corridor, and must be addressed immediately; replacement of the Portal Bridge is an essential component of any plan going forward.
This article was published in the Asbury Park Press. It is quoted here as a matter of interest, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Lackawanna Coalition.
If it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a transportation commissioner riding the trains to make them run on time?
New Jersey Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, fresh from a Northeast Corridor Line ride to Wednesday’s NJ Transit board meeting, ordered the agency to do a study of what it would take to bring the corridor’s state of good repair to the same level as the rail lines NJ Transit owns and to meet with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Amtrak President Joseph Broadman to find a way to make those upgrades happen.
About 80% of NJ Transit’s commuters either use the corridor or, in the case of North Jersey Coast, Morris & Essex, and Raritan Valley Line riders, have their trains use the corridor for the sprint to and from New York, officials said.
Simpson said he got a taste of the commuting life when he took the train to Wednesday’s NJ Transit board meeting and left 30 to 40 minutes earlier to ensure he’d make the 9 a.m. meeting.
This article was formerly available at http://www.app.com/article/20120314/NJNEWS/303140056/NJDOT-chief-wants-work-reliability