No matter that there are only 5 trains a day each way. No matter that they are only in mid-weekday hours, not at rush hours or on weekends. No matter that the first train arrived packed with dignitaries, but at least 6 minutes late, no faster than the previous service.
After years of petitioning NJ Transit, riders on the Raritan Valley Line will finally get a one-seat ride into Manhattan, starting March 3. Sort of. According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (Feb. 19), the new service will be limited, featuring only 5 round trips each weekday, and only in midday hours, not in the peak hours that commuters have demanded. Raritan Valley Rail Coalition Chairman Peter Palmer says it’s the first step in a 4-step process that eventually may lead to more comprehensive service. Today, Raritan passengers headed for midtown Manhattan have to transfer at Newark Penn Station, either taking the relatively slow PATH service or hoping for a seat on already-packed NJT trains from other lines.
Even though Raritan line riders constitute about 10% of NJT’s overall weekday train ridership, they haven’t gotten a single one-seat ride into New York’s Penn Station. For years, the excuse was that the RVL is not electrified, and the diesels used there are not allowed into the Hudson River tunnels and Penn Station itself. However, now NJT has “dual-powered” locomotives that can work as diesels out on the Raritan line but switch to electric mode to reach Penn Station. Why not more than 5 round trips a day? NJT has plenty of the new locomotives, which were planned for use in the now-cancelled ARC trans-Hudson tunnel—but capacity restrictions on the hundred-year-old existing tunnels makes it impossible to add any trains in the peak hours, so some other line would have to give up trains to allow Raritan passengers to get even a single seat into the Big Apple. This, apparently, is a political can of worms that NJT is reluctant to open.
After a long campaign, Raritan Valley Line riders on NJ Transit can expect the start of what they’ve been asking for: a single-seat ride to Manhattan, avoiding an annoying change of trains at Newark Penn Station. The transfer usually involves stair-climbing, and can be daunting in the cavernous station at late-night hours. NJT now has the equipment to run trains directly into the city from diesel-powered lines, and can do so where track connections exist, as they do for Raritan Line routings. Some one-seat service has been promised, beginning in the spring of 2014, but off-peak only. What the riders really want is peak-hour service, but here NJT is making no promises, saying that the tracks to New York are already full at those times. According to reporting by Mike Frassinelli in the Star-Ledger (October 22), NJT spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said that NJT planners are looking for opportunities to offer RVL one-seat service on weekends, for starters.
New “dual-mode” engines, which operate as diesels where there are no electric overhead wires (as on the Raritan Line) and convert to electric operation to enter Manhattan (where diesel fumes are prohibited) make the new service possible. The engines cost a total of $340 million, said expert Martin Robins, who noted that the best, and really only, use of the engines is on a line such as the Raritan Valley. He said, “How can NJ Transit diddle around with this subject for so long, after having made an expenditure of $340 million, and not take advantage of it? To me, it’s unthinkable.”
The Raritan riders may have a start at getting what they want, but there are many other NJT customers longing for a single-seat ride into Manhattan. Riders from the Main, Bergen, and Pascack Valley lines have to endure a complicated transfer at the Secaucus station; riders south of Long Branch on the North Jersey Coast Line have to change trains, usually at Long Branch, where at least an across-the-platform transfer is available. Riders on the Montclair-Boonton Line west of Montclair State University also have to change, and could benefit from dual-mode engine service just like the Raritan commuters. Gladstone Branch customers already have electric service, but have to change for New York other outside of the 2 rush-hour trains that run each way every weekday.
The Lackawanna Coalition believes that all riders should have a chance at a one-seat ride to their destination; and that the capacity problems plaguing train service to Manhattan could be relieved if better and cheaper service to Hoboken would take full advantage of the Hoboken gateway, encouraging riders to use that route and freeing up capacity at Penn Station in New York.