Crowding on access stairs and escalators to platforms at New York's Penn Station is an endemic problem, familiar to all NJT riders who use the station. Relief is coming -- or is it? As part of a major reconstruction plan for the overloaded station, new access stairs will open this fall, allowing direct access at the far west end of the platforms to the West End Concourse, a part of the station largely heretofore unfamiliar to NJT riders. This concourse, originally constructed to relieve congestion on certain platforms used by Long Island Rail Road trains, is actually west of Eighth Avenue -- it's under the Farley Post Office building, which (some day) will become the "Moynihan Station," the planned main access for Amtrak riders. The Concourse provides quick access to the Eighth Avenue subway (A/C/E) line, and to streets west of Eighth Avenue. The problem for LIRR riders has been that not all platforms used by the LIRR connect to the West End Concourse. This is now being remedied: as of this fall, platforms serving Penn Station Track 5 and higher numbers will have direct access to the West End; this includes all LIRR and Amtrak trains. The catch? There still will be no access from Tracks 1 through 4. These tracks are reserved for NJT trains only and, in fact, a high percentage of NJT trains use those tracks. So, arriving NJT passengers can roll the dice and, if they're lucky, the dice (and their train) will land on a platform served by the new stairs. Or not. For departing riders, the odds are worse: they can try to reach their train but, if it turns out they are leaving on one of the cursed Tracks 1 to 4, they face a long detour to the north end of the station, into the unfamiliar realm of the Long Island trains, before they can return to familar ground. This might entail a quarter-mile sprint.
Why aren't Tracks 1-4 going to be connected to the West End Concourse? Good question. For one thing, the two platforms serving those NJT tracks are shorter and don't extend far enough toward Eighth Avenue to make access simple. (Another way to say it: it would cost more money.) But there is a pattern here, of NJT riders getting the short stick as station renovations are planned. Amtrak's long range scheme, called Gateway, would push NJT riders even farther away from convenient access. And don't even ask when NJT riders can expect a direct ride to the East Side of Manhattan, as LIRR riders will get in a few years. It seems that NJT customers are expected to be content just to be deposited in Manhattan. Anywhere in Manhattan.
Read more about the new stairway project in Larry Higgs' reporting here for NJ Advance Media.
Service on the PATH system's "uptown" branch to 33 Street in Manhattan has been suspended on weekends starting August 6; the suspension will last through December 19. Stations at Christopher Street, 9th St., 14th St., 23rd St., and 33rd St. will be closed on weekends during this period. The service suspension is effective each Saturday at 12:10 a.m. and ends on Mondays at 5 a.m.; however, normal service is planned for Labor Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving Day weekends. Timetables are available; summary information is available here. Trains will continue to operate between Journal Square and Hoboken, and direct service between Hoboken and World Trade Center, not normally operated on weekends, will be provided. (Riders early Monday between Hoboken and WTC need to verify schedules, as there is an interruption of this direct service in the 5 a.m. timeframe.) PATH will also provide a shuttle bus between WTC and uptown destinations along 6th and 7th Avenues as far as 29 Street in Manhattan; riders need to obtain a round-trip bus voucher before exiting turnstiles at World Trade Center -- there is apparently no provison for riders who need to use the bus starting in Manhattan, unless they have previously used PATH to WTC. The suspension is necessary, PATH says, to construct improvements on the line, including the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC), which is federally mandated for railroad lines. Although PATH appears to be indistinguishable from rapid transit lines such as the New York subway, for apparently historical reasons (at one time it was integrated with the Pennsylvania Railroad's lines) it is classified as a railroad and subject to federal railroad regulation. Rapid transit lines are not, and are not required to install PTC; many advocates have questioned the need for PTC on rail lines, saying it's an expensive solution that will not significantly improve safety. In addition to PTC, PATH will be installing "Communications Based Train Control," which it says will allow more trains to operate in peak hours.
The two NJ Transit rail operating unions which had not ratified a tentative new contract have done so, ending the threat of a strike which could have paralyzed NJT's rail operations. The latest development was reported on July 23 by Larry Higgs of NJ Advance Media. The two unions had rejected the settlement over concerns over health benefits, and also wanted retroactive pay granted by the settlement to be paid in one installment rather than two. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers approved the settlement by a vote of 184 to 140, while SMART Transportation Division Local 60, which represents conductors and trainmen, voted 545 to 322 to approve. Apparently, the proposal was revised to make it more acceptable to the workers, although the details have not been made public. Higgs' article says that one feature will allow workers to retain their existing health insurance plan at a higher cost to them, rather than be required to move to a different plan. A strike could have crippled the system: NJT estimated that only about 40% of commuters would have found a way to get to work, had a strike taken place.
The federal government has committed to provide funding for new Hudson River tunnels before the end of the Obama administration's term according to reporting (July 14) by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced on July 14 that the projects would be included in the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts Program, which has "relatively readily" (available) funding sources. The Portal Bridge project was said to be eligible to move to the head of the list as it affects public safety
The advocacy community was saddened today to hear of the death of William R. Wright of Cranford. For the past 60 years, even into his 80s, Bill fought tirelessly for better transit. He was a member of NJ Transit's North Jersey Transportation Advisory Committee and Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC) for many years. He was also active with the Union County Transportation Advisory Board, the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) and the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition.
Bill had an extraordinary talent for summing up the plight of persons who depend on transit for mobility. He said: "Not all tourists drive, but all tourists spend money" and "A fare Increase is a tax increase!" His most succinct statement was: "If you don't drive, you don't count!" Although Bill first made these statements many years ago, they are as true now as they were then.
Transit riders and advocates have lost one of their strongest voices. We will all miss Bill Wright.
The two NJ Transit rail unions whose members rejected a proposed new contract have now agreed to new, tentative terms, subject to rank-and-file approval. Details of the new terms have not been made available, but the tentative agreement kicked off a new cooling-off period pending the union members' votes, so a strike that could have started as early as June 30 is no longer likely. As reported by Larry Higgs for nj.com, a NJT spokesperson said that the proposed pact would not cost NJT any more money.
In online and broadcast reporting, WNYC's reporter Kate Hinds has reported (June 23) on the high rate of breakdowns on NJ Transit's rail lines, and compared it with the dysfunctional New York City subway system of the 1970s. Behind the problems, Hinds says, is budgetary sleight-of-hand in which money is siphoned from capital budgets, there is no secure source of funding, while management personnel head for the exits (with NJT unable to find a new. executive director for seven months). Hinds mentioned the movie The Warriors in which the subway is depicted as a lawless, dysfunctional wreck ruled by gangs, hinting that NJT is headed down the same path. She recalled solution engineered by New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Richard Ravitch for the subways, which involved a number of new taxes. She contrasts this with the anti-transit, anti-taxes stance of Gov. Christie, but says that Trenton Republicans are furious with Christie's support of Donald Trump (I assume this is the River Line) and Christie's reaction: "I'm a skeptic. Use Uber."
Seven current or former NJ Transit employees will collect a total of $3.65 million to settle charges of racial discrimination in the NJT workplace, as reported by Matt Arco in the Star-Ledger (June 17) and on NJ.com. Seven African-American workers had alleged that they were paid less and treated unfairly, compared to their white colleagues. A supervisor, who is not a defendant in the suit, was said to have used racial slurs and put a noose around an employee's neck, saying "This is how things were handled in the South." The workers also said that while promotions were theoretically frozen at NJT, ways were found to promote employees, but only white workers benefited. The settlement still has to be approved by the state, which reportedly paid $1.5 million in fees to a politically connected law firm to handle the case. an NJ Advance Media investigation previously had disclosed that law firms with close ties to Gov. Christie have prospered since Christie's election. The plaintiff's lawyer said that the working conditions were a "disgrace" and cited an "absolute failure" by NJT to investigate reports of racial discrimination and unequal pay. One plaintiff said he was subjected to repeated acts of retaliation by his NJT supervisor for speaking with attorneys suing NJT. The supervisor is reported to be still at work.
As reported by Mike Davis in the Gannett newspapers (Daily Record, Courier News) on June 16, NJT's 2017 budget won't require fare hikes or service cuts, but will rely on a significant increase in state funding. The budget was presented to NJT's board of directors on June 15, and is scheduled for approval in July. The average 9 percent fare increase imposed in 2015 has raised fare revenues by about $18 million, to about $1 billion. As far as state funding is concerned, various accounts are being juggled; while funding from the NJ Turnpike Authority will fall by $94 million, it will still be at $204 million; and other state aid will offset this, increasing by $107.7 million to a new total of $140.9 million. On the capital investment side of the budget, NJT hopes to continue its capital program, which funds such projects as new rail cars, at a $1.6 billion level. About $1 billion of this comes from federal sources, but the rest relies on the state's transportation trust fund, which is just about out of money; the state legislature is seeking ways to replenish the fund. And in a typical act of financial tomfoolery, about $400 million of the capital budget will actually go to the operating side, a transaction which keeps the trains and buses running -- for the moment -- but mortgages the future by reducing true capital investment.
On June 10, 1996, the first train ran on the Morris & Essex Line and into Penn Station, New York. It was the start of NJ Transit's Midtown Direct service, which made commuting, or taking an occasional trip, to New York City much easier for riders on the Morris & Essex, Montclair (now Montclair-Boonton) and Gladstone lines. The Lackawanna Coalition strongly supported the initiative that built the Kearny Connection, the track connection that allowed our trains to get into New York Penn.
Ridership on Midtown Direct service was much higher than NJ Transit had expected, and it has been good for the towns along our lines. The downtown areas are thriving, property values have increased significantly, and some of our towns have been named "transit villages" due to our strong rail service and the development near our train stations.
We are delighted that our riders have a choice of going directly to Penn Station, or to the historic destination of Hoboken Terminal. We call for more Hoboken service and a continuation of the strong Midtown Direct service to Penn Station, so our riders will continue to have that choice.
Advocates for transportation users in New Jersey moved one step closer to a long term goal -- representation on NJ Transit's Board of Directors -- when a bill in the State Assembly was released by the Assembly's Transportation Committee on Monday, June 6; the bill now goes to the full Assembly for a vote, and then would have to be signed by Governor Chris Christie. As reported here by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media and also published in the Star-Ledger (June 7), the bill would add two commuter representatives to the board, expanding it to nine members. Advocacy groups generally welcomed the measure, but some lawmakers said the public was already well represented on the body. Advocates responded by challenging the existing board members by asking them just what public transportation services they actually use.