Railgram

The Railgram is the Coalition's official newsletter, published every two months and packed with in-depth coverage of the issues. For past issues and printer-friendly versions, click here.

Twice in the past few weeks, Coalition Chair David Peter Alan represented our organization as an “invited” speaker at Bergen County hearings of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee; the first, at Bergenfield Borough Hall, and the second at the Bergen County Administration Building in Hackensack. I attended both hearings as Coalition Legislative Director and spoke as a private individual at the Hackensack hearing. Senator Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) presided at both sessions.

The Bergenfield hearing concerned the proposed 10-year capital program at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which we criticized. Our statement also called for money to be spent on new tunnels into Penn Station, rather than an extension of PATH trains to Newark Airport.

The Hackensack hearing was ostensibly about safety on the Pascack Valley line. We are all aware that on Sept. 29, many riders and people at the Hoboken station were injured and a young mother lost her life. That tragedy is horrible; it clearly should never have happened, and yet so many factors led up to it that an accident of some form was almost inevitable. We heard from an injured passenger on that train and his wife, two of many invited to bring their thoughts to the committee. The invited speakers took up the afternoon session, running through the dinner hour, and then riders had the opportunity to speak.

There was definitely a theme of the afternoon: NJ Transit needs dedicated operating funds for long-range planning—and simply to cover the needed costs of running the third-largest public-transit system in the country. Several of the invited presenters, including David Alan, mentioned it. There was also an issue which he raised for the first time at a legislative hearing. In September 2015, New Jersey Transit eliminated the last trains of the evening on several rail lines. In the wake of those cuts, the New Jersey legislature introduced a bill that would require notice and a hearing before any service is reduced. That law was changed to add an exception for service cuts of up to two hours. Chair Alan blasted that law, calling it “infamous” and “a travesty” and said that we will not rest until it is repealed. Following his statement, Senator Gordon said that he would look into the matter. We hope that the legislature will correct its mistake soon.

In the meantime, the Lackawanna Coalition has received new recognition from our lawmakers. Chair Alan said: “There is a big difference between making a statement as an “invited” presenter and making a statement as a member of the general public. Now that we are being taken seriously as representatives of our riders, we will do everything we can to improve our transit for you, our riders and our constituents.” 

The Gateway Program Development Corporation (GDC), formed to oversee planning and construction of new tracks and rail tunnels between New York City and New Jersey (and more controversially a large annex south of the existing Penn Station), continues to coalesce even as questions linger about its corporate structure and limited opportunities for public input.

The GDC’s board of directors contains New York and New Jersey representatives appointed by the Port Authority, one representative from Amtrak, and one from the U.S. Department of Tramsportation (and with Port Authority commissioner Richard Bagger as its chairman). This structure has the benefit of amalgamating the capabilities of its member organizations under a single roof, such as Amtrak’s ability to apply for federal grants and the Port Authority’s eminent domain rights. But the agency with the most to gain (or lose) is notable in its absence: New Jersey Transit. While NJT has been tapped to engineer the parts of the project intended to create redundancy for the existing tunnels damaged by Hurricane Sandy and their approaches (known as the Hudson Tunnel Project), it is unclear what if any role they will play in steering the rest of Gateway. The Coalition has often complained about NJT taking a backseat to Amtrak and other organizations when it comes to our Trans-Hudson mobility, as lack of input could easily translate to decisions that end up being to their (and the riders’) detriment.

We are also concerned a lack of transparency in the GDC’s operations. The lead member organization is clearly the Port Authority, whose decision-making and capital plan have been the subject of several rounds of hearings before the New Jersey Legislative Oversight Committee recently. The GDC’s first public meeting in January was announced only a day prior, which certainly isn’t a good sign. We have also expressed concern that the organization has not formed a Regional Citizens Liaison Committee, as was done with the aborted Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project and the former Portal Bridge project. The RCLC gave stakeholder representatives, including our organization’s chair David Peter Alan, the opportunity to give input early and often during the planning process.

Finally, the funding for Gateway is still very much in the air. So far the only firm commitment was by the Port Authority, which designated $2.7 billion for debt service only as part of its 10-year capital plan. Given that the price tag for all of Gateway is around $23 billion, we still have a long way to go. 

There is an old Chinese saying, widely regarded as a curse: “May you live in interesting times.” These times are certainly interesting as far as political affairs are concerned, and that certainly goes for transit, since transit is part of the public sector. We have received some good news form Trenton, but the developments in Washington do not look so good for our transit and its riders. While we are a non-partisan and non-political organization, we still keep track of developments that affect you as riders.

For the first time, the Lackawanna Coalition has been invited to present statements before committees of the New Jersey Legislature. This writer represented us before the Senate Oversight Committee on Jan. 30 and before a joint hearing of the Senate Oversight Committee and Assembly Judiciary Committees on Feb. 23. We thank the Office of Legislative Services and the committee staff for this opportunity. We have represented New Jersey Transit’s riders for almost 38 years, and we have developed the expertise to contribute in a meaningful way to any discussion involving mobility for our constituents, who are NJ Transit’s riders. We look forward to many more such opportunities, and to strengthening our legislative concerns under our new Legislative Director Sally Jane Gellert and our Legislative Committee.

On the state level, we are preparing for possible change in Trenton, as Gov. Chris Christie will leave office less than one year from now. Under the circumstances, we expect a new administration in Trenton, which could mean different policies regarding NJ Transit and community transportation. With the severe and crippling budget cuts that the operating side of NJ Transit has suffered during the past decade, we will need as much strength as we can get, so we can express your mobility needs to the decision-makers in Trenton.

On the national level, the situation does not look good. There has already been talk in Congress of eliminating federal support for Amtrak and for the capital side of local transit around the nation. While the Trump Administration has talked about “infrastructure” as a priority, it appears that such a priority does not apply to publicly-owned transit infrastructure.

This column will have more to say about local rail infrastructure in the next issue. In the meantime, we need your help. Please join the Lackawanna Coalition, so we can fight together for our transit. The more of you who join us, the stronger our voice will be.

Thursday, Feb. 9 was snowy, just enough to make all forms of transportation chancy. But we had tickets for the Metropolitan Opera; not to be missed, but scheduled to end at 11:10 p.m. Many had taken the day off due to a morning snowstorm, and so there were lots of free spaces at our home station in Basking Ridge on the Gladstone Branch. Parking closer to the city would have given us more train choices, but could be problematic if the lots were snow-clogged. Hoping the railroad would get us home, we parked at Basking Ridge and trusted our fate to NJ Transit, leaving on the 4:01 p.m. local and changing at Summit for the Midtown Direct train. We arrived only about five minutes later than the predicted 5:24 arrival at New York Penn; plenty of time for dinner before the 7:30 opera curtain.

The opera ended 10 minutes late at 11:20, and a quick subway ride got us to Penn Station at 11:39. Both the 11:41 train to Montclair State and the 12:02 to Dover connect with the last train to Basking Ridge, #453. There’s an old commuter’s maxim: when in doubt, always take the first train headed in your general direction, even if it won’t get you all the way. So with a minute to spare, we boarded the 11:41 and waited a cold 10 minutes on the platform at Newark Broad Street. We breathed a sigh of relief when #453 showed up on time. 

At Summit, #453 paused for 10 minutes to allow the Dover train to catch up. While we waited, I visited the train’s rest room, which was in the other open car. This allowed me to do a passenger count. Other than my wife Lynn and I, there were . . . exactly zero. We were the only riders continuing beyond Summit! Five passengers did board from #6683 (the Dover train), and we were off, as engineer and conductor conferred over the intercom and determined that the eight passengers wanted to go only to New Providence, Millington, and Basking Ridge! At Basking Ridge, we got off, and nobody was left on the train.

Some have opined that “nobody rides the last train,” because if you do and you miss it, you’re stuck, so everybody adjusts their travel plans to take the next-to last train. This then allows the railroad to claim that there is no need for the last train. Following this process, you might end up with no evening service at all!

Publisher’s Note: There are more riders on the trains during good weather than during snowy weather. Still, NJ Transit now has the legal authority to cut service by two hours whenever they please, without notice to the public. If they use that authority, the last train to Gladstone could leave Penn Station as early as 10:02. We are fighting to have that blanket authority repealed. Please join us and help us in that effort, so the trains you ride will still be there for you.

We were saddened last month to learn that Jack McDougal of Clintlon had died. Jack was a Coalition member for more than 20 years. He lived in Hunterdon County, on the historic Jersey Central Railroad. He also maintained an interest in the heritage of the Lackawanna Railroad, and belonged to organizations concerned with the history of those lines.

As an advocate, Jack pushed for restoration of the “lost network” of passenger trains, especially in West Jersey. He was an ardent supporter of the Cutoff Project, which would restore service west of Lake Hopatcong, and eventually as far as Scranton, the place where the Lackawanna Railroad was founded in 1851. He also advocated strongly for two extensions of the Raritan Valley Line: from High Bridge to Phillipsburg and from Bound Brook to West Trenton. Both lines had lost their passenger trains during the 1980s. His favorite project was an extension of the Raritan Line to Flemington, the county seat of Hunterdon County.

Jack was not only a member of our organization, but also of the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition and the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers. He was the only person who belonged to all three organizations. These organizations and the West Jersey region have lost a friend.