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.

When NJ Transit began “Midtown Direct” service on the Morris & Essex, Montclair and Gladstone lines in 1996, it was enormously popular from the start, and it remains so. While some riders on our lines still ride to Hoboken, many grabbed the opportunity to ride directly to Penn Station, New York. This summer, those riders will again ride to Hoboken as the old service pattern returns for eight weeks. For the past 21 years, we have strongly supported our riders having the choice of going to Penn Station, or going to Hoboken and taking advantage of the transit options there. This summer, though, many of our riders will not have the option of their regular trip to Penn Station and back. 
 
From July 10 to August 31, Amtrak will be working on the tracks at New York Penn Station, and has required NJ Transit to reduce peak-hour trains by more than 25%. The burden of service changes will fall on riders on the Morris & Essex lines: almost all weekday trains running to and from New York will be diverted to Hoboken. Temporary schedules are available at stations in paper form, and can be downloaded from NJT’s website, www.njtransit.com; click on Schedules & Fares, then Train, then scroll down to Upcoming PDF Schedules. NJT has announced a number of alternatives for affected riders to reach their destinations, but skepticism abounds about how well this will work out. 
 
The changes apply only on weekdays. Weekend service will NOT be affected. Neither will fare for single-trip riders those days. NJT will still run the regular M&E “Midtown Direct” schedules on weekends, and New York fares will apply for single-trip riders. 
 
In the temporary schedules, all weekday Morristown and Gladstone Line trains to and from New York Penn will be rerouted to Hoboken, with the exception of four very early inbound trains, arriving in New York before 7:00 a.m. Montclair-Boonton Line trains to New York will continue to run there, but during extended peak hours (including until 9:30 p.m.) they will not stop at Newark Broad Street, so they will be unavailable to M&E riders seeking to transfer. The remaining New York trains may, however, be the most convenient way to travel at certain times; particularly outbound late at night. 
 
A number of connecting and alternative services have been announced; on most of them, NJT riders holding valid tickets (passes and single-trip) can use the other services at no extra cost. These include PATH at Hoboken, 33rd St., and World Trade Center; NJT’s #126 bus at Hoboken, #108 from Newark Broad St., and #107 from South Orange; and DeCamp (Montclair area), Lakeland (Dover area), and Community Coach (Morristown) bus lines. The extra buses from Newark and South Orange will run during morning-peak only, and there will be temporary bus service during those hours from Summit, Maplewood and Broad Street Station in Newark to Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. NJT tickets will also be honored on the regular New York Waterways weekday ferry services between Hoboken and World Financial Center and Wall St./Pier 11, and a special service will operate between Hoboken and West 39th St. from 7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. All these ferries will be free for Hoboken NJT ticketholders. Weekly and monthly passes will also be honored on the Light Rail between Newark Broad Street and Newark Penn stations, although it appears that single-trip tickets may not be valid. In any case, riders continuing to New York Penn from Newark Penn will need New York tickets.
 
As you probably know, PATH is increasing service on the line between Hoboken and 33rd Street in Manhattan during peak commuting hours. Trains normally run every seven minutes, but they will run every five minutes “for the duration.” We have calculated that PATH can only hold about half of the additional Hoboken riders during the busiest part of the morning peak-commuting time, so you may wish to use an alternate means to get to Manhattan. There will be extra ferries, including a temporary route to West 39th Street. That also requires a shuttle bus in Midtown. There will also be more service on the #126 bus between Hoboken and Port Authority Bus Terminal, but the bus will also be slower than PATH. However you go to Manhattan, be sure to allow plenty of extra time for the trip.
 
If you do take PATH, there may not be room for you if you arrive at Hoboken between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning. So you might want to adjust your commuting schedule. If you get on at the back of the PATH train at Hoboken, you should know that the exit at the back of the train at 30th Street is closed for renovations. So you will need to walk to the front of the train to exit the PATH system.
 
You will need to allow extra time for PATH, as well. NJ Transit lists connecting times on M&E schedules, but it is difficult to read them in the timetable format. So be careful to get to PATH early enough to make your connection. This is especially important outside peak commuting hours, when PATH does not run frequently. If you plan on taking the last train that normally leaves Penn Station at 12:56, you will need to leave the 33rd Street PATH station no later than 12:10; 46 minutes earlier! 
 
You probably know that PATH (at Hoboken, 33rd Street and the World Trade Center stations), ferries and some buses (NJT from Summit, Maplewood, South Orange and Newark, as well as some buses operated by private companies) are honoring NJ Transit tickets reading to and from Hoboken. You will need to show a ticket to an attendant or a bus driver, though. We suggest that you buy and keep a “paper” ticket, rather than using your smart phone. Many commuters buy tangible tickets, and we suggest that “single-trip riders” do the same
 
If you normally travel to Newark from points west of Summit (mostly Morris County points), the Hoboken fare will be lower than the Newark fare this summer. Go ahead and ride to and from Newark on a Hoboken ticket. NJ Transit has told us that they expect some Hoboken tickets will be used for rides to and from Newark.
 
Your town may charter a special bus for commuters who are displaced by the changes this summer. Morristown has done that. Check your town’s website to see if there is one. You will probably be required to pay a separate fare, though. NJT will add peak-hour buses on the #107 route from South Orange and the #108 route from Penn Station, Newark; both to the Port Authority. There will be temporary routes from Summit and Maplewood, too. NJT has also announced special buses from Broad Street Station in Newark to the Port Authority Bus Terminal as well. 
 
To compensate riders for the inconvenience and extended travel times, NJT is cutting fares to Hoboken from M&E points by approximately 50% in July and August. Monthly and weekly pass users should buy their passes to Hoboken for this period. On weekends, regular service will operate; weekly and monthly passholders can use their Hoboken passes to reach New York on weekdays, but single-trip riders (regular and reduced fares) will have to buy New York tickets to travel to New York Penn. On weekdays outside of peak hours, it will often be possible to reach New York Penn by connecting at Newark Broad St. to Montclair-Boonton line New York trains, but tickets reading “New York” will be required. 

Be sure to check our website, www.lackawannacoalition.org, regularly. That is where we will do what we can to bring you up-to-date information about what you can do to reduce your transit-riding pain this summer as much as possible. We will also feature a Survival Guide for the summer on the site, and we will update it as best we can.

This will be a difficult summer for many of you, the riders of the Morris & Essex and Gladstone Lines. It is not just that New Jersey Transit is turning back the clock and forcing us to settle for the “Midtown Indirect” service we all had before 1996, but the secrecy that management observed and their “take-it-or-leave-it” approach constitutes a deliberate blow to our efforts to represent you and campaign effectively for better transit in our region.

We understand why NJT management specifically selected our trains as the ones that will be forced to vacate Penn Station in New York for 40 weekdays. We have Hoboken while other lines, except Montclair, do not. Having Hoboken for the people who want it and as a back-up terminal for riders who would prefer to go to Penn Station sets our railroad apart from others in the NJT system. We have a choice, and we have a back-up. We also understand that the track work that Amtrak will be doing at Penn Station is necessary. Amtrak has neglected Penn Station for too long, and it is falling apart. 

Still, the way that NJ Transit management decided how most of the riders on our line will be forced to change their riding routine is indefensible. Their attitude was one of “we will let you know when we want you to know” and that is exactly what they did. There was no effort to adjust schedules to make the trip easier for the riders, except that there will still be a few trains arriving at Penn Station before 7:00 in the morning, although all riders must return home through Hoboken. We are also not convinced that the additional service on PATH and other carriers will be sufficient to accommodate all of the temporary Hoboken commuters who will join the “regular” Hoboken riders this summer.

It is not only traditional commuters who will suffer. The last train will leave Hoboken at 12:59 a.m.; three minutes later than its normal departure time from Penn Station. However, because of the PATH schedule in effect at night, riders must leave the 33rd Street PATH station by 12:10, 49 MINUTES EARLIER! Forcing riders to leave the City that much earlier is outrageous, and demonstrates reckless disregard for our constituents. We have asked management to reschedule that train to leave Hoboken at 1:06, so riders can catch PATH at 12:45, and to have the last Montclair train leave Penn Station later.

We are not the only people who have complained about the secrecy during this process. So have a number of legislators, as well as the mayors of seven of the towns along the M&E Line. Transit management heard all these complaints, including ours, at a legislative hearing on May 31. This process has not become any more transparent since then.

The Long Island Rail Road has made service adjustments to accommodate the track work, too. In contrast to NJ Transit, the LIRR discussed possibilities with several stakeholders before announcing the changes the railroad would make. NJ Transit would have been wise to do the same. We could have helped, too. Maybe we could even have persuaded NJ Transit to run more trains into Penn Station! 

Since April, 2003, no member of New Jersey Transit’s Board of Directors has ever voted “NO” on an “agenda item” before the Board. This perfect record of the Board as a body that unanimously approved everything before it lasted for over 14 years, except for Commissioner Richard Hammer’s objection to a personal injury settlement when he first took the post late in 2015. That unbroken streak of unanimity prompted the Coalition and other advocates to criticize the NJT Board as a “rubber stamp” and call for reform.

Veteran Board member Flora Castillo broke that streak at the Board’s regularly scheduled meeting on June 14. She voted against two items. One would have authorized over $10 million for boiler and terminal repairs at Hoboken, and the other was an increase in spending of $2,750,000 on a contract concerning power substations. Castillo abstained on a third item. Coalition member Joseph M. Clift told the Railgram that he stated at a Board committee meeting that the items in question should have been sent out for competitive budding, and speculated that Castillo’s actions might have been related to his expression of that concern.

We strongly commend Flora Castillo for exercising independent judgment by breaking the 14-year streak of unanimous approval of every agenda item. For many years, we have called for robust discussion of issues that concern us as riders on NJ Transit, and for transparency by the NJ Transit Board and management, so we will be recognized as having a stake in the mobility that NJ Transit offers us. We sincerely hope that these two dissenting votes will be the first step toward that transparency and that recognition.

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.