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.

On Sept. 29, 2016, an NJ Transit train inbound from Spring Valley crashed into the bumper block at the Hoboken Terminal, resulting in the tragic death of a bystander and many injuries on the train. The incident also resulted in significant damage to the historic terminal and, three months later, the area remains under repair, with thousands of riders each day forced to make a detour on foot to reach the PATH transit service. The train’s engineer says he has no memory of the actual collision, and this lapse has subsequently been attributed to sleep apnea—he apparently fell asleep in the last few seconds of his run.

Railroads are always quick to change rules after an accident, and NJ Transit instituted stricter rules for employees diagnosed with sleep apnea, and also now requires a second crew member in the cab when approaching the Hoboken terminal. The second-crew rule was also instituted at NJT’s other stub-ended terminal, Atlantic City; but, curiously, not for the many trains which arrive at New York’s Penn Station on tracks 1 through 4, which also stub-end. Although the danger is just as great, perhaps increasing safety at New York Penn takes a back seat to operational factors, such as the challenge of a crew member gaining access to the engineer’s cab through a packed rush-hour train.

Now it’s happened again, this time on the Long Island Rail Road; on Jan. 4, 2017, a packed LIRR rush hour train crashed into the bumper block at the railroad’s stub-end Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn. This time, the accident was much less severe; most of the 100 or so injured riders had minor injuries, the worst reported being a broken leg. But it might have been much worse, as reportedly a rail penetrated the front car of the train and, as in Hoboken, the train continued past the bumper block into the terminal complex. Also, as in Hoboken, the engineer says he remembers nothing about the accident. He was at the end of his shift, having worked all night, which was his usual job assignment.

It appears that even the most advanced safety system, Positive Train Control, mandated by federal rules and due to be installed everywhere by the end of next year, may be powerless to stop a train accurately at the end of its run. So the danger of a bumper block crash may always be present. Can anything be done to lessen the danger and assure passengers of a completely safe ride? Probably not, although seat belts and prohibiting passengers from crowding the aisle until the train has come to a complete stop would certainly lessen any injuries. But would passengers be willing to put up with the inconvenience in the name of safety?

John Bobsin is a contributor to online news posts of the Coalition’s website.

Publisher’s Note: At our December meeting, Jesse looked at the cost of proposed projects, often in the billions of dollars over several years, and broke them down to amounts that a person or family would actually pay out of pocket for these projects. Here, he presents a summary of his talk.

It is common when government officials render large numbers to represent the cost of a project in a soundbite. For example: the cost of the Hudson Tunnel Project, which will take roughly 14 years to complete, at a preliminary cost of $7.7 billion. This is not a “dishonest” number per se, if the project does have that timeframe and overall cost. Similarly, a “two trillion dollar tax cut over 10 years” is not, per se, dishonest either.

That is like saying you have a project to provide cable TV for yourself at a cost of $60,000. That is not dishonest… $60,000? That amounts to $100 a month for 50 years, it’s true. I’ll bet you never realized that you spent more than a median American yearly household income on cable! We don’t think of our cable bill that way. We think of our cable as costing us personally about $100 a month, or about $1,200 a year.

We should think of a Two-Trillion-Dollar Tax Cut (over 10 years) as $200 billion a year, or a cut of $781 off your household’s yearly tax contribution ($65/month). $781 per year or $65 per month is how you account for things in your budget. So look at what they propose to cut, and wonder if what you lose is more or less than a couple’s extra night out each month.

Likewise, the Hudson Tunnel Project will cost $7.7 billion, or $550 million a year. Since project funding is generally 50/50 federal/state, and since 50% of taxes are paid by the top 1% of income-earners, the project will cost the average New Jersey household $18.56 a year in tax, or $1.54 a month. So if you were ever wondering, that is what a 50% matching $7.7 billion, 14-year project adds to your household budget costs.

When we as advocates ask for a project to be funded, we need to keep in mind that to the average citizen, a $7.7 billion bill for a project makes as much sense as a $60,000 bill for cable.

Jesse Gribin recently completed his term as Technical Director of the Coalition

The last decade has been a challenging one for transit in New Jersey. New Jersey Transit has cut service, while funding from the New Jersey Legislature was cut by 90% from the 2008 level to the 2016 level. There has been some improvement this year, but it is almost impossible to recover from such a deep funding reduction. NJT has found other sources of funds to keep going, but much more must be done. Funding for county-sponsored and town-sponsored community transportation has also been cut in half since 2010, because it depends on revenue from Atlantic City’s floundering casinos. We are a non-political and non-partisan organization, but we expect change in Trenton by this time next year. We hope this means an increased commitment from New Jersey’s elected leaders to our transit, which has been starved for the past several years.

Even if a new governor and legislature increase support for the operating side of transit, the capital side may be in trouble, with that trouble coming from Washington. NJT’s new Executive Director, Steve Santoro, was in charge of Capital Planning and Development before he was promoted, and we know that he will bring in as much of the needed capital funding as he can. Still, we do not know what Donald Trump will do about transit after he takes office, or what direction the U.S. Department of Transportation and its agencies will take under his leadership. He has called for increased investment in “infrastructure” (whatever that means). We hope it means more infrastructure devoted to public transportation, like new passenger-rail projects, but we cannot count on that.

For many years, the Lackawanna Coalition has advocated vigorously and relentlessly for more tunnels into New York’s Penn Station, to allow more trains into that facility, so more New Jersey riders can get there. We understand that new tunnels must go to Penn Station and not take our constituents to an inconvenient or unsafe place. We have not endorsed Amtrak’s Gateway Project in its entirety, but we have always stressed the need for more tunnels.

With the new changes in Washington, we cannot be sure that the federal government will chip in $12 billion (half of the estimated $24 billion cost of the entire Gateway project) toward rail facilities that will benefit New York City and northern New Jersey. The Republican Party will control both the Administration and both houses of Congress, and most of the people who live in our area are Democrats. Whether we like it or not, partisan politics often determines how and where government money is spent. For one third of the cost of all of Gateway, we can have two new tunnels into Penn Station and one new span to replace (and perhaps augment, instead) the aging Portal Bridge. We need to advocate strongly for the basics: two new tunnels and a new bridge. Unless there is a huge and pleasant surprise coming from Washington, we will be doing well to get that.

Publisher’s Note: Last June, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Midtown Direct service to Penn Station, New York. In our May-June issue, former Coalition Chair Albert L. Papp began a series on the history and benefits of that service. Due to an abundance of news over the last several months, we could not present the second article in this series. We present it now, and we expect to conclude the series in our next issue.

The genesis of direct rail service to New York City began well before World War II, when the Depression Era saw a marked retrenchment in business growth and a consequent reduction in rail passengers, compounded by the rapid rise of automobile usage. This increase was generated by the opening of the Holland Tunnel in 1927, the George Washington Bridge in 1931 (with the lower level added in 1962), and the Lincoln Tunnel. The first tube was opened in 1937, the second tube in 1945 and the third and final one in 1957.

Only the onset of World War II, which restricted the use of the private automobile, returned the railroads to a time of prior glory (and profitability), especially those which terminated on the west bank of the Hudson River. That growing usage, propelled by the war and business activity, planted a kernel in the minds of many legislators for another tunnel that could be used by the rail lines to access Manhattan. Decades earlier, prior to construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Hudson River Tunnels in 1910, plans were mooted for a bridge that would be used by all rail lines terminating on the Hudson’s western shore. Quarrels between competing lines put an end to that proposal along with the outbreak of World War I, and the Navy Department’s immediate concerns that a bridge could impede warship and commercial shipping movements. Nearly ninety years later, and fifty years after the end of WWII, direct rail service between the Morris & Essex Lines and New York City finally began.

Philip G. Craig of Montclair died on Dec. 8. He was 79. Phil was a strong advocate for better rail service, especially in Montclair, and he enjoyed a long and distinguished career as an engineer and builder of transit systems in this country and abroad.

Although he was not a member of the Lackawanna Coalition, Phil was an active member of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) and several groups concerned with the historic and technical aspects of rail transit. Phil and fellow Montclair resident Jack May fought to prevent NJ Transit from shortening the “Dinky” shuttle between Princeton Junction and Princeton, but that effort failed in court. He was more successful in advocating for weekend service on the Montclair portion of the Montclair-Boonton Line, which currently runs between Hoboken and Bay Street Station every two hours. Phil demonstrated that the train set which was running as a shuttle between Newark and Hoboken could use otherwise-idle time to run between Montclair and Hoboken on the same two-hour frequency.

We will miss Phil’s strong advocacy, and we will continue to push for better service on the Montclair-Boonton Line, through our Montclair-Boonton Line Task Force.