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.

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.

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.