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.

New Jersey has lost one of its strongest voices for better transit. After more than 60 years of fighting for transit, William R. Wright of Cranford left us earlier this summer. He was not a member of the Lackawanna Coalition, but he belonged to many other organizations: the North Jersey Transportation Advisory Committee, the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee, the Union County Transportation Advisory Board, the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP), the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition, a group interested in railroad history and the local Railroad Retirement Board. He started his career 65 years ago with the Atlantic Coast Line, promoting the company’s crack trains to Florida like the Champion and the Florida Special.

Until recently, Bill sent letters to elected officials, accusing them of complicity with the highway, oil and automobile industries, which limited mobility for Americans who did not have an automobile. He always sent copies of those letters, typed on an old manual typewriter and replete with typing errors, to his colleagues in the advocacy community, including this writer.

Bill’s fame did not spread beyond New Jersey, but he will always be remembered for his sayings. He said: “Not all tourists drive, but all tourists spend money” and “A fare increase is a tax increase!” Bill’s bestknown saying was “If you don’t drive, you don’t count!” Nobody has summarized the plight of the American non-motorist more succinctly

The most urgent aspect of the Gateway program is being separated out for expedited delivery, officials from New Jersey Transit and the Federal Railroad Administration announced in May. Dubbed the Hudson Tunnel Project, the effort carves out the construction of two new rail tunnels and tracks between Secaucus Junction and New York’s Penn Station, as well as shutting down and rehabilitating the existing rail tunnels that were damaged by Superstorm Sandy. This will address the threat of an unplanned shutdown of the existing tunnels and provide increased reliability for our riders.

Breaking Up Gateway into More Manageable Pieces

Although the Gateway program’s most famous element was its new tunnels, they comprised a small piece of a much larger undertaking. Gateway’s primary aim is to significantly increase train capacity, which involves beefing up the rail infrastructure between Newark and the Tunnels—not to mention the New York side—considerably. In fact, approximately 68% of Gateway’s $23.9-billion budget estimated cost was for these non-tunnel components. That kind of money may never materialize, even taking into account Governors Christie and Cuomo’s paper promise to pay for $10 billion toward the project if the federal government covers the rest.

Of these non-tunnel pieces, the most controversial is on the New York side: an annex that substantially expands New York Penn Station, called Penn South. More than a block of real estate, including the historic St. John the Baptist church and the Affinia Manhattan hotel, will have to be acquired and demolished to build it. Penn South would also be located a block farther away from subways and most offices than the existing Penn Station.

Given its complexity, the uncertainty of funding, and probability of legal fights over Penn South, there was a very real chance that the project would slip its aggressive schedule. Having the new tunnels potentially tied up in this was a major risk, given the deteriorating state of the existing tunnels. The Lackawanna Coalition has advocated for separating the tunnels from the rest of the project, and we’re pleased that NJ Transit and the FRA have reached the same conclusion.

No New Capacity

The Coalition does express concern that both parties are claiming the new project will not add additional train capacity due to the limitations of the existing Penn Station, meaning we would have to wait for the rest of the Gateway project to run a single additional train during rush hours. We know that more capacity is important, and we have submitted several suggestions on how to provide some additional capacity at modest cost based on engineering work done in the early stages of NJ Transit’s cancelled Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project.

This is a still a significant step in the right direction, and if our recommendations are implemented, it will be a much stronger project still.

This is a tumultuous time for New Jersey Transit. Rail labor threatened a strike a few months ago. Everybody believed that situation had been resolved and that our trains would keep running, but they were wrong, although the Lackawanna Coalition has now received news of a tentative settlement. NJT is still having financial problems, even though it appears that the budget for fiscal year 2016-17 will not make the situation worse, at least. Then there was the ineptitude surrounding the attempt to hire William Crosbie as Executive Director. The Board of Directors held a special meeting six days before their regularly scheduled meeting, purportedly to hire Crosbie, but it appears that they did not even have a complete agreement with him.

So Dennis Martin is still “Interim Executive Director” until some undetermined time in the near future. At its meeting on May 23, the Lackawanna Coalition discussed that situation and agreed that it is time for the Board to remove the word “Interim” from his title.

Dennis Martin has served New Jersey Transit and its riders well. As head of Bus Operations, he led the successful effort to relieve bus congestion at the Port Authority Bus Terminal for commuters heading home on the bus at peak-commuting times. This is an outstanding achievement. We acknowledge that he has his experience on the bus scene and not the rail scene, but we also note that Dennis has done no harm on the rail side, while he made great improvements on the bus side. It also appears that he is open-minded and will listen to us as the representatives of the riding public, something that not all of his predecessors were willing to do.

NJT is a political organization, whether we like it or not, and regardless of the actual language of its enabling statute, the Transportation Act of 1979. When a new governor takes office in Trenton, NJT gets a new Executive Director. Gov. Chris Christie will leave office in about 18 months, and we expect that his successor will appoint a new boss for NJT. We do not see any benefit for New Jersey’s transit riders, or for NJT employees, in going through a “search process” to find a “qualified candidate” to replace Dennis Martin for such a short time. We doubt that a well-qualified candidate from outside NJT would want to take the job for that amount of time, and NJT officials have better things to do with their time and effort than look for an agency head whose tenure would be “permanent” in name only.

In a similar situation, this Board recently removed the word “Acting” from the title of Board Secretary Joyce Zuczek, after she bore the temporary-sounding title for five years. We have always appreciated Joyce’s professionalism and respect for us, as representatives of the riders. We strongly commend the Board for recognizing Joyce’s value to NJ Transit, and we believe they should do the same for Dennis. We recommend that the Board of Directors remove the word “Interim” from Dennis Martin’s title and make him just “Executive Director” for the foreseeable future. The next governor may replace him, but at least the riders will have the benefit of his experience and uninterrupted leadership during the difficult times ahead.

When New Jersey Transit eliminated the last trains on weeknights (including Friday night) on several runs last September, the Lackawanna Coalition swung into action. We persuaded NJT to restore some of the time lost to riders leaving New York and Hoboken on the last trains to Dover and Gladstone. These improvements came last November, eight weeks after the service cuts were suddenly imposed on our riders.

Inbound riders from Dover suffered, too. The last train from Dover was set back to a 10:32 p.m. departure, from 11:37 (historically, the last train left Dover at 12:30). It was restored to 11:30 in November, but the new schedule called for that train to run non-stop from Summit to Newark. All passengers going anywhere else in Essex County were required to get off at Summit and wait for more than 30 minutes to catch the train that would take them home.

We continued to advocate vigorously for a solution that would allow our riders to get home without wasting so much of their precious time. We pushed for NJT to allow stops “on request” on that particular train only, to let passengers off at their home stations; a practice implemented by Metra in Chicago. NJT rejected this approach, but implemented a positive change in the current schedule, which started on May 16.

Train #684, which leaves Dover at 11:30 for Hoboken, now makes five Essex County stops that it did not make before: Millburn, Maplewood, South Orange, Orange and Brick Church. This improvement does not benefit all of our riders in the affected area, but it will help many of them; perhaps most of them. We see this as a victory for the Coalition and for our Essex County riders, and we commend NJT management for listening to us and making this beneficial schedule adjustment.