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 Transit (NJT) wants to build two new projects on the Morris & Essex (M&E) Line, but we are concerned about them. Although we seldom object to any proposal designed to improve our railroad, we are not sure if these are needed soon, especially given the level of service that NJT operates on the line, and will probably continue to operate in the future. More importantly, there is a higher priority for any money that might be spent on our railroad: keeping it in a state of good repair.

At the beginning of October, riders on the Gladstone Branch lost their trains for two days. The cause was falling debris from the retaining wall west of Summit Station. The railroad runs in a cut there, and the incident occurred near the place where the “Branch” splits off from the M&E main line to Dover and beyond. This makes us wonder whether it is in a state of good repair. If it is not, bringing it to such a state is top priority.

NJT is now moving forward with plans to convert Newark Draw, the drawbridge immediately east of Broad Street Station, to a three-track bridge. Part of the railroad extending to Harrison would also have a third track added. The other project involves filling in Long Slip at Hoboken Terminal, which would make room for six new tracks on the side of the station nearest the river. We are not sure if either of these projects is needed now. Newark Draw was rehabilitated only seven years ago, and should provide good service for many more years. The current level of service does not justify the cost of building a third track in that area. The level of service at Hoboken, even with the extra trains that went there for eight weeks last summer, does not appear to justify the cost of more tracks, especially badly-located ones far from the exits from the station to New-York-bound PATH trains and to the street.

In light of the recent service outage on the Gladstone Branch, we need to be sure that our entire railroad is in a state of good repair, and that there are plans to keep it that way. NJT did not provide a “bus bridge” around the problem at Summit for Gladstone Branch riders, nor shuttle trains from New Providence or Murray Hill west to Gladstone.

If the infrastructure should fail anywhere on the M&E, Gladstone or Montclair Branches, the result could be a mobility disaster for anyone who uses our trains, particularly persons who depend on them for basic mobility. A long-term service outage, which would be required for extensive repairs, would be catastrophic for riders, as well as devastating to the local economy.

Therefore, we call on NJT to make sure that the entire M&E line and its branches are in a state of good repair, and that NJT has a plan to keep it that way. We need that much more than we need projects that may not be justified by the level of service we have now or will have throughout the foreseeable future. The promise of inspections is reassuring, but safety comes first, and it comes before expansion.

Publisher’s Note: Many riders on the Morris & Essex and Gladstone Lines are celebrating Midtown Direct service to Penn Station, since they had lost most of it on weekdays for eight weeks last summer. The highly successful service on our lines into New York Penn Station begin in June, 1996. The Lackawanna Coalition advocated for it over the years, and former Chair Albert L. Papp, Jr., was one of the chief campaigners. Here he concludes his series on Midtown Direct service.

For those readers new to the area, the act of boarding a train at your suburban NJ Transit Morris & Essex Lines station and enjoying a traffic free, seamless direct ride to New York’s Penn Station may be taken somewhat cavalierly. But your daily commute wasn’t always this easy prior to the Midtown Direct service. In the 1960s, traveling to Manhattan involved taking a former Delaware Lackawanna & Western rattan-seated, 1930s-vintage, non-air-conditioned train to Hoboken, and transferring there to the railroad’s ferry boats plying the Hudson River to Manhattan or taking Hudson Tubes (PATH’s predecessor) to the Hudson Terminal in Lower Manhattan or to 33rd Street beneath Sixth Avenue.

Beginning in the four years prior to the Lackawanna merger with the Erie Railroad in October 1960, all Erie trains were shifted from the Erie’s Jersey City terminal to Hoboken. By 1966, they were all concentrated in the Lackawanna’s more substantial terminal. That same year, Trenton established the NJ Department of Transportation (the first state DOT in the country) and the Commuter Operating Authority (COA) to provide both operating and capital financial assistance to the then-private rail carriers. Ferry service ceased one year later, and commuters were forced to ride the PATH trains. The Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation (PATH) was formed in 1962, when its predecessor, the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad (H&M) succumbed to bankruptcy. After that, the “Port” pumped some $70 million into its rehabilitation, in exchange for permitting the agency to build the World Trade Center on land then occupied by the H&M’s (later PATH’s) Hudson Terminal.

After successive railroad bankruptcies, Conrail was formed on April 1, 1976 as a government-funded private company to take over operations of the Northeast’s carriers. It operated New Jersey commuter trains, but not for long. Conrail claimed it cost $70 million a year to run the commuter trains and it wanted relief, which occurred after the state dissolved the COA and formed NJ Transit on July 17, 1979. On Jan. 1, 1983, the first NJT train pulled out of the station.

Over the ensuing years, growing economic expansion saw the PATH trains become more and more crowded with standees. This became a recurring weekday problem, especially on the line to the new World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. This overcrowding situation began to be alleviated in 1989 when NY Waterway instituted a private, non-governmental ferry service from a temporary terminal south of Track 17 in Hoboken to Battery Park City, in response to rising patronage due to economic expansion in Lower Manhattan. Still, train ridership continued to expand and numerous metropolitan agencies began to contemplate direct service from NJT’s Morris & Essex Lines into New York’s Penn Station. Approvals were sought and received, and construction began in 1993 on some 7,000 feet of track for both an inbound and outbound connection. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Lackawanna Coalition has stated its objections to a proposal by Essex and Passaic County planning officials to study the feasibility of building a busway between Newark and Paterson, along the right-of-way of the historic Newark Branch of the Erie Railroad; a line that hosted passenger trains until 1966. The line would go through Nutley and Clifton, and near the site where Hoffman-LaRoche once made pharmaceuticals, which Seton Hall University is now eyeing for a medical school.

The Coalition criticized the proposed busway-only study, saying that it should also include the alternatives of light-rail, which could be extended from Broad Street Station, and “conventional” trains, which could operate from Hoboken and through Broad Street Station. The Coalition’s comments noted the benefits of rail transit, compared to buses, including connectivity to the rest of the NJ transit rail system, lower costs of upgrading rail instead of building a road for buses, and potential revenue that could be earned by running rail freight service on the line, in addition to the passenger trains.

It was supposed to be the “Summer from Hell” for commuters into Penn Station, New York, due to a large-scale track work effort by Amtrak at the 21-track station. Amtrak owns the station, even though the riders on New Jersey Transit (NJT) and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) who use it greatly outnumber Amtrak’s.

Nobody disputed that the track work was needed. Weather-related incidents, derailments, and a host of other problems plagued the station and its riders all spring and into the summer, beginning with a particularly rough March, which we called “March Madness on the Railroad” in the April-May issue of the Railgram.

The madness continued, and NJT planned to reduce train capacity at Penn Station by 25% to accommodate the work. As far as NJT was concerned, their solution was simple. Riders on the Morris & Essex (M&E) Line and its Gladstone Branch were sent to Hoboken Terminal for 40 weekdays. It resembled commuting as it was before 1996, when Midtown Direct service from the M&E to Penn Station began; except the new riders that direct service to Penn Station had attracted were commuting to Hoboken, too. NJT ran four early-morning trains into Penn Station; all arriving before 7:00. For the rest of the day, all inbound trains went to Hoboken. For the entire day, all outbound trains left from Hoboken. Other lines kept their full access to Penn Station, a situation about which this writer and other advocates complained. Weekend service was not affected.

It was not as bad as many had feared. Based on expected ridership numbers, we did not expect that the planned PATH service could handle the additional Hoboken commuters at the peak arrival time in the morning. While the PATH trains were very crowded, they managed to move all the regular Hoboken riders, along with the temporary ones. The ferries provided extra capacity, and many riders said they enjoyed the ferry ride as part of a “civilized” commute. Whether they will continue to enjoy it when the weather gets cold and they have to pay a fare is another question.

Even though the M&E Line was the most profoundly affected, there were residual effects that stretched to Long Island. Because several tracks at Penn Station were out of service, NJT and Amtrak needed to use some (high-numbered) tracks normally reserved for the LIRR, which forced some Long Island commuters to go to Brooklyn or Hunterspoint Avenue in Queens, instead. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which owns the LIRR, prepared for the changes.

Mark Epstein, a lawyer who commutes from Long Island to his Manhattan office, is the Chair of the Long Island Rail Road Commuters’ Council. He sounded a cautionary note, telling this writer: “Our tracks, signals and switches haven’t been worked on, so we expect the same commute in September that we had in May.” At this writing, Amtrak definitely plans to complete the work by Sept. 1 and return to normal operation. New Jersey riders also wonder if their commute will be any better after Labor Day, when the track work is completed, at least for this year. There have been unofficial reports that there will be another service disruption next summer, too, as more track work will be needed.

If anyone drew praise, it was the riders, who had to endure the service changes through much of July and all of August. Epstein said: “I give the tip of the hat to the riders” of Long Island. NJT Executive Director Steven H. Santoro praised NJT’s riders for being “very, very patient” during the summer. The advocates who were present agreed.

It was a difficult summer for riders, especially on the Morris & Essex Line. It could have been better for the riders if NJT had brought the riders’ advocates into the planning process, but the feared “Summer from Hell” did not materialize. Perhaps Dante would have placed it in Purgatory, instead.