UNION COUNTY — The good news is that people taking the Raritan Valley train line into New York in the evening – after peak hours – will not have to change trains in Newark come January. The bad news is that this service is not even on the table yet for morning and evening rush hour commuters.
On Monday night, NJ Transit Transportation Chief of Government Paul Wyckoff told more than 100 people that came out to a Raritan Valley Rail Coalition meeting that although the November start for the evening one-seat ride into the city was called off due to budget constraints, it would hopefully begin in January.
NJ Transit is currently applying for a grant to cover the $600,000 that it will take to pay for the trains that will run directly into New York Penn Station between 8 p.m. and midnight beginning in January.
Since 1998 the nonprofit, bipartisan Raritan Valley Rail Coalition has been working to get the Raritan Valley Line, which draws riders from Union, Middlesex, Somerset and Hunterdon counties, a one-seat ride into the city. Simply put, this means traveling to or from New York City without the need to transfer trains.
This mission has had its ups and downs, but the coalition has worked cooperatively with NJ Transit, meeting quarterly with the public transportation corporation on issues to improve service and benefit riders.
Coalition representative Thomas Jardim said the primary mission from the beginning has been to achieve a one-seat ride directly into Penn Station in New York, specifically during commuting hours. The coalition scored a major win in March when NJ Transit started using dual-powered locomotives for some midday weekday trips, which eliminated any transfer at Newark Penn station.
“Our final goal is direct peak service to Manhattan,” Jardim said, explaining why that has been derailed.
“They say we can’t have that until we get another tunnel and that is not true. We believe we are entitled to one, two, even three direct trains into New York,” he said, but then admitted, “we certainly need more tunnels because of the condition they are in.”
The issue of providing trains that will take riders directly into New York without passengers transferring at Newark is no easy feat. However, it is not impossible, according to Coalition officials.
Riders currently have to get off Raritan Valley trains, go to another platform and board electric trains, which are the only type that can go through the Hudson River tunnels into the city. However, the problem of the Raritan Valley line not having electrified locomotives was actually solved two years ago.
In 2012 NJ Transit purchased 36 dual-powered locomotives for $350 million.
These trains have the capacity to switch from diesel to electric with a flip of a switch, enabling Raritan Valley Line trains to travel through the tunnels into Penn Station under electric power without passengers changing trains in Newark.
The problem, though, is that there are other practical challenges involved with getting one-seat ride service operating around the clock.
Budget shortfalls remain a problem, and also the fact that there is only one tunnel in operation on weekends, so slots are limited at that time.
Also contributing to the problem is the fact that there are just two tracks under the Hudson River and only a limited number of trains can go to Penn Station in New York each hour.
Coalition officials said that currently all slots are taken during peak hours, which makes the situation even more frustrating.
Amtrak also owns and controls the Northeast Corridor, New York Penn Station and the Hudson River tunnels, which require immediate maintenance attention. This, too, could restrict expansion of one-seat rides for weekday off peak service.
According to NJ Transit officials, there is a lack of state and federal government funding, which is preventing new tunnel construction and other service improvements from moving forward.
However, on Monday night, elected officials disagreed.
“There is funding and we need to work every day to get it,” said Republican State Sen.Tom Kean at the coalition meeting, where he was praised by other elected and coalition officials for working side by side with them to see a one-seat ride brought to the Raritan Valley Line.
“Tom Kean was instrumental in getting off-peak hour one-ride service,” said Jardim.
Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, also credited by coalition officials for organizing more than 30 mayors from towns along the Raritan Valley Line, spoke about the one-seat ride initiative at the meeting.
“I, along with other mayors here, have been fighting hard to get our communities involved and now we have their attention,” she said, adding it was important to understand that delays in getting the capital investment required was a major part of the delays in this commuter service.
Mahr also mentioned that getting actual commuters involved in the one-seat ride initiative has been difficult.
Westfield resident Michael Whitsock agreed.
“What you are doing here tonight is great. But I’m a commuter and you all don’t fill one commuter train. In most people’s minds is that a one-seat ride is catering to the New York theater crowd,” he said, pointing out the coalition “had to reach out to actual commuters.”
Although Mahr stressed the coalition needed help in getting the word out, Plainfield Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Dunn suggested that while the coalition had made strides, they were not getting the word out to the right people.
“Let’s consider the idea of advertising this on trains and in stations,” he said, adding that it was commuters that the coalition were trying to reach “and they are on trains and in stations.”
Democrat Assemblywoman Linda Stender pointed out the reason coalition members and elected officials have not been able to get peak hour one-seat service had much to do with the state of train transit infrastructure.
“There is a miscommunication here that transit is self-supporting,” she said, noting that while ridership numbers may be higher on other lines that have one-seat ride during commuter hours, the fact remained that new tunnels were desperately needed.
A Cranford resident questioned whether NJ Transit considered having other lines, such as one that comes from the shore area, trade off with the Raritan Valley line, “so everyone gets a fair chance at one-seat service into the city during peak hours.”
Wyckoff, though, explained that would not happen.
“Although I think you hit the nail on the head, you just don’t simply take service away from a line,” he explained, but Jardim felt that was unfair.
“Our line is just as important and as large as any other,” he said, adding “if you look at the shore line, they have many one-seat rides and we have none.”
Other issues that came up involved the challenges the Raritan Valley Line faces, including that morning inbound Raritan Valley Line trains connect to the Northeast Corridor just outside Newark Penn Station. This requires four tracks of the corridor to be clear and often results in delays for Raritan Valley Line trains while other trains go first into Newark Penn Station.
Officials said a “flyover” railroad bridge was designed but that will cost $200 million and there is no available funding to build it.
The Portal Bridge, a 104-year-old two-track swing bridge between Secaucus station and the Hudson River needs to be replaced.
“When it is stuck in the open position the entire Northeast Corridor is shut down, stopping all train service heading into or out of Penn Station in New York,” officials noted, explaining that a new high level bridge was designed that will cost $900 million, but again, there is no funding available to construct it.
There are also no authorization plans to construct more tunnels to allow more trains to access Penn Station in New York and increased capacity into the city is not expected for a minimum of 12 years.