UNION COUNTY — Commuters to New York City living in towns like Union, Cranford, Roselle Park, Garwood and Westfield dream of the day they will be able to get on the train and not have to change trains in Newark. That day may be coming sooner than they think if the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition has anything to say about it.
Alex Sinclair of Cranford commutes to the city five days a week on the Raritan Valley Line. Although he thought this trip would be easier than driving into the city, he confessed that changing trains in Newark can be an exercise in frustration.
“When we bought our house in Cranford I was thrilled it was near the train – I figured I could walk to the train in
the morning, hop on and sit back and relax until we reached the city, but that all fell apart when I discovered I had to change trains in Newark,” explained the father of 2-year- old twin daughters and a newborn son.
“There are some days when the Raritan Valley Line experiences delays or some other problem and all bets are off for getting to work on time,” Sinclair said.
Like thousands of other riders who work in the city, Abby Matangilo said taking a train where you have to change in Newark can wreak havoc with their work schedule.
“You get to Newark and sure enough, your connecting train to the city is pulling in, but you have to get to the other side of the tracks. So I’m running, along with the herd of other people trying to catch this train, jamming into a doorway that becomes like a funnel, and only so many people can get through. God help you if you trip or fall, they would run right over you to get to that train on the other side,” said the Roselle Park resident, pointing out that “you can just repeat that scenario coming home and you have my daily commuting experience in a nutshell.”
Ben Cox of Union started laughing when asked how commuting on the Raritan Valley Line has worked out for him.
“Hey I suppose it could be worse than racing to catch my train in the morning and then getting to Newark and hoping I can grab a cup of coffee before trying to make my connecting train to the city,” he said.
Usually his train pulls into Newark and the connecting train is either late or pulling out of the station by the time he races down a long flight of stairs and up another to the other side of the tracks.
“That doesn’t happen every day but it’s time they seriously consider making this a one-seat ride for us,” he added. “We take the Raritan Valley Line every day and make up a significant number of fares. If we decide to take the bus or drive, what are they going to do?”
Commuters on the Raritan Valley Line make up nearly one-tenth of NJ Transit’s riders but because this rail line is without electrified trains, the end of the line for passengers is at the Newark station. Once there, riders have to change from a diesel powered train to an electric powered one because diesel trains cannot operate in the tunnel under the Hudson River separating New Jersey from the city.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, because NJ Transit recently spent $341.7 million to buy 36 duel-powered trains. Whether any of these trains end up on the Raritan Valley Line, though, remains up in the air.
The diesel powered trains that operate on the Raritan Valley Line cannot run through the Hudson River tunnels because of the smoke, which means passengers have to disembark and get on an electric powered train in order to get across the river to Penn station.
NJ Transit has promised there will be a one-stop ride by spring, but they will not be able to get those trains operating during peak hours or on weekends. The RVRC argued that the Raritan Valley Line is the only rail line in New Jersey with existing track connectivity to Penn Station that does not offer one-seat service, and that should be incentive enough to provide enough of the electric powered trains to this line.
The RVRC is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization that has spent 15 years pushing for a direct train into Manhattan for the Raritan Valley line. They now hope to generate support from the thousands of commuters who travel on the Raritan Valley Line before all the newly purchased electric locomotives are divided up among other rail lines. The coalition, which includes local officials, transportation professionals and other mass transportation advocates, has support from around 20 municipalities for a one-seat ride.
“While a one-seat ride may seem like just a convenience for some commuters, the reality is that it would foster great economic growth along the whole corridor. These are fateful decisions for the Raritan Valley. We need a groundswell of support from the people living along the Raritan Valley Line – in fact, we need a crusade,” said Peter Palmer, a Somerset County Freeholder and chairman of the RVRC.
The fact NJ Transit has to be convinced to hand over several of those $8 million locomotives so the Raritan Valley line can begin offering the one-ride option during peak rider hours should not be happening, Palmer said.
“Based on the explosive growth of ridership and real estate values experienced by the Morris and Essex lines after those lines achieved one-seat ride in 1996, it is very important for the economic growth of our communities to achieve a reasonably similar level of service,” he explained.
Duel locomotives are being used along four NJ Transit lines entering and exiting Hoboken. These trains can switch between diesel and electric power.
A one-seat ride would make life easier for commuters, shortening their trip into New York’s Penn station by 15 minutes one way, while eliminating the risk of missed connections. However, there is no guarantee this will happen.
The problem is that even if the Raritan Valley Line is able to get a duel-powered locomotive, it would be hard to obtain a peak period time slot because another line would have to give up one of their time slots. And that is not about to happen, according to Ken Wedeen, spokesperson for the Regional Plan Association who spoke about the problem earlier this year in Westfield.
“There would be an uproar from the public and uproar from elected officials. The Access to the Region’s Core project would have provided extra capacity but was canceled in January 2012,” he explained.
One of the major problems is financial. More attention is being placed on maintaining services rather than on new services.
The ARC project, which could have expanded the number of rail tracks available under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York, was replaced by the Gateway Project. This new project will add two more rail lines between New Jersey and New York City by adding a third tunnel under the Hudson River while adding 10 new train slots during peak periods.
While this is a great alternative, the problem is this project will take ten years to complete and cost in the $10 to $15 billion range.
In the meantime, towns like Union are trying their best to get the word out about the one-stop ride, with the hope that if enough voices can be raised, NJ Transit will listen.
Union Business Administrator Ron Manzella is rallying for the cause, especially since this municipality has a stake in the commuting game.
“Legislators have been lobbying for this since the 1990s,” he said, explaining that now there is finally an option open.
“The township is talking to different groups in town and we are putting this information on our website, Manzella said, pointing out that Union has a good reason for getting involved in the one-seat coalition.
“We have one of the newest stations on the line and room to add to our parking capacity,” he said, adding that “everyone is behind this move.”
If any town gets a one-seat ride, there is potential for increased property value within a one- to two-mile radius of train stations, which could increase economic growth and property taxes generated by municipalities.
NJ Transit spokesperson John Durso said earlier this year that while their team continues to meet with elected officials, customers and other stakeholders, to listen to their thoughts and recommendations, the main issue at hand is capacity at Penn Station in New York, which he said is already heavily extended.
The RVRC is asking residents to go to their website at www.raritanvalleyrail.com, download one of the letters to legislators or adapt one to your town mayor and help make a one-seat ride a reality.