Some commuters would swear that every day, their daily train to work is a little slower. They are not entirely incorrect. Despite many improvements to weekend and off peak service, frequency, comfort, and stations, commuter trains are slower than they used to be.
Take this 1935 timetable for the Lackawanna Railroad’s Montclair Branch:
There’s a 4:30 pm express departure from Hoboken that reaches Montclair at 4:50. The 5:00 express reaches Glen Ridge at 5:18. On a timetable for NJ Transit’s Montclair-Boonton Line from 2015, the fastest express train from Hoboken takes 25 minutes to get to Bay Street Station. A local train in 1935 took 27 minutes, but local trains now take 30-32 minutes. This is despite three stations that have closed since then!
This is a 1970s timetable from Conrail’s commuter service on the Boonton Line. Inbound trains to Hoboken from Boonton made the trip in 59, 59, 54, 49, 58, and 59 minutes, according to the schedule.
In the present day, schedules times from Boonton to Hoboken are 1 hour 4 minutes, 1 hour 5 minutes, and 1 hour 7 minutes for express trains. Local trains take 1 hour 12 minutes and 1 hour 16 minutes.
The sad fact that today’s express trains are slower than the express trains of the 1970s is due to the Montclair Connection, a project that rerouted Boonton Line trains down the Montclair Branch via Newark. This made possible the highly successful Midtown Direct service to Montclair, but slowed down travel times for commuters coming from west of Montclair. Not surprisingly, ridership on the outer Boonton Line has declined and service has been reduced.
Now, take a look at this this 1972 Northeast Corridor timetable from the Penn Central Railroad.
One of the first trains is a 5:37 am local from Jersey Avenue, arriving at New York Penn Station at 6:35. Today’s equivalent of that train leaves at 5:26 am – 11 minutes earlier – and arrives at 6:38 – 3 minutes later. A trip that once took 58 minutes now takes 72.
The timetable sports several stations that have since closed- Monmouth Junction, Colonia, North Rahway, South Elizabeth, and South Street. Despite having fewer stations to stop at, today’s trains are slower.
One of the chief sources of delay has been new stations added by New Jersey Transit on the inner portion of the line. Newark Airport station opened in 2001 and Secaucus Junction in 2003. Before Secaucus opened, trains took 15 minutes to get to Newark from New York. Now, it’s 20 minutes.
Express trains have not fared any better. The same 1972 timetable shows an express from Princeton Junction taking 45 minutes to get to Penn Station, with one stop at Newark. Similar NJ Transit trains take 50-55 minutes.
Even NJ Transit trains from 10 years ago were faster than those of today. A 2015 schedule for the North Jersey Coast Line shows that a local from Long Branch to New York takes 1 hour 40 minutes. But a timetable from 2003 shows the same train taking only 1 hour 30 minutes. Where did those extra 10 minutes come from?
Secaucus Junction is one reason, but this doesn’t account for the full 10 minutes extra. Trains are physically slower than they were before. NJ Transit has spent millions of dollars buying heavy double-decker cars to add capacity to its trains. These cars are heavier than single-level cars and make a train marginallly slower.
NJ Transit has also moved away from electrical multiple unit (EMU) train cars. These “self-powered” cars have their own electric motors and are not pulled by a locomotive. They have faster acceleration than a push-pull train hauled by a locomotive and can run a faster schedule.