Manual door operation on NJ Transit

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This conductor opens the door just as the train is pulling into the station

Most commuters don’t like NJ Transit’s electric multiple unit cars.  These are the stainless steel sided rail cars that have built-in electric motors, rather than being pulled by a locomotive.  If you’re a regular rider, you might know these cars by their dated 1970s interiors with brown faux wood paneling and brown faux leather seats.

These cars also have a unique feature:  manual door operation.  Using a key, the conductor can open the end doors of the car ahead of time, often 10-15 seconds before the train comes to a complete stop.

At low-level platform stations on the Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton Lines, this is a standard practice. The conductor opens the door a few seconds early, and walks down to the bottom step as the train is coming to a stop.  The conductor jumps off the train just as the train stops.  Passengers can board or alight as soon as the train stops.

All of the other cars in NJT’s fleet have interlocking doors.  A circuit prevents doors from opening until after the train has come to a complete stop. Only a second or two after this happens, the doors begin opening.  It takes about 1-2 seconds for the doors to fully open and the conductor to begin stepping off the train.  Then, after the conductor has gotten out of the way, boarding/alighting activity begins.

All in all, opening the train doors while the train is pulling into the station saves about five seconds.  This is a mere trifle in time, but stop after stop, it adds up. A local from Hoboken to Gladstone makes 23 stops.  23×5=115 seconds, or nearly two minutes.

Other ways of cutting two minutes off a train’s running time can include engineering work to upgrade the tracks and switches, at the cost of millions of dollars, or by straightening curves on the right of way, which could cost even more.

Manual door operation saves time, but it’s a dying practice.  These cars are due to be retired within the next 5 years, and their replacements would have automatic doors. It’s likely that these trains will be noticeably slower in a few years.

This practice is now limited to certain Hoboken trains on the electrified portions of the Montclair-Boonton and Morris & Essex lines.  Until a few years ago, manual door operation was also used on the Main, Bergen County, and Pascack Valley Lines.  Until the mid-2000s, it was even standard practice to leave the doors open at all times, never closing them between stations.

The shift to interlocking doors has largely been motivated by safety, as we can see from reports from the Federal Railroad Administration about making interlocking doors mandatory. All of the safety concerns come from closing the doors too late, not opening them too early. There have been several incidents when passengers have been caught in closing doors, including one gruesome episode where a passenger was dragged to death in 2006.

As I see it, the danger to passengers is minimal when conductors open their door a few seconds early.  Passengers can’t get off the moving train, since the conductor is standing in the way. The conductor gets off the train while it’s still in motion, but at this point it’s very slow and the conductors are trained employees who know how to do their jobs safely.

Fortunately, bus drivers will still be able to open their doors a second or two before coming to a stop for the foreseeable future.

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