10 deaths on Route 3 in the past year- does anyone else see a problem?

A brief compilation of news items from the past year:

• July 2014:  3 passengers in a minivan are killed when the driver (under influence of alcohol) drives into a guard rain in North Bergen

•February 2015:  A truck carrying a large steel object crashes into a bridge in Secaucus.  The steel object fell onto a nearby van, killing a passenger.

•May 2015:  A motorcyclist is killed on Route 3 in East Rutherford

•June 2015: 2 are killed when a driver loses control and rams into a tree in Clifton.

•June 2015: Similar to the accident in February, a truck hits a bridge in Rutherford, knocking a shipping container onto a nearby car, killing the occupant.

•July 2015:  2 are killed when a driver leaves the road on the exit lanes at Valley Road, also in Clifton

That’s a total of 10 people killled, not to mention pedestrian deaths.

There’s been no reaction to this.  No press conferences, no vows by the state to make safety improvements, and as far as I can tell, no safety enforcement campaigns.  There was however, a statement by a truck owners’ group asking for money to educate drivers about bridge heights. Otherwise, business continues as usual.

Compare this to the response from the Amtrak crash in May (8 fatalities).  The president made a statement.  The FBI and NTSB investigated.  The media was on it! To be fair, train crashes are far more spectacular, and rare events that make good reporting.

There’s a clear double standard here.  After a particularly gruesome train crash in California, congress mandated that all passenger railroads install positive train control on their systems.  Basically, an electronic way to enforce signals and speed limits.

If Route 3 was a railroad, it would have been shut down years ago. Or, it would be spending millions of dollars to install positive automobile control.

Where will the dual-modes go next?

bomb_34927_51NJ Transit owns 35 dual-mode locomotives that can operate with or without overhead electrical power.  Most importantly, these locomotives can provide a one-seat ride from non-electrified lines through the tunnels to Penn Station. Originally, they were ordered to provide service to the now-cancelled ARC tunnel.

The first dual-mode revenue train was operated in May 2012, but since then, the roll-out of new one-seat-ride services with the dual-modes has been slow.  In March 2014, the first Raritan Valley Line trains to New York Penn Station began running at off-peak hours.  It took almost two years for NJ Transit to use the dual-modes for their intended purpose – to eliminate transfers and provide direct service to Penn Station.

In May 2015, NJT took another step forward with the dual-modes, inaugurating 3 direct New York to Bay Head trains in each direction, eliminating a transfer at Long Branch.  This was the first time NJT operated regular through trains from New York to the lower Coast Line (not counting summer beach express trains that ran the year before).

Except for these two particular instances, the dual-mode locomotives are being wasted.  They cost about $10 million each. For comparison, a diesel locomotive without electric capabilities costs $5 million.  Yet many of them are circulating through the train equipment pool as regular, diesel-only locomotives.  The total locomotive order was for some $408 million, yet their incredibly expensive dual-mode abilities are only being used by 23 trains per day.

Now, granted, there is another advantage to operating dual-mode locomotives other than providing new one-seat-ride service. Some of these locomotives are operating from Hoboken on the Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton Lines.  They can run most of the way in electric mode, and then change to diesel mode after the wires end. For instance, a train to Lake Hopatcong can operate under electric power to Dover, then run the last few miles using diesel power.  Electric traction is quieter, generates less pollution and provides faster acceleration.  A dual-mode locomotive can run a train like this faster than a standard diesel locomotive could.  But unless NJ Transit commits to consistently operating those trains with dual-modes, schedules can’t be updated to reflect faster running times.  Right now, these trains are holding for time at intermediate stations to keep on schedule.

There are opportunities to use the dual-modes to their full potential elsewhere. In addition to running direct Raritan Valley and Coast Line trains at more times of day, NJT could use the dual-modes to expand Midtown Direct service to the outer Montclair-Boonton Line. Currently, Midtown Direct service is only offered east of Montclair State University, and at Denville and Dover via the Morristown Line.  It would be possible to operate limited rush hour service from Lake Hopatcong simply by extending a Dover-New York train to Lake Hopatcong.  A Lake Hopatcong-Hoboken train could be moved to start at Dover, so the change could essentially be done at no cost.  A direct train over the outer Montclair-Boonton Line to New York could be similarly done by swapping its slot with a Hoboken train.  The main question is whether enough seating capacity exists on the trains in question to accommodate passengers from the new stations.

It’s said that the second mouse gets the cheese.  The same principle, to a less gruesome extent, applies to commissioning new rail equipment.  Continue reading

Suppressed demand on the Hudson River ferries

The Hudson River ferries, unlike most of the transportation system in New Jersey, is privately run.  It’s main goal isn’t serving the public, or making sure the state’s transportation network runs smoothly.  It’s meant to make money.

New York Waterway charges high fares.  really high fares.  The cheapest ferry fare is $6, and they can cost more than $10 to ride, depending on the route.

What if the ferries weren’t operated for profit?  What if they had the same motivations as a transit agency- moving people at an affordable cost?

NJ Transit ferries would charge a significantly cheaper fare, close to what NJT charges for its trans-Hudson buses or trains. Let’s assume that the NJT ferry fare would be $3.50- equal to the bus fare from Jersey City/Hoboken/Weehawken to New York, instead of the $6-10 charged by New York Waterway.

Right now, high ferry fares are causing significant suppressed demand.  Many people are choosing not to take the ferry because of how expensive it is, even if it makes sense for their commutes.  Many people can’t afford a $270 dollar monthly ferry pass from Hoboken to Midtown, so they opt for the $98 dollar bus pass.

As of 2013 New York Waterway and its subsidiary BillyBey Ferry Comany carry about 30,000 passengers across the Hudson River on a good weekday.  What would the ridership be if fares were cut in half?  60,000? Or even more?

New York Waterway provides a luxury service, a comfortable travel option with plenty of seats and a great view. It’s even advertised as a high-class ride.  If ferries are to become a true mode of mass transportation (for the masses, not just the high-end market), some routes would have to be jettisoned.  For instance, the ferry between W. 39th Street and Lincoln Harbor has its New Jersey terminal inside a gated community. The service is for “tenants and guests only.”

Publicly operated ferries would probably run on fewer routes, but they would carry far more passengers.

Another advantage is that the ferries could be coordinated with other modes.  Right now, train and ferry schedules don’t always link up at Hoboken Terminal. The terminal was originally designed for train-to-ferry transfers, but currently most riders head straight to the PATH, jamming it at rush hour.  More of those people could be diverted to the ferry if there was a joint ticketing option.  If both services were operated by NJ Transit, a passenger could buy a ticket directly from, say, Ridgewood to Wall Street.  With the ever-increasing crowding at Penn Station, this would definitely be a good thing.

Not all transit modes are created equal.  In New Jersey, the commuter trains, PATH, and (most) buses are subsidized extensively.  They can rely on public moneys in order to provide more service and transport more people.  But the ferries can’t.  They are limited by the fares they take in and the investment requirements of private capital.

Public subsidy would open the Hudson River ferries to thousands and thousands of new riders. When a rail tunnel shuts down and the Port Authority becomes massively over capacity, this might be the solution we need.

It’s official- service cuts and fare hikes are coming

In an act that surprised no one, the NJ Transit board voted to approve the package of fare hikes and service cuts.

The proposed changes were endorsed without any modifications.  6 bus routes will be curtailed or eliminated, and two late night trains removed from the schedule.  Fares would increase all-around, except short-haul train fares between suburban points.

Even with the fare hike and service cuts, NJT’s financial troubles aren’t over.  The union that represents NJT’s locomotive engineers is threatening to strike over contract negotiations.  Currently, no NJT employees have a  contract and  annual raises are under the cost of living.

A mediation board has already been appointed.

NJ Transit has been underpaying its labor for years, and it can’t go on forever.  As it is, the agency couldn’t meet its existing obligations to its employees without a fair increase, so I am worried that another fare increase is not too far off in the future. Unless, of course, the state gives more funding for public transportation. Another gubernatorial election is coming soon, and Christie can’t stay forever.

Articulated buses- use with caution

800px-NJT_Neoplan_AN459_9525You might have seen them.  NJ Transit operates articulated buses on only a few routes. In the Newark Area these are the 13, 39, and 70. Articulated buses are also used on the 154, 156, 158 and 159 in Hudson County.  These buses are 60 feet long and have a bend in the middle.  For comparison, a standard transit bus is 40 feet long.  The main advantage of these buses is their additional seating capacity, which is important on busy routes.

The important question to ask-  how busy is busy enough to justify using articulated buses?  Their main advantage is that they allow NJ Transit to carry more passengers while not running any more buses.  Frequencies don’t have to increase.  But as we are well aware, increased frequency makes transit more convenient and increases ridership.

NJT’s new 40-foot buses have 39 seats, and the articulated buses have 59 seats. It stands to reason that if these routes were operated with shorter buses, the frequency would have to be about 50% higher to achieve the same number of seat-miles per hour.

The 13 runs a 12 minute headway or less from Monday – Saturday and a 15 minute headway on Sundays. Hypothetically, this bus would run every 8 minutes with standard-length buses during the week and every 10 minutes on Sunday – definitely an upgrade.

The case against articulated buses becomes even more apparent when you realize that the 13 has branches on either end.   At the southern end in Irvington, buses on each branch run every 24 minutes during the week, and every 30 minutes on Sunday.  With regular buses, this would be reduced to headways on 16 and 20 minutes, respectively.

The use of articulated buses is artificially reducing transit service. And since there’s a direct relationship between service increases and ridership, it’s safe to assume that articulated buses are artificially reducing ridership too.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for articulated buses.  While they aren’t appropriate for the 13 on Sundays or late nights, they definitely help accommodate crowds on that line during the rush hour.

Here are a few situations where there is a genuine need for articulated buses: Continue reading

NJ Transit’s 6 least-used train stations

I did a public records request and got NJ Transit’s ridership report for fiscal year 2014.  You can request it too, or contact me and I will send you the file.  The report has station-by-station ridership numbers, and data for each individual bus line.

Here are the stations on the NJ Transit rail system that see the fewest passengers, and the number of passenger boardings they get each weekday.

800px-Mount_Olive_station

(wikimedia)

1 (tie). Mount Olive, 17

Mount Olive is the second to last stop on the Montclair-Boonton and Morristown Lines, in the middle of a small industrial park.

The station doesn’t have much to recommend itself.  There are no residential areas in the immediate vicinity, and Netcong station is more convenient to most people living in the area.

It’s also not much of a park-and-ride, with 23 parking spaces.

(wikimedia)

(wikimedia)

1. (tie) Mountain Lakes, 17

This station has very low ridership because it suffers from poor service levels,  and much more attractive services are available nearby.  Two miles to the west, Denville has frequent trains and Midtown Direct Service.  Trains from Mountain Lakes only go to Hoboken and there are only 5 inbound trains a day. The area is also served by Lakeland buses.

Mountain Lakes also has very low population density, and only a few businesses.

3. Lebanon, 20

Lebanon is a small, cute town in the country with nice old houses.  It has 15 parking spots, so 20 passengers a day is an entirely reasonable ridership number.  I assume there are some, but very few walk-up commuters.

Lebanon has relatively good train service compared to Mountain Lakes and Mount Olive.  It has 7 inbound and 10 outbound trains on weekdays, some of which are expresses.  But it’s also located right of Routes 22 and 78, which provide a much faster travel option.

4. Mount Tabor, 34 Continue reading

Missed opportunities with summer busing on the Gladstone Branch

Summer is here! Jersey tomatoes are ripening in the fields, and beach traffic is at its full height. Every summer for the past few years, the summer has been the time when NJ Transit substitutes buses for trains on the Gladstone Branch.  Buses replace trains on weekends in order to accommodate work on the line’s overhead catenary system, the wires that power the trains.

Wooden catenary poles destroyed during hurricane Sandy (WNYC)

Wooden catenary poles destroyed during hurricane Sandy (WNYC)

This is a significant inconvenience for Gladstone Line riders.  The buses are scheduled to take an hour and 10 minutes from Summit to Gladstone, versus about 50 minutes for a normal train.  The work includes replacing the line’s outdated wooden catenary poles with sturdier, steel poles.

The line is almost entirely single-tracked, with only a few passing sidings, so it’s not possible to close one track and operate all trains on the other,  which is what NJ Transit does to accommodate work on other lines.

The single track is also the reason why weekday peak service is only offered in one direction.  There is a gap between inbound trains between the 4:52 pm from Gladstone, and the 8:08 pm from Peapack. In the morning, the first outbound train arrives at Bernardsville at 8:31am, and the first train that runs all the way to Gladstone arrives at 9:36 am.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.10.15 AMTo fill in the gap in reverse-peak service, NJ Transit advertises a bus connection on the timetable. This bus, the 986, only offers service to New Providence and Murray Hill stations.  The rest of the line has no bus substitute service.

In addition to offering substitute service on the weekend during closures, why not use buses to provide reverse peak service on the Gladstone line?  The simple answer, like for so many things at NJ Transit, is that it has never been done before.

During the morning, there is no public transportation service at all to Gladstone Branch points, nor any service from the Gladstone Branch to rest of the state from 5pm-8:30pm.The only exception is a few short-turn trains at Murray Hill and New Providence.

This makes reverse commuting on NJ Transit practically impossible. There isn’t much in the way of large employment centers on the Gladstone Branch, other than a few corporate office parks near Murray Hill and Berkeley Heights stations. But there are, of course, schools, small businesses, hospitals and the like.  There probably isn’t enough reverse commuting traffic to fill a train, but it could definitely be the right amount of people to fill a bus. Continue reading