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  The work includes replacing the line’s outdated wooden catenary poles with sturdier, steel poles.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.  Add suburban residents traveling into New York for the evening, and there is a decent amount of demand for reverse-peak service.

A large gap in the schedule, like what the Gladstone Line has at the moment, hurts  ridership at all times of day. Take, for example, a schoolteacher who lives in Jersey City and works in Bernardsville.  She works from 8am-3pm.  If there’s no train that can get her to work by 8, then she will drive, and won’t be on the 3:45 pm inbound train either.  There’s no train in the morning, so ridership goes down in the afternoon.  In essence, a schedule gap prevents ridership from reaching its full potential.

Here’s what I’m imagining:  enough substitute bus service to give the Gladstone Branch hourly service at all times of day.  That means  about 3 departures from Gladstone between 4:52pm and 8:08pm, and 2 departures  from Summit between 6:30am and 8:44 am.

This means 5 trips of 1 hour 10 minutes each, plus enough deadhead time get the empty buses from Gladstone back to Summit.  if we give them 50 minutes of deadhead time and layover, that’s 2 hours round trip. 2×5=10 service hours.

At an estimated cost of $120 per service hour, this could cost $1,200 daily, or about $300,000 a year.  Far cheaper than providing the same service by train, and even more inexpensive than double-tracking the line. 10 hours a day of bus service, in the grand scheme of things, is really very little.  But it could completely change the way people use the Gladstone Branch.

Weekend substitute busing will last until October.

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