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.  The first customer for a custom-designed locomotive, bus, or railcar pays for years of engineering and design.  The new product is risky because it is unproven, untested.  After one purchaser has paid for the initial product engineering, the second customer can then purchase it for less.  By this point, it is a proven product that can be mass produced.

In recent years, NJ Transit has been the first mouse.  Management has a habit of buying expensive, custom-designed equipment like the dual-mode locomotives and double-decker passenger cars.  NJT has already been caught in the purchasing mousetrap. NJT ordered 52 commuter buses from a company called Designline, only receiving 12 before the company went into bankruptcy.

The dual-mode locomotives were a risky, expensive purchase of a locomotive custom-designed for the partially electrified rail network that NJ Transit operates.  It would be even more wasteful not to use them to their highest potential.

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