The three eras of train ticket collection: How far we’ve come

A pleased rider recently tweeted that NJ Transit’s mobile ticketing “is the best thing since sliced bread.”  Sliced bread is largely overrated, but we should still appreciate the huge strides the agency has made in ticketing in the past decade.

Ticket technology has actually changed twice in that period-  First we saw the movement away from cash transactions on board the train to ticket machines.  Now those ticket machines are becoming less important as people can buy their own ticket on a smartphone.

The paper ticket era:

NJTransitPunchTickets-web

Remember these?

In the long forgotten days before 2008 or so, at most stations you could get on a train, and the conductor would collect your fare, punch a series of holes into a strip of paper, and that was your ticket. This was largely the same way train tickets were sold 100 years ago.

It was a good system.  Buying a ticket was relatively simple for first-time riders. There was no need to buy the ticket before getting on the train. It was quick.

While it worked for passengers, this system has significant downsides for NJ Transit.  It took up a lot of the conductors’ time, and labor is expensive.  On crowded trains, the conductors and ticket collectors simply couldn’t reach everyone.  Some people got by without their fare ever being collected.

The ticket vending machine era:

The era of on-train ticket sales ended when NJT started installing electronic ticket vending machines. Within a few years, TVMs were installed at virtually every station.  Passengers would be required to buy their ticket from the machine before boarding, and then present it to the conductor on the train.

It became easier for NJ Transit to collect fares, and the workload for conductors went down. Most of this work was offloaded onto the passengers.  It was now the passenger’s responsibility to find the ticket machine and figure out how to pay.  For many riders, this meant arriving a few minutNew_NJT_TVMes earlier at the station, and potentially waiting in line to buy a ticket.

This was especially inconveniencing for riders at stations where the ticket machines were located only on one platform, and crossing between the platforms isn’t always quick. Buying a ticket on the train is still an option, but is subject to a $5 surcharge.

There were benefits for passengers too.  For the first time, it was possible to pay with debit or credit cards at most stations. It was also possible to buy 10-trip and weekly/monthly passes at outlying stations.

The mobile app era:

In 2013, NJ Transit launched its first mobile ticketing pilot, with an app called MyTix. Passengers img_5193could buy a ticket on their smartphone, and display it to the conductor. No paper required.

The app spread to other rail lines, and then light rail and bus routes.  It now has 600,000 users. Mobile ticketing gives passengers all of the advantages of the ticket vending machine but without the downsides of waiting in line for the machine, or having to arrive at the station early. Now, you can buy your ticket when you get on the train, just like in the paper ticket era. Continue reading

NJT gets a lot of heat for steal rail cuts

An update on a previous story:

In September, NJ Transit put out new train schedules that reflected the service cuts that had been approved the month before.

For some of the service cuts, there was advance warning. Riders knew to expect that the last train of the evening on the Pascack Valley Live and outer Montclair-Boonton would be eliminated. Hearings were held.  News articles were written.

In addition to these, there was a surprise.  The last trains of the evening on the Morristown line and the Gladstone Branch were cut. Nobody outside the agency knew a thing until the schedules came out with about a week’s notice.

Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well.

Rider advocates at the Lackawanna Coalition protested that without advance notice, they had no way to object to the changes.

State Senator Nicholas Scutari has proposed legislation that would require the agency to notify riders of cuts like these.

Why wasn’t NJT required to tell anyone?  Service cuts like these are regulated by federal law, and there are certain criteria for what constitutes a “significant” service cut.  If the cut doesn’t meet that threshold, it’s merely considered an adjustment.

On the Pascack Valley and outer Montclair-Boonton lines, the overall service frequency is low. The PVL only has about 20 outbound trains a day, so cutting one train means cutting 5% of the total service, which would count as a “significant” change.

Even though cutting 3 trains on the Morris & Essex is a larger service change and affects more people, it represents a smaller percentage of the total schedule.  Because of this, NJT can legally get away with failing to warn people their train is being cancelled.

This is the same way NJT managed to eliminate the north end of the 56 bus is Elizabeth, because it was considered a portion of a line, and therefore not a significant change.

While it’s unpopular, transit agencies should be allowed to cancel bus routes with low ridership, or eliminate poorly-patronized trains.  By all means, they should be able to take actions that make the system more efficient.  But I think we can all agree that they should be required to tell people when this is happening.

New Sept. 13th rail schedules- NJT makes stealth cuts on the Morris & Essex, spares the Pascack Valley Line on Fridays

Every few months, NJT puts out new rail timetables.  This September’s feature a few service modifications, some good, some bad, and updated holiday service information.  Most significantly, the timetables are update to show higher fares.  Here are the service changes you can expect to see:

NJT announced in May that it planned to cut train 1601, the last train on the weekday schedule from Hoboken to Pascack Valley Line points.  The new schedules shows that the train was not cut entirely-  instead, it only runs Friday evenings, when ridership is somewhat higher.  To make up for the service cut Monday – Thursday, the last train of the day will be moved back, from 10:42pm to 11:13pm.

On the Montclair-Boonton Line, train 1043, a late night shuttle from MSU to Lake Hopatcong, will make its last run on Friday.

Seasonal North Jersey Coast Line trains stop running after this weekend as well, to return in summer 2016.  Several weekend and late night weekday shuttles from Long Branch to Bay Head will stop running, as well as weekend express trains.

The Port Jervis Line will see a new afternoon train departing Hoboken at 2:40, running express from Secaucus to Suffern.  Previously, this train only operated as an early getaway train before major holidays. It will now operate to Middletown every weekday, and to Port Jervis on early getaway service days. The new service is funded by Metro-North, not NJT.

In conjunction with this change, the 1:13 departure to Port Jervis from Hoboken has been moved to 12:42.

On the Morris & Essex Lines, late night service is being reduced. These cuts were not part of the summer hearings on service cuts.  No notice was given for these cuts. Train 6684, the 11:37pm train from Dover to New York, is eliminated.  The last inbound train from Dover is now at 10:32pm.

The last trains of the evening, the 12:32am from Hoboken to Gladstone, and the 1:19am train from New York to Dover, are also being eliminated, leaving to last train to Gladstone at 11:44pm and the last train to Dover at 12:34am. Unlike the cuts of the Pascack Valley Line, these trains will not continue to operate on Friday evenings.

This is what is known as a “stealth cut,” when the transit agency seeks to eliminate service without being noticed.

See the new schedules here until the 13th.

Dwell times- why your train is slow

In theory, commuter trains can go up to 90mph, but most of the time they stop every few minutes and never reach this speed. The amount of time a train spends at each stop isn’t much, but it adds up.

This is called “dwell time,” the total time that the train stops, or “dwells” in at a station.

Here’s some data sent to me by a friend. He recorded how long his train spent at each stop, from Upper Montclair to Newark.  The timer starts when the train comes to a full stop, and ends when the train begins moving again.

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 11.50.21 AMAccording to the Montclair Boonton-Line schedule, The trip from Upper Montclair to Newark Broad Street takes anywhere from 24 to 27 minutes. If we subtract the dwell time for Upper Montclair and Newark, The train is not moving at all for 9 minutes 33 seconds inbound and 8 minutes 45 seconds outbound. That’s anywhere from 32% to 37% of the scheduled trip time from Upper Montclair to Newark.

Now granted, the data here is from rush hour trains and doesn’t include the section of the line between New York and Newark with fewer stops, so it’s not entirely representative.

Here’s the same information in graphical format:

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 12.08.02 PM

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 12.08.08 PM

You’ll notice that the stops that took the least time were Upper Montclair, Bay Street, and Watsessing. Watsessing and Upper Montclair took less time because they have lower ridership.  In Fall 2013 (the most recent available stats), Watsessing has 223 daily boardings and Upper Montclair had 519.

Bay Street, on the other hand, had 1,166 boardings, making it the busiest stop on the line.  This is interesting.  Bay Street is the busiest stop on the line yet it has one of the lowest dwell times. Continue reading

Despite service cuts, NJT is adding trips on many of its routes.

On the whole, changes to the bus schedules are usually relatively minor.  Most of the changes on NJT’s September schedules involved ending summer-only service, and putting school trippers back on the schedule.

In this case, there are actually several routes that are getting more frequent service:

34:  This route has been put on a slightly altered route in Newark, going via S. 10th Street rather than S. 8th.  I’m not sure exactly why this is. The schedule says the reroute is due to traffic condition, but the new route is more circuitous and takes more time for a bus to go around.  This may be an example of the agency responding to resident or politician complaints.

76:  One new Sunday AM trip from Newark to Hackensack, departing at 6:30am.  Previously, the first trip in the morning was at 7.

80:  One early morning trip is being removed from the schedule on Saturdays from Journal Square in Jersey City to Gates Avenue.

99: One early afternoon trip in each direction is being added on the 99 crosstown route in Newark.

113:  One additional trip from Cranford to New York has been added to the timetable at 6:30am.

128:  Here’s the big one.  NJT is adding 8 trips inbound trips in the morning rush hour period (In a time of fare hikes and service cuts, no less!).  These trips will reduce crowding on the 128, as well as the 165 and 166 locals.  The new inbound trips range from as early as 4:35am to around 8am.

165:  Another 165P (Parkway Express) trip has been added.

167:  One additional trip has been added leaving New York on Sunday evenings

177: One PM rush hour trip leaving New York on weekdays has been added to the schedule

320:  One early morning trip has been added on weekdays from Secaucus to New York.

419:  The section of the route between Riverside and Burlington was eliminated, as part of the 2015 service cut package that was approved this summer. Frequencies on the remainder of the route are the same. Continue reading

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