Camden-Glassboro rail plan is going nowhere

From the Press of Atlantic City:

The plan announced by then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine in May 2009 involves an 18-mile light rail line between Camden and Glassboro. The Camden-Glassboro Line would someday be extended 19 miles from Glassboro to Millville in the center of Cumberland County.

Construction of the estimated $1.6 billion project between just Camden and Glassboro was to begin this year and be finished in time for passenger service to start in 2019, according to Delaware River Port Authority documents. That schedule is no longer viable.

The Camden-Glassboro Line is one of many transit proposals from the early 2000s that have seen little if any progress.

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Bloomfield Avenue case study: Market segmentation for buses is bad

Market segmentation, in its broadest definition, is dividing the market into subsets of consumers who can be provided with individually tailored services.  This works for clothes.  This works for restaurants. But it does not work for buses.

I’ll illustrate the problem.bloomfield-avenue-in-montclair Take Bloomfield Avenue in Essex County-  it’s one of the area’s main roads, nearly a straight line between Caldwell, Montclair, Bloomfield, and Newark.

Currently, the Caldwell-Bloomfield stretch of Bloomfield Avenue is shared between the NJ Transit 29 and the Decamp 33.  NJ Transit takes local passengers, and Decamp takes only passengers to New York.

Caldwell is considering starting a commuter shuttle service that would take Bloomfield Avenue between Caldwell and Bay Street Station in Montclair. That means there would be 3 separate service on Bloomfield Avenue for 3 separate market segments:

  1. NJ Transit buses for local trips between Caldwell,  Newark, and everywhere in between
  2. Decamp buses for passengers heading to the Port Authority
  3. Caldwell shuttle for train commuters to New York

This is a problem because frequency is one of the most important elements of a good transit service.  3 separate buses along Bloomfield Avenue will mean that riders can only use a third of the buses to get from, say, Verona to Montclair. The local rider loses out in this situation.

In a classic market segmentation situation, the market segments each get a product that suits their needs.  But for transit, part of quality is quantity.  Having local riders to fewer buses means that the local bus service between points on Bloomfield Avenue is qualitatively and quantitatively worse.

Riders going to New York on Decamp have the most to gain from this arrangement. Since the Decamp Bus isn’t picking up and dropping off local riders, the speed the New York is marginally faster.  The local bus isn’t much use to them anyway.

The train commuters from Caldwell will still have a broader range of options than the other two market segments.  They still have the choice between the local NJ Transit bus and the Caldwell shuttle to take up Bloomfield Avenue.  If one is late, they can take the other.

The real losers in this situation are the parties who are paying for bus service.  By allowing local riders onto other bus services, there could be more transit options, but provided by fewer buses. Essentially, more money is being spend on bus service than needed. If Decamp dropped off at Bay Street Station, the Township of Caldwell might not need to pay for a municipal shuttle to the train station.

Now, let’s acknowledge that there’s are reasons things are this way. NJ Transit local bus service is not that good.  Even at rush hours, you can wait 15 minutes or more for a local bus down Bloomfield Avenue. They can be slow and not always on time.  Clearly, for whatever confluence of reasons, the 29 is an inadequate means for Caldwell commuters to reach Bay Street station.

Decamp also has its reasons for not taking local passengers. Decamp might not be interested in the low fares that come from local rides,  but the primary reason is that the company is actually prohibited from doing so. Its franchise restricts its buses from competing with NJ Transit. But this is an outdated way of thinking, a relic of the time when local suburban transit service were a profitable business. But if NJ Transit dropped this prohibition, it might mean better service for its passengers. Alternatively, local service on Decamp might mean that NJT could scale back its services with no ill effect.

In times of tight budgets and little expansion to the transit system, we should focus on making the best use out of the transit we already have. This calls for a little creativity from transit providers which these days, is sadly lacking.

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

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.

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

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