May rail changes bring better weekend service at North Elizabeth

This May, timetable changes on the NJ Transit rail system bring a pleasant surprise.  The big story, other than the opening of Wesmont Station, is the expansion of weekend train service at North Elizabeth on the Northeast Corridor Line.

North Elizabeth is one of the least-used stops on the NEC Line, with an average of 553 weekday passengers boarding at the stop in FY 2014.  Ridership is up, year-over-year. FY 2015 saw an average of 599 boardings at North Elizabeth, a nearly 10% increase. For comparison, during the same period total rail ridership increased by 2%.

Until recently, North Elizabeth saw only sporadic service on the weekends.  Most trains would speed past the station without stopping, and riders would have to make the hike over to Downtown Elizabeth to catch the train.  North Elizabeth will now have train service every 1-2 hours throughout the day on weekends.

What’s to account for the sudden boost in service?  It might be a recent transit-oriented development project called Station Commons, a 100-unit apartment building that just opened immediately adjacent to the station.

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With a giant brownfield development site right across the street, development in the station area can only go up from here.

Hopefully, this is a microcosm of what is happening across New Jersey.  New developments are going in at formerly depressed neighborhoods near train stations: Harrison, Bloomfield, Orange, and the list goes on.

Other schedule changes are minor.  On the Main/Bergen Lines, some trains that terminated at Waldwick will now run only to Ridgewood, and other Ridgewood trains are being extended to Waldwick. Summer Coast Line expresses to the beach are back for the season, as well as more frequent Bay Head shuttles. And a few evening trains are adding new stops on the inner Morris and Essex Lines, offering more frequent service for local suburb-to-suburb riders on that line.

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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.

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(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

Montclair State University station: a disappointment with a future?

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Did we really need the clocktower?

Montclair State University station has been a bust, you could say.  NJ Transit opened the station in 2004 with high hopes, located just off Route 46 at Clove Road. The station is massive. It has a full-length completely covered high level platform, a climate-controlled bridge over the tracks accessible by four elevators, a huge clock tower, and a parking structure with 1,530 spaces.  All of this at the cost of $26 million.

The ridership never materialized. Despite 1,530 parking spots, average daily ridership was just 592 passengers in 2014.  Some of the spare capacity is used as parking for Montclair State students.  Here’s a sign of how disappointing ridership has been.  Originally, there was a small shop built into the parking structure selling coffee and pastries.  The shop has since closed.

The station is grossly overbuilt.  It didn’t live up to expectations mainly because of its poor location.  For one thing, it isn’t even very convenient to the university.  Most of the campus is actually closer to Montclair Heights Station, or at least an easier walk.  The area near the station has a few dorms and sports fields.

Here’s what Montclair State university tells visitors:

The Montclair Heights train station, located at the south end of campus, is just a few steps away from the main body of the campus. The Montclair State University train station, located at the northwest end of campus, has a campus shuttle service to the main campus area.

In other words, the station is so far from the campus it’s named after that they recommend taking a bus.

The station doesn’t provide time-competitive service to New York.  Midtown Direct trains take about 55 minutes to get to Penn Station.  In comparison, the Wayne/ Route 23 park-and-ride is about 40 minutes from the Port Authority, and it’s several miles farther away. Its 1,100 space parking lot regularly fills up and there’s an overflow lot a few miles up the road.

Furthermore, the station doesn’t have access to Route 46 west.  Clove Road is currently only an exit on 46 east.  It’s easy for suburbanites from Little Falls, West Paterson, and other towns to drive to the station, but getting back involves a 5+ minute detour on local roads, or taking 46 east, getting off the highway, making two left turns, and merging back onto 46 west. But this is about to change. Continue reading

Speculation on what a partial tunnel closure would look like

In addition to further reliance on ferries, the PATH, and Lincoln and Holland tunnels, closing one of the North River tubes to Penn Station would mean tough decisions on how to use the remaining capacity.  From NJ.com:

The next question is who gets the little commuter rail capacity that’s left?

“The first question is who get those 6 trains?” Zuppan said, who assumed Amtrak’s two hourly trains would continue running. “NJ Transit has four instead of 20 (trains). The big question is what lines get them?

Would that mean two trains an hour each get allocated for the Northeast Corridor, and Morris & Essex lines, he questioned.

“There will be economic ramifications,” said Amtrak’s Schulz. “Regardless of  how the numbers shape up, there will be a reduction and people still need to go to work. How we do it, remains to be seen.”

NJ Transit’s multilevel cars have about 140 seats.  If we assume a heavy load of 50 standees per car, a 12-car train with two locomotives could hold (140+50)*12=2,280 passengers. Multiply that by 4 trains, and we get 9,120 passengers per hour

2013 hub-bound travel data shows that about 48,000 passengers enter Manhattan on NJ Transit trains between 7am and 10am. 22,000 of these people arrive between 8am and 9am. That leaves NJ Transit with a capacity deficit of about 13,000 people between 8 and 9.

One of the tricks that NJ Transit could pull out of its sleeve could be to remove seats from its trains to create more standing room.

The above assumptions are that a single track would allow 6 trains in an 6 trains out per hour.  This could change to 8 trains in and 4 trains out in the morning, which could be done during the peak, but would require changes to equipment staging. During the morning, outbound commuter numbers are much smaller than the number of inbound commuters.  In the PM rush, the number of inbound passengers is higher, so it would be more difficult to change the balance between inbound and outbound slots.

To create alternatives, NJ Transit would have to make crossing the Hudson via ferry or PATH more attractive.  We could see an increasing number of Coast Line and Northeast Corridor Trains terminating at Newark Penn Station, and increased service into Continue reading

Data Dump: NJT’s farebox recovery rate by line

In a document submitted to the state legislature for budget hearings, NJ Transit made public detailed information about fare recovery ratios for all of its lines.

The fare recovery rate is the ratio between a line’s cost of operation and fares received.  A bus line that costs $3 million dollars a year to run and takes in $750,000 in fares every year has a fare recovery rate of 25%.

A line with a low fare recovery rate requires high subsidies.  A line with a fare recovery rate of 100% breaks even and doesn’t require operational subsidies.

Here are the fare recovery ratios for the rail and light rail side from fiscal year 2014.  I will save the data on buses for another time.

Newark Division:

Northeast Corridor Line:   88.4%

Coast Line: 54.7%

Raritan Valley Line:  39.9%

Atlantic City Line: 19.6%

Hoboken Division:

Pascack Valley Line: 47.8%

Main/Bergen County Lines: 43%

Montclair-Boonton Line: 42%

Morris and Essex Lines: 48.6%

Light Rail:

Hudson Bergen LIght Rail: 33.2%

Newark Light Rail: 29.5%

River Line: 10.0%

Bear in mind that there is a certain amount of estimation that goes into calculating fare recovery rates because of a few factors:

  • Tickets are honored across lines.  A commuter holding a pass from South Orange to Newark can ride the Newark Light Rail for Free.  A one way ticket from New York to Edison is good for travel to other stations in zone 13, so i can be used for travel to South Amboy, for instance.  It’s unclear how revenue is allocated in these situations.
  • On many lines, the majority of passengers transfer to complete their trip.  When  Main and Bergen County Line riders board a train to New York at Secaucus, The revenue might be allocated to the Main and Bergen County Line, but they are also taking up seats on trains to the Montclair-Boonton or Coast Lines.
  • This is an average farebox recovery rate. It’s an average for the entire week.  The Northeast Corridor Line might have a weekday fare recovery rate of 95%, a Saturday rate of 70%, and a Sunday rate of 50%, with an overall average in the 80s.
  • Some Lines share stations, like the Northeast Corridor and Coast Line between Rahway and New York.
  • The Gladstone Line and Morristown Line are grouped together, as are the Main and Bergen County Lines, and the Northeast Corridor and Princeton DInky.

Continue reading

NJ Transit rail cuts would affect under 60 passengers a day

To fill its $60 million budget gap, NJ Transit is proposing a fare hike and service reduction package.  It’s mostly a fake increase, and the service cuts are very minor.

On the bus side a few routes are being eliminated or truncated and no light rail cuts are being put into place at all.  On the commuter railroad, two late-night trains are being eliminated.  These are train #1601 on the Pascack Valley Line, the 12:45 from Hoboken, and train #1043 on the Montclair-Boonton Line, the 1:35a, from Montclair State.

According to NJT’s presentation on the cuts, train #1601 has an average ridership of about 40 passengers a night.  For comparison, the Pascack Valley Line had an average of 7,650 riders on weekdays in 2014.  It would not be unreasonable to speculate that the train before #1601, which leaves at 10:42pm, would be moved about an hour later to that passengers can still get home at night.

The equivalent train on the weekends, #2101, which leaves Hoboken at 12:45 am on early Sunday and Monday mornings, isn’t slated to be cut.

Transit advocates have protested this cut by saying it would be hard for patrons to get home from late nights at the theater (which in many places would be considered a shockingly tone-deaf comment!).  Perhaps the board of NJ Transit could be convinced to keep train #1601 on Friday nights/early Saturday mornings, when ridership is probably higher than other days of the week.

On the Montclair-Boonton Line, the train proposed for elimination, #1043, sees less than 20 customers per night. During the week, the line carries 16,300 passengers a day.

#1043 is a shuttle train that meets a train from Penn Station Continue reading

Weekend transit use has increased by up to 50% since 2000

In New York City, subway ridership is up, especially on weekends. In Brooklyn, L trains have been getting more and more crowded on the weekends, as hipster crowds flock to (and from) Williamsburg and other gentrifying areas.  This has prompted the MTA to run trains more frequently on the weekends.

The same general trend is at work in the Garden State.

NJ Transit’s weekend ridership surged between 2005-2008, after which it has largely plateaued with a slow economy and then fare hikes.Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 9.31.18 PM

Sunday ridership on the NJ Transit system (bus, light rail, and train) stood in the 190 thousands before 2005.  Now, Sunday ridership is about 300,000.  Saturday ridership has also risen by about 100,000.

While NJ Transit has added more weekend service on many bus lines and now runs weekend trains at far better frequencies than it did 10 years ago, this isn’t universally true.  Ridership has grown despite service cutbacks, like those on the Morris & Essex lines, where weekend trains run once an hour instead of twice an hour as they did in 2002.

Path ridership has also grown considerably Continue reading