New Jersey Transit delivered some good news to residents of Princeton and South Jersey this week, but there’s no reason for commuters who live along the agency’s popular Raritan Valley Line to break out the confetti and noisemakers — at least not yet.
Riders on the Atlantic City Line and Princeton’s “Dinky” train should see full service restored on May 24. Service on both lines has been temporarily replaced with buses to help the agency meet a federal deadline to deploy a safety mechanism known as positive train control.
But an NJ Transit spokeswoman said yesterday that service restoration for the RVL’s off-peak direct trains to New York City is “still pending,” while the agency continues to work on the PTC project and deal with an ongoing locomotive engineer shortage.
Changing trains in Newark
Extending the RVL outage is raising concerns that the trains may remain sidelined far longer than the temporary disruption originally announced by NJ Transit. Without direct connections, commuters must change trains at Newark Penn Station, lengthening the ride and running the risk of missed connections.
Making matters worse, local officials say they’ve been unable to maintain a dialogue with NJ Transit officials after sending a letter seeking more information at the beginning of the year. The issue is likely to come to a head next week when NJ Transit officials are scheduled to host public events in the heart of RVL territory in Westfield and Somerville.
Positive train control is a GPS-based system of sensors installed along a stretch of track that can be used to prevent accidents when trains are moving too quickly or having trouble braking. The sensors communicate with onboard equipment in a locomotive that slows or stops the train when necessary.
Rail agencies across the country, including NJ Transit, had until the end of 2018 to either fully install PTC or complete enough of the work to qualify for an extension from the Federal Railroad Administration, pushing out the deadline by two more years.
Off to a slow start
In New Jersey, the PTC installation got off to a slow start during the tenure of former Gov. Chris Christie. But Gov. Phil Murphy, who took office a little over a year ago, made it a top priority, and NJ Transit made the service changes to help ensure the deadline would be met. Murphy announced late last year that NJ Transit had made enough progress to qualify for the extension, and his belief was confirmed this week when the FRA officially informed NJ Transit that it had pushed back its deadline to December 2020.
“This approval recognizes all of the hard work that so many of our employees and contractors performed over the course of 2018,” NJ Transit executive director Kevin Corbett said in response.
The original announcements about the suspensions of the Atlantic City Line and the Dinky, which connects the town of Princeton and Princeton University to the Northeast Corridor’s Princeton Junction station, indicated both of those changes would only be temporary and that things would be going back to normal in early 2019. The same information was provided at the time to Raritan Valley Line commuters after the off-peak direct trains into New York were also suspended.
NJ Transit provided a long-awaited update on Wednesday when officials said trains will begin running again along the Atlantic City Line and on the Dinky’s tracks on May 24. That means both services will be back to normal in time for the start of the summer tourism season. The announcement drew an immediate statement of praise from Murphy.
“I am pleased to see that the Princeton Dinky, which is so important to thousands of commuters, and the Atlantic City Rail Line, which is a key part of the lifeblood of the Jersey Shore, will be operating in time for Memorial Day weekend and the kickoff to the summer tourism season,” he said.
No word on the RVL
But there’s been no update for when things will get back to normal for the RVL, a service that carries more than 23,000 daily passengers, many of whom use the line to get to jobs in New York. Asked for more information yesterday, spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said, “NJ Transit continues to address a continuing equipment availability, as positive train control installations, maintenance inspections, and testing continues.”
Earlier this year, members of the Raritan Valley Line Mayors Alliance sent a letter to NJ Transit asking for an update on the status of the direct trains. Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said yesterday that the mayors group is encouraged to hear service-restoration dates have been announced for the Atlantic City Line and the Dinky. But she also said it feels as if RVL riders have become “forgotten commuters.”
“We were told the direct trains would resume in January and it’s March and we can’t even get an answer,” she said. “These few off-peak trains are the only direct trains on RVL, despite our growing ridership. They made a difference for our commuters and we need them back in service.”
According to a schedule distributed by state lawmakers, NJ Transit officials are planning to meet with RVL commuters on March 6; first at the train station in Westfield beginning at 5 p.m., and then at the train station in Somerville at 6:30 p.m.