A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to make New Jersey Transit formally study the feasibility of establishing direct rail service into New York City on the Raritan Valley Line, arguing that a one-seat ride would provide the region served by the busy line a big economic boost.
With no opposition, the state Senate approved legislation last week calling for a detailed review of what it would take to establish a full-time direct service into Manhattan, including any potential costs. The RVL is one of NJ Transit’s only lines to not have a direct link into Manhattan. Commuters who use the RVL to go to New York City currently must change trains at Newark Penn Station, where they run the regular risk of being delayed by problems on several connecting lines.
Local officials have long pushed for a one-seat ride by highlighting studies that show the impact it could have on businesses and property values, and NJ Transit started to offer direct service during off-peak hours in 2014. But those trains have been suspended by the agency as it has struggled with an engineering shortage and several operational challenges. In the face of that disruption, lawmakers are pushing for more answers, and they believe a formal study will help get to the ultimate goal of having a one-seat ride at all hours.
“Full-time direct service to Manhattan would shorten commutes and raise property values,” said Sen. Tom Kean Jr., a prime sponsor of the legislation, after last week’s Senate vote. “This study will help us find the answers we need to give NJ Transit commuters the quality of service they deserve,” said Kean (R-Union).
Engineer shortages, equipment upgrades
The Raritan Valley Line, now connecting High Bridge in Hunterdon County with Newark Penn Station in Essex County, serves more than 23,000 daily riders from nearly 30 communities. It was historically a diesel-powered line, something that required trains to stop at Newark Penn Station to allow commuters to get on electric-powered trains that could navigate the electrified North River Tunnel into New York City.
But NJ Transit added hybrid locomotives to its fleet nearly a decade ago, and that allowed for the RVL to expand service directly into Manhattan. However, by then there was already a packed daily schedule for the more than 100-year-old rail tunnel, which is owned by the federal government and must also accommodate Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains. Still, in response to pressure from local officials, the off-peak direct service debuted on the RVL in March 2014.
Last year, the direct trains were suspended by NJ Transit amid an engineer shortage that Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has blamed on his predecessor Chris Christie. NJ Transit’s ongoing push to install Positive Train Control safety equipment across its system was also cited as a factor for taking the direct off-peak trains offline. The most recent hiccup has been ongoing repair work inside New York Penn Station, according to agency officials.
But officials in localities served by the line have been trying for months to get more answers out of NJ Transit and want to see the agency make a bigger effort to find more tunnel slots for RVL trains despite the already packed schedule; that schedule allows for a maximum of 23 trains an hour through the tunnel, including those from much busier lines like the Northeast Corridor.
During a legislative hearing earlier this month in Trenton, Bruce Bergen, chairman of the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition, said the ongoing lack of direct service punishes homeowners in the communities surrounding the line by holding down property values. The coalition has long maintained that since the line accounts for roughly 10 percent of all NJ Transit ridership it should get at least 10 percent of the available tunnel slots — which would be two each hour.
Looking for ‘fair share’
“All we seek is an equitable allocation of available peak-hour trains,” Bergen said when he testified before the Senate Transportation Committee.
“We’ve been the forgotten line,” added Lisa Mandelblatt, a longtime resident of Westfield. “It’s time for us to have our fair share. I know it’s complicated, but complicated does not mean it’s impossible.”
Under the legislation that passed the full Senate last week, within six months of the bill’s adoption NJ Transit would have to issue a report that would provide a detailed analysis of the feasibility of providing direct, full-time RVL service into Manhattan. The report would have to assess the potential cost of providing full-time service and outline “any factors that may delay or increase the cost of providing the service.” It also would have to provide an analysis of why the off-peak direct trains that were running up until last year have been suspended.
“Raritan Valley Line customers should, at the very least, be able to anticipate when they can expect one-seat rides to resume on the line they rely on,” Kean said. “Forcing them to wait years with little to no information is unconscionable.”
Officials from NJ Transit declined comment on the bill when reached on Friday, citing the agency’s general policy of not weighing in on pending legislation. The agency’s recent notice about the ongoing repair work at New York Penn Station indicated the RVL’s off-peak direct trains would remain suspended “through summer 2019.”