On a day when more than a dozen of its trains were canceled for lack of engineers, New Jersey Transit had a modicum of good news for some riders Monday — the planned restoration of limited direct Manhattan service on the busy Raritan Valley Line.
So-called one-seat service on the line, which starts in High Bridge, had been suspended last September so NJ Transit could install the positive train control safety system, which meant that all of its 23,000 daily riders had to switch trains in Newark.
Starting Nov. 4, direct service to and from Penn Station in Manhattan will be restored during non-peak hours — on all five midday trains, and three out of four evening runs. Riders on trains operating during peak commuting times will still have to transfer in Newark, as they have in the past.
“Today’s announcement is a long time coming — too long, frankly,” said Gov. Phil Murphy at a news conference in Westfield with NJ Transit officials and others. “I fully understand the inconvenience that commuters have faced since these rides were suspended last September. Starting here and today, we’re taking a major step to getting things right.”
Train engineers still in short supply
“Getting things right” includes having sufficient engineers available to operate all scheduled trains, but staffing deficits continue to plague the struggling mass-transit agency. By 10 a.m. Monday, NJ Transit announced that it had been forced to cancel 13 trains due to callouts by unionized engineers entitled under their contract to take the Columbus Day holiday off.
The agency is graduating the second of six classes for additional locomotive engineers this week, but officials acknowledge that staffing levels won’t be full for months.
“For us to get to a place where we feel comfortable that we can cover all of these call-outs on all of the lines and live within our union obligations, I think that you’re seeing spring of next year as really the target,” said state Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, a member of the NJ Transit board of directors.
Still, riders on the Raritan Valley Line cheered Monday’s announcement.
“Oh, I’m so happy, it’s going to change my life,” said Ayse Wronski, who for more than a year has had to change trains in Newark, a process that takes more than a half hour, even on good days.
“It just makes me feel much more comfortable getting on one train at New York Penn Station and arriving in Westfield, without having to change,” she said.
Rider ‘boom’ could stress service even more
Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of Raritan Valley Line mayors says “getting things right” means parity for their commuting constituents with other major NJ Transit rail lines, where all passengers enjoy direct-to-Manhattan rides, even during peak rush hours. They note that their region has a booming population — with 10,000 more residential units planned along the route — that will require faster, more reliable commuter service.
“Each of us have met families who are considering moving to another town with direct train service,” said Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, co-chair of the Raritan Valley Mayor’s Alliance. “As mayors, we are seriously concerned about the economic impact to our home values and the ability to attract businesses.”
Riders, too, said that those using the Raritan Valley Line should have access to one-seat Manhattan trains during peak commuting times, like many NJ Transit passengers living in the central part of the state.
“Our line is the third most-populated of any of the commuter lines, and we have zero,” said Bruce Bergen, chairman of the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition. “All of those other lines have one-seat ride during the peak. So it’s a matter of fairness.”
Officials say, though, NJ Transit faces obstacles it can’t control. Until a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel is built, all the peak-hour slots into New York Penn Station are occupied by other lines. At present, the proposed replacement, the Gateway project, has yet to receive a funding commitment from the Trump administration.
For now, NJ Transit officials say they will try to offer some relief to Raritan Valley riders, making Newark train-transfers faster and easier by keeping them on the same platform.
The officials were also asked about the possibility that one of the other lines could cede a peak-hour train slot, which would then be made available to Raritan Valley riders.
“There’s a lot of complicated chess pieces on the board,” Murphy said, “and that’s the most obvious one.”
But none of the officials would commit Monday about making the move.