Yesterday, at 5:39a, the first scheduled passenger service pulled into the new Pennsauken Transit Center, NJT’s newest rail station connecting the River Line and the Atlantic City Line. Festivities, dedications and a general atmosphere of celebration have settled over South Jersey. But was this station really what South Jersey, and the Atlantic City Line in particular, needed? Well the answer to that is a definite maybe. Transit is political, and politics is the art of the possible, which in this case meant landing an ARRA grant to cover the station’s relatively low $40 million pricetag. But if you got passed over in this round, and have a memory long enough to realize that this is the first expansion or serious capital improvement of South Jersey rail transit since the River Line opened in 2004, then you have definite cause to worry.
Consider for a moment the state of affairs up until this weekend. The River Line connects Trenton and Camden, not only serving those cities as employment centers in their own right, but also feeding other, higher-order transit lines connecting on to New York and Philadelphia. It’s not super-speedy, but it runs on 15-30 minute headways and gets the job done. The Atlantic City Line connects AC to Philadelphia, but in practice few choose to stay on board west of Lindenwold, where PATCO offers a cheaper, more direct connecting service that is faster for much of Philadelphia. The AC Line runs less than hourly. At the point where the AC Line soars above the River Line as the former approaches the Delair Lift Bridge, neither line has a station. Passengers wishing to transfer must use PATCO, making two transfers at Walter Rand TC in Camden and at Lindenwold.
So, for everyone going down the shore from the Burlington County river towns, the lack of a direct connection is a 250 foot tall middle finger, lit up in bright flashing neon. The extra hassle and expense of the NJT-PATCO-NJT trip probably drove many to ditch the train as a bad idea, and either take a casino bus or drive. And who can blame them? The double-transfer route takes 2 hours and 21 minutes from Delanco, station-to-station; driving takes 1 hour and 23 minutes plus traffic, avoiding Bellmawr. But will the new connection lure actual travellers away? Since Google Transit is not yet updated and therefore no help, we have to pore through NJT’s eye-bleedingly awful PDFs of their (better in practice) paper schedules, which shows that the direct connection Pennsauken TC is optimized for will allow a River Line passenger to save 30 minutes by taking the next light rail train to connect to to the same ACL east, for a total station-to-station time of 1 hour, 51 minutes. That’s good enough for time parity with a connecting express bus from Camden, which is… something. $40 million of something? We’ll see next year, when we see ridership numbers for a peak shore season.
I will say, as someone with professional ties to Atlantic City, that had Pennsylvania and Delaware not legalized table games three years ago (as well as other considerations), the Burlington County river towns would have just received a big boost as potential places to live. But that counterfactual is one Atlantic City is going to have to learn to live with. For casino workers juggling two part-time jobs, one in AC and the other at Parx, this is a huge lifeline.
But shouldn’t this be as big a boon to Burlington-Philadelphia riders, or Camden-Cherry Hill riders? The answer to that is “not really“. The elephant in the room is still PATCO, which runs at rapid transit headways between Philadelphia, Camden, and Lindenwold. For virtually anybody whose final destination is east of the Schuylkill, it’s still going to be advantageous to stick to the River Line/PATCO connection at Walter Rand TC in Camden. In fact, for the traditional commuter, the Atlantic City Line runs exactly one train into Philadelphia during the morning rush, arriving at 30th Street at 8:18a. For those of you still wondering, the technical term for that is “worse than useless“. The circuitous ACL route from Lindenwold to 30th Street via Delair is the final blow: a distance that is 12.8 miles, as the crow flies, takes 42 minutes to traverse. That’s an average speed of 18 mph, with only two intermediate stops. Who would pay $2.00 more per trip for this? Camden-Cherry Hill riders are going to stick to the (faster and cheaper) 450 and 406, assuming that their destination is within walking distance of the Cherry Hill ACL Station, and save themselves the long uncertain detour through Pennsauken.
So where is the win here? It’s an embarrassment, but the win comes from fare co-ordination. NJT has signalled for all the world to see that it can only accomplish fare co-ordination internally, so for anyone who is taking a trip that runs NJT-PATCO, NJT-PATCO-NJT, NJT-SEPTA-NJT, NJT-PATCO-SEPTA, etc., you’re out of luck, because there’s no help coming, apart from this. An NJT commuter rail pass is good on the River Line at all points at all times, so a $116 Pennsauken-Philadelphia monthly will get you to 30th Street all the way from Trenton, if you were disposed to hinge your life on that one lonely morning rush hour train; the same principle holds true for those going east towards Atlantic City.
PATCO, of course, had no incentive to forgo it’s $1.40/$1.60 pound of flesh for transfers at Camden (west/east respectively). But neither did they have any incentive to allow NJT to price people off of the ACL and onto PATCO; PATCO trains, as a rule, run full across the Delaware, while NJT’s do not. DRPA-funded price support to hold Philadelphia-Lindenwold fares equal across modes shouldn’t even be a question for either agency. That particular incentive is independent of whether there is a transfer available at Pennsauken or not, but the fact that Pennsauken-Philadelphia fares have been set at $4.00 (in the shadow of the Betsy Ross Bridge, which is $5.00 round-trip) is an absurdity.
(If your browser does not display a map immediately above this line, it also lives here. Pennsauken TC is the red pin, SHORE is the blue diamond, North Philadelphia is the orange pin, ZOO is the green diamond, 30th Street is the green pin, and major PATCO points are yellow pins.)
And the Atlantic City Line still hardly meets its target market where it lives; going west, after plodding through SHORE interlocking onto the Northeast Corridor, it gets shoved onto whatever track Amtrak has available on its way into ZOO interlocking and 30th Street. It notably does not stop at North Philadelphia station, which would provide it with a direct connection to both the Broad Street Line, as well as the Trenton nd Chestnut Hill West Lines. For those riders at Trenton that NJT now expects to funnel down the River Line and through Pennsauken, the missed opportunity to utilize the already existing infrastructure on the west bank of the Delaware has to count as a loss. Greyhound has withdrawn from the direct North Philadelphia-Atlantic City market it previously served from near Olney Terminal for decades, leaving a hole in the market. And all three railroads running through North Philadelphia (Amtrak, SEPTA, and NJT) would have gotten a huge win if the $40 million had been spent on a flyover for westbound NJT ACL trains at SHORE, so they could avoid interfering with northbound Amtrak and SEPTA trains. In fact, if the bids for constructing that flyover had come in as high as $40 million, something would be dreadfully wrong with the RFP; it ought to be cheaper.
Looking east, the Atlantic City Line has far too much single-track, resulting in its terrible scheduling. Even if the NEC can’t accommodate more NJT trains in rush hour, more and longer passing sidings ought to be built so that trains can run hourly or better east of Lindenwold, if not east of Pennsauken. Remember, the present service is worse than useless, and keep repeating that phrase to as many NJT executives and NJ elected officials as you can. Because it’s embarassing, and it’s true.
And the silent winner of Pennsauken Transit Center may be Conrail Shared Assets. Before construction began on Pennsauken TC, the Delair Bridge ran as two entirely segregated single-track operations, the north track for NJT and the south track for Conrail freight running to Pavonia Yard in Camden. This minimized the opportunities for either railroad to screw with the other in terms of dispatching and interference, but the truth is that the combined traffic of both passenger and freight is abysmally low enough that it ought to take the barest minimum of dispatching skill to keep both sides perfectly happy and moving. It’s a testament to the frosty relations between freight and passenger operators, and the overall brain drain in the industry, that neither side was willing to put in the effort to clear that low bar. Now, as a result of passenger trains stopping on the bridge approach in Pennsauken, NJT and CSAO are going to have to learn to live with each other again, as the line shifts to a simple shared bidirectional setup. Again, it should not have taken $40 million in construction for this to happen.
So, while Pennsauken TC was sufficiently planned out to serve as a shovel-ready project in 2009, when the global economic sky was falling, it’s unclear that we, as the residents and commuters of Greater Philadelphia, will realize as much benefit as the boosters are hoping for. At least this was a project that didn’t require much in the way of earthmoving, which held the cost down, so the downside is contained. And it’s spurring operational and fare co-ordination, which is good to see even if it ought to have happened years ago. But South Jersey deserves better than what it’s gotten, and has low-hanging fruit that can improve the lives of travellers for minimal investment of capital dollars. NJT’s current capital woes are self-inflicted, but funding for South Jersey projects is usually politically-motivated anyway; unfortunately for South Jerseyans, Governor Christie seems to be secure enough in his re-election to not be in a giving vein. Unless South Jersey wants to wait eight years for the next Governor to face re-election, it should be looking heavily into ways to finance its own projects. Conveniently, it already has an excellent means of raising funds to reduce car usage into Atlantic City along the Philadelphia-Atlantic City corridor: the (tolled) Atlantic City Expressway. Go ahead, ask the South Jersey Transportation Authority how much it would like to clear the effects of heavy bus traffic off of its maintenance schedule, and at the same time create better peak load management for the summer.