The Times of Trenton reports that Ewing, NJ is looking into transit upgrades centered on West Trenton Station, which lies in the township’s borders. Mostly this consists of direct bus service from the station to Downtown Trenton, Trenton-Mercer Airport (the back side of which is a stone’s throw away), and New Brunswick. The station itself is to be renovated, and the parking lots are to be expanded.
The SEPTA/CSX West Trenton Line, on which the station sits and marks the end of SEPTA territory, was formerly the Reading/Central Railroad of New Jersey’s intercity route from Reading Terminal to Jersey City and Newark. This service, whose flagship trains were the New York supercommuter-oriented Wall Street and Crusader, outlasted both of its host railroads. Through-service ended in 1981, and NJDOT-operated connecting service on the New Jersey side only lasted another year afterwards. As you might expect, the slightest glance of attention has caused the usual railfan suspects to light up in excitement and call for the reactivation of train service north of West Trenton. Much as I admire where they’re coming from, that would be a waste of resources that are just as scarce east of the Delaware as they are west of it. The proposed bus connections, done right, are a much better deal for riders.
First, there’s the route. North from West Trenton, the freight-only section of the line passes through mostly rural and sparse exurban portions of Mercer and Somerset Counties, before joining up with NJT’s Raritan Valley Line at Bound Brook. The population available today for walk-up service to West Trenton Line stations is epsilon. While in Pennsylvania, SEPTA West Trenton Line has superior catchment and ridership than the Trenton Line, in New Jersey the ex-Reading route misses the population and job centers of Princeton and New Brunswick well to the west. The first truly major destination on the line is the terminal, Newark Penn Station. This does not bode well for potential ridership, and since terminal capacity at Newark, Hoboken, and New York is limited, West Trenton service would have to come at least partly at the expense of Raritan Valley Line service west of Bound Brook.
The second problem is speed. No train via Bound Brook is ever going to beat a bus connection to the Northeast Corridor for speed. Neither the State of New Jersey nor CSX has any interest in spending the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to upgrade West Trenton Line tracks to handle passenger trains faster than 79 mph. In fact, CSX would prefer to keep passengers off its mainline as much as possible, to prevent congestion and interference on its line. SEPTA has given up trying to thread the needle with CSX, and sought and received a $10 million TIGER grant to separate its tracks from CSX’s between Neshaminy and West Trenton. Meanwhile, ALP-46A-hauled trains are approved for speeds up to 125 mph on the NEC. And until the Gateway project is built, NJT is completely slot-constrained at New York Penn Station, and would prefer to run fewer, longer trains, as much as possible. The purchase of the ALP-45DP dual-power locomotive now gives a technical possibility of direct service to New York from non-electrified lines like Raritan Valley (or West Trenton), but NJT is being very conservative about where and when it uses its limited fleet of ALP-45DPs. In any event, an ALP-45DP hauling eight Multilevel cars from West Trenton is a significantly worse deal for NJT than an ALP-46 hauling ten. And West Trenton probably can’t generate enough traffic to fill eight cars.
So frequent, direct bus service from West Trenton to Trenton seems like an ideal compromise between the status quo and a restoration that isn’t happening. The present bus connection is a slow local bus that takes far too much time to go such a short distance. The additional connection to New Brunswick is just a faster connection for Pennsylvania residents to the mid-corridor job centers, bypassing downtown Trenton traffic. And the link to Trenton-Mercer Airport opens that transit-inaccessible airport up to non-drivers for the first time, just as its main runway has reopened and Frontier Airlines is announcing new routes (and airport parking is no longer free). Running that as a short extension of the Trenton-West Trenton shuttle is a no-brainer.
The proposal to expand parking raises its own concerns. The first is, always, whether private transit-oriented development would be a superior use of the land. It almost always is, (park-and-ride is considered harmful), and the only reason I’m skeptical of its being able to succeed in Ewing, is that there’s already a large, walkable settlement in Southern Mercer County with a good transit connection to Philadelphia. It’s called Trenton, and it doesn’t attract much private-sector development, and not for lack of trying, nor for natural advantages. More and more bimetropolitan households (one earner commuting to the New York MSA, a second commuting to the Philadelphia MSA) are choosing to locate in Bucks County instead of Mercer County, a reversal of the historical trend, and Ewing Township doesn’t bring enough to the table to reverse that shift by itself. Still, one has to wonder at the amount of space being given over to parking at West Trenton, and ask how many Jakriborgs would that be?
The other concern, which is somewhat contradictory to the first, is the legalization and regularization of ride-and-park at West Trenton Station, which is increasingly popular as the reverse-commute market from Philadelphia to Mercer County grows. If West Trenton Station and its parking lots aren’t going anywhere, then we ought to get the best value for them, and that involves getting more than one rider per parking space per day, and leveraging our transit network to get cars out of Central Philadelphia where they do the most harm.