Ewing Township has modest but promising plans for West Trenton Station

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.

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SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but it’s been six and a half years since the last of former SEPTA GM Faye Moore’s “doomsday plans”, an annual exercise in political hostage-taking with the goal of obtaining more stable funding for SEPTA. The proposed cuts were severe and carefully targeted to inflame the most politically active communities, like the Airport Line (business travellers), the Chestnut Hill West Line (affluent city-dwellers in West Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill), and all weekend service (anybody who does things on weekends), while also having just as much cover as financially necessary to provide negotiating leverage. Eventually, the political brinksmanship worked, and SEPTA traded a fare hike on its riders every three years for Act 44, Ed Rendell’s deal with the Republican Legislature for the support of transit systems across all 67 counties of the Commonwealth, funded by the PA Turnpike Commission.

So when this week, Moore’s successor Joe Casey came out with his own “doomsday plan”, one that eliminated nine entire Regional Rail Lines, truncated two more, and eliminated all trolley service across city and suburb alike, and generally made Faye Moore’s threats look like a dinner party invitation, there was a strong feeling of deja vu among SEPTA watchers and veteran riders, and the reaction was muted grumbling punctuated by occasional howls of outrage. After all, with Act 44 broken by the failure to toll I-80, isn’t this just going back to the hostage-taking days of yore?

SEPTA today and projected 2023
SEPTA’s Rail network, before and after starvation

No. This plan is far, far more terrifying than any SEPTA has come up with before. Because after careful examination, I can only come to the conclusion that there was no political agenda at all in the formulation of this plan. This Doomsday Plan is a dispassionate listing of things that are going to fail that SEPTA does not have the money to replace.
Continue reading SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.

NHSL Bridgeport Viaduct closes tonight for at least four months: what you should know

The Bridgeport Viaduct, which carries the Norristown High Speed Line over the Schuylkill River between its namesake borough and Norristown Transportation Center, is in bad shape. Bad enough that SEPTA announced last December that it does not believe it will be safe to ride over after this summer, unless repairs are started pronto. Unfortunately, the capital funding crisis has meant, among other things, that basic maintenance like fixing the bridge has been put off for years, until now when it’s critical. Fortunately, SEPTA was able to scare up just enough money to do a temporary fix to this critical link in the regional network. It’s not really enough, but it will do for now, until the deadlock breaks in Harrisburg.

Starting tomorrow (Monday, 8 July), the NHSL will not serve Norristown. Shuttle buses will be provided. Mondays through Fridays, the NHSL will go as far as Bridgeport, and shuttle buses will run between Bridgeport and NTC. Weekends, NHSL trains will terminate at Hughes Park. Since Hughes Park is not an ADA accessible station, the shuttle buses will instead run from Gulph Mills, and stop at DeKalb and Bridgeport stations on their way to NTC.

The fix being done now is replacing the ties installed in 1985 and at the end of their service life, plus some band-aids applied to structural elements. It will not cure the entire litany of structural problems of the 101-year-old bridge, but it will allow service to reopen this year. NHSL service over the viaduct does not have a fixed reopening date, but it is expected to happen in November. That’s better than we expected in December, when we thought “temporarily suspended” might mean for Norristown what it meant for West Chester, Newtown, and Bethlehem. But we need to keep leaning on legislators in Harrisburg to fund SEPTA sufficiently that we aren’t repeating this dance in three years, either here at the Schuylkill on the NHSL, or at Crum Creek on the Media/Elwyn Line, which SEPTA has indicated is the most endangered bridge in the system after Bridgeport. Our predecessors skimped on prevention; now we need many pounds of cure.

Bridgeport Viaduct: the canary in the capital funding coalmine

I was out of town on business these last two weeks, and plenty has been going down in my absence which I’ll be playing catch-up on, but the really big news is SEPTA’s announcement that it will be closing the Bridgeport Viaduct next summer due to deteriorating safety conditions.

The Bridgeport Viaduct is the Norristown High Speed Line’s single-track approach across the Schuylkill River between Bridgeport and Norristown. SEPTA is concerned about rotting ties and structural corrosion, and estimates that the 100-foot-high bridge needs $30 million in total work; $30 million that SEPTA does not have. SEPTA’s capital funding has been inadequate for decades, now, and now a major piece of infrastructure is on the brink of failure due to the inability of Harrisburg and Washington to properly fund SEPTA’s capital needs, or to arrange other funding sources as was done for NPT. Governor Corbett has now been in office over 700 days, with no plan yet put forward for funding any of the Commonwealth’s urgent transportation needs, transit or highway, despite the collapse of the Act 44 regime created in the waning days of the Rendell Administration. This is a disgrace, and a failure of democracy that this state of affairs has been allowed to persist.

And of course, SEPTA’s actual capital spending is often not within its own control. SEPTA’s main priority is the Federally-mandated Positive Train Control system, due by 2015, without which it cannot legally run the Regional Rail system. Also, it’s easier for SEPTA to get earmarked funding for a glitzy, visible project (like the renovation of Wayne Junction station), and much, much harder to get more system-critical repair and back-end improvements funded (like the replacement of electrical equipment at the adjacent Wayne Junction substation). Politicians love ribbon-cutting photo ops, and it’s easier to arrange one of those at a new platform than a replacement high voltage transformer. So, there has been something of a silent race on for the first major failure due to institutional neglect. Bridgeport Viaduct has won that dubious prize, over stiff competition from the Crum Creek bridge on the Media Elwyn Line (which has already failed once in 1986; the stone stanchions of the older structure are still visible in the woods adjacent to my alma mater) and various critical parts of the ex-Reading electrical system.

Obviously, the connections to Regional Rail and Frontier Division buses at Norristown make up a large chunk of the NHSL’s ridership. The bustitution of the segment will be a hardship even if work begins immediately; SEPTA estimates that the Viaduct will be out for four months at minimum. With any luck, SEPTA’s splashy pronouncement of doom can shake some loose change out of Harrisburg or the delegation in Washington, but such brinksmanship really ought not to be necessary in a functional society. This maintenance was a predictable expense; the bridge is 101 years old. If SEPTA had a predictable adequate funding source and the ability to set reasonable spending priorities, we would not be having this conversation. But it doesn’t, and we are. May it please, please be for the last time.

Trains are better than buses

There is a part of me that wishes that the sentence that makes up the subject line of this post wasn’t true, but in many ways it is objective reality.  Because people prefer to ride trains over buses, as an almost universally revealed sentiment.  Of course, people still ride buses, even when given a direct choice between the two modes, but that choice is usually driven by a confounding factor: the bus is cheaper, or closer, or cleaner, or accessible, or takes a more direct path, or runs more often.  But the person standing at the corner of Broad and Allegheny and going to jury duty at City Hall who chooses to take the 4 or 16 bus is a rare person indeed.

Trains are also good policy: 

  1. Trains can be powered by electricity, which can be generated from any number of sources and is priced stably, instead of diesel fuel which is increasingly expensive and subject to wild price swings based on world events.  (It worth noting that SEPTA, despite being located near the heart of the Northeastern US natural gas boom/glut, has studied adopting CNG as a bus fuel and has not found any savings to be had over diesel-electric hybrids.)
  2. Trains scale better than buses.  Each traincar can hold more people than a bus, and trains can be run at long lengths and at higher frequencies than buses.  The number of buses required to fully replace the capacity of a full subway line at rush hour frequencies exceeds one per minute.  Every bus requires a driver, and skilled human workers cost scarce money.  Six-car subway trains are operated by lone motormen on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, and Regional Rail trains only require an engineer and a conductor, although longer trains have assistant conductors for revenue collection purposes.
  3. Trains are not subject to traffic conditions, nor do they contribute to congestion, which is a critical advantage to anyone who has found themselves caught in Center City or on the Schuylkill at rush hour.
  4. Trains are physically durable objects.  The surviving Silverliner II Regional Rail cars were retired this year; they had been originally delivered in 1963.  Running a bus for 30 years, much less 49, is an act of insanity almost on the level of wearing a Tony Romo jersey to an Eagles game.

The main problems with trains are the lack of flexibility (once the tracks are in one location, they don’t move, ever, even when travel patterns change) and the high costs of startup capital required to build rail lines in the first place, orders of magnitude over running buses over pre-existing streets.  This is not to entirely dismiss other problems like accessibility, but those are the main reasons we don’t have more rail lines than we do.  But, as I laid out in my basic thesis, we get to reap the benefits of many generations of rail investment, and generally do not need to find the hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars to build new lines (although there are obvious candidates should SEPTA ever chance upon a stray billion).

What trips SEPTA up, as it tries to exercise effective stewardship over this legacy, is a lack of institutional flexibility.  It is not used to being anything other than an agency with an unstated mission of managed decline.  Its internal culture does not encourage experimentation and innovation.  As an example, bus routes make curious detours or stop just short of major destinations because that’s where the old streetcar lines that the buses replaced used to run, despite the buses being advertised as not being tied to the fixed routing of the street trackage.  SEPTA is a multimodal agency, and does better in its multimodality than many comparable agencies, but it must do even better.

The primary low hanging fruit for improving SEPTA is comprehensive fare reform.  SEPTA’s fare system is notoriously complex, but it creates many unhelpful incentives.  The most obvious is the very high ($1.00) cash transfer fare, which incentivizes people to take long bus rides to and from their destinations, instead of changing to a subway train and only using the bus as a feeder.  Other problems include the low service frequencies on Regional Rail, and the high fares to be found outside the traditional peak-hour-peak-direction service, a facet that has seen negative progress in the last decade.  The New Payment Technologies project under way at SEPTA is an excellent opportunity to try new approaches to fare policy, an opportunity SEPTA shows no signs of wanting to take advantage of.  This subject can (and will) be the focus of an entire series of posts.

One final note on the steel wheel vs. rubber tires issue: Philadelphia was once a city built around its streetcar lines.  For the most part, those lines are no longer with us, having been replaced by buses.  While that loss is a major tragedy (and an unpunished crime), it’s sadly the case that restoring those losses is not a wise use of scarce transit capital funding.  Even when the rails are mostly intact, as on Route 23, it is my position that streetcars compatible with Philadelphia loading gauge are not a superior enough option to warrant the spending.  Again, this will be a future focus on this blog, with particular attention given to the remaining trolley lines in West Philadelphia, on Girard Avenue, and in Delaware County, and to the particular problems of Route 23 as one of the longest and most heavily used lines in the system.

Basic Thesis: Philadelphia Maneto

Philadelphia is by no means the perfect urban form, and it has a lot of political handicaps to overcome, some self-inflicted and some imposed from outside.  But it has a lot going for it, and a lot of that includes legacy infrastructure from the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads, and the PRT/PTC and Red Arrow Lines.  This city would not be nearly as livable if we didn’t have the physical remnants of Alexander Cassatt’s and Merritt Taylor’s corporate empires scattered everywhere.  In fact, that’s the only way, in the long term, to deal with a far-flung and slowly growing city of 1.5 million, in the heart of a 5.8 million person metropolitan region (and a 50+ million megalopolitan region).   The 20th Century American dalliance with roads and the automobile is souring, and here we cannot accommodate the scale of volume that we are already attempting.  Bicycles are a good last-mile solution, but don’t scale to the distances we often travel in our daily lives (a problem not as prevalent in more compact cities like Portland or Boston).

In short: we have trains, and thank goodness, because we’re going to need them.