STRIKE WATCH: NJ Transit Rail Operations

Conditions are favorable for the development of negotiation breakdown capable of producing a strike. If deadlock has either produced a strike or radar has indicated intense walkout activity, then a Strike Warning will be issued.

All 17 unions representing workers at NJ Transit Rail may either strike or be locked out beginning at 0:01 on Sunday, March 13th.  A second Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) cooling-off period expires on that day, leaving both labor and management free to pursue “self-help”.  The unions have been working without a contract since 2010.  NJT, and its political masters in the Christie Administration, have been steadfast in their rejection of the union’s proposals and the two PEBs’ arbitration, so the likelihood of a work stoppage is high.

NJT bus and light rail lines are separate divisions of NJT and will continue running.

The direct effects of a strike on the Philadelphia area will be somewhat low.  The 554 bus will run extra trips between Atlantic City and Lindenwold, and PATCO has agreed to cross-honor NJT fares between Lindenwold and Philadelphia.

However, the New York/North Jersey area anticipates being unable to replace NJT Rail’s capacity.  This will impact Greater Philadelphia-New York supercommuters, including those who take SEPTA or NJT’s River Line to Trenton, and those who drive to Hamilton or Princeton Junction.  NJT’s contingency plan, announced at a press conference this morning, includes 40,000 additional seats into New York on buses, ferries, and PATH, but the state-operated rail lines carry 105,000 into Gotham every day.

The removal of NJT service would result in a meltdown of North Jersey’s transportation networks, to a degree being described in apocalyptic terms.

In the event of a service interruption, selected regular NJT and private bus routes will see increased service.  Additionally, five temporary park-and-ride routes will operate, including Hamilton Station-Newark Penn and Metropark Station-Harrison PATH.  Rail tickets will be cross-honored on buses, light rail, PATH, and ferries.

While the official advice is to carpool, whether to the official park-and-rides or all the way in, neither NJDOT, nor the Port Authority of NY & NJ, nor the NJ Turnpike Authority, has committed to HOV restrictions in the event of a service interruption. This blog considers the failure to do so to be completely insane.

There are, as of yet, no designated park-and-ride locations on Staten Island in the contingency plan.

Highway traffic in North Jersey is expected to come to a standstill on all major roads inside the I-287 beltway.  Through-traffic between New England (excluding Fairfield County, CT) and Pennsylvania should divert to a route across the Hudson no farther south than I-84.  Traffic to NYC suburbs should cross no further south than the Tappan Zee, if at all possible.  Routes using I-287 itself may be unreliable as well.

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A brief summary of my remarks to the NEC FUTURE hearing

I wasn’t expecting to speak at Monday night’s hearing on the NEC FUTURE Draft EIS, mostly because I failed to do my homework and realize that they would be accepting spoken testimony.  So I winged it, with some hastily jotted notes.  Here are the highlights of that extemporaneous speech, heavily revised and extended, as best as I can reconstruct it. The best criticism of the NEC Future proposals is and remains Alon Levy’s “When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire“, which you should read if you have any interest in the subject.  Summaries of the presentation and hearing as a whole have been written by (in publication order): Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sandy Smith of Philadelphia Magazine, and Jim Saksa of PlanPhilly.

 

My name is Michael Noda, and I am a writer on transportation topics.  I am also an advisor to The 5th Square Political Action Committee, but my views tonight are my own.

My main motivation in speaking tonight is to see a better NEC with the ability to serve many more passengers over both commuter and intercity distances.  That’s why the proposals that have come out of the NEC FUTURE EIS process are so disappointing.  They aren’t coherent about delivering either performance or capacity upgrade value for the money.  In fact the $290 billion price tag for Alternative 3 (“Transform”) is so far divorced from reality that it calls the entire process into question.  Alon Levy suggests that performance upgrades equivalent to Alternative 3 can be had for less than $15 billion in capital upgrades.  I’m far more of a cynic, and think it would cost three times as much as Mr. Levy thinks it will.  So instead of achieving radical transformation of the Northeastern economy at 95% cost savings, I think it can only be done at 85% cost savings.  That is still an incredibly damning indictment of the process to date.

Some of that cost bloat comes from the high costs associated with American public-sector construction.  Far more comes from scope bloat and the inclusion of entirely unnecessary so-called “improvements” that add billions of dollars in cost, for negligible benefit.  The proposed tunnel down 12th Street here in Philadelphia, to serve a new deep-cavern station under Market East, included in Alt 3 (“Transform”), has been widely mocked and derided, and rightly so.  The economic center of gravity of this city today is at or very near 30th Street Station, and splitting future Amtrak service between two downtown stations is not an improvement for any riders, even the ones with origins or destinations immediately adjacent to 12th and Market.  The most optimistic cost estimate of that tunnel could provide gold-plated versions of necessary rail infrastructure upgrades, throughout the Greater Philadelphia area.

But the terrible and wasteful ideas aren’t confined to Alt 3.  Alt 2 (“Grow”) includes an inexplicably perennial proposal to detour the NEC to the Philadelphia International Airport.  That might be a good idea for American Airlines.  If they agree, they should get out their checkbooks and pay for it.  The Airport detour has no transit value. Not enough people are in the market to ride Amtrak to catch a flight out of PHL.  Even if we build it, they won’t come.  The large cities on either side of us have three airports each, and have a combined better selection of flights than we do.  And the airports nearest us, BWI and Newark Liberty, already have excellent connections to the NEC.  Again, maybe there is particular benefit to American Airlines and its passengers, but looking after their interests is not the remit of either Amtrak or the Federal Railroad Administration.

In sum, the project alternatives are wonderful proposals in the Land of Infinite Money, and if the FRA is willing to tell me how to get there, I will emigrate at the first opportunity.  But in the meantime, we live here, where our resources are finite, and determined (in this context) by our political masters.

Of much more interest to Philadelphians, and much higher return on public investment, is the prospect of improvements to interlockings and curves along the NEC that would allow for more and faster trains through the existing plant.  In this area, the biggest problem areas are at: Frankford Junction, site of the Amtrak 188 derailment last year; Zoo Junction immediately north of 30th Street Station; and PHIL interlocking, where SEPTA’s Airport Line joins the NEC, and inbound SEPTA Wilmington Line trains cross over the NEC at-grade.  The straightening of curves to 4000 meter minimum radius, the installation of high-speed turnouts to replace switches designed by the Pennsylvania Railroad for far slower trains, and other such improvements will shave significant time from the journeys of suburban and intercity passengers alike.  This process should be done with closer attention and respect paid to the surrounding landscape; the FRA’s Alt 2 seems to show a straightening of the curve of the NEC between Zoo Junction and the Schuylkill River, which is laudable except that the area inside that curve is also known as the Philadelphia Zoo, and to say that that land is not available for any at-grade or elevated option is to put it very mildly.  As well, the construction of additional flyover ramps at these locations will greatly increase the amount of concurrent traffic the NEC can handle, by allowing simultaneous intercity and suburban movements where today those trains conflict and must stop and wait for each other; this would be especially valuable on suburban rail routes like the SEPTA Wilmington/Newark Line and the NJT Atlantic City Line, which suffer from low ridership as a result of their abysmally low frequency.  All of these are very unsexy fixes that will not result in ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities, but they will improve the NEC to true High Speed Rail standards within a realistic budget.  And even in Alt 1 (“Maintain”), the alternative mainly focused on such bottleneck improvement projects, there is little attention paid.

Again, I take no particular joy in making these criticisms.  My call for efficiency is is rooted in a desire for abundance, that is, for an NEC that can live up to its potential as a High Speed Rail connection between the cities of the Northeast.  But the only realistic way to achieve that goal — a goal I do believe the FRA genuinely shares — is to guard vigilantly agains unnecessary scope bloat and excessive unit costs.  An attentive agency ought to have realized that a price tag that is twice as much per kilometer as maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya, for inferior service, was a red flag that its process was broken, and taken steps to correct itself before releasing the Draft EIS to the public.  That opportunity may have passed, but it is not too late for the FRA to correct its course.  I sincerely hope that it does so.

Thank you for your time.

Dear New Yorkers

If Governor Andrew Cuomo’s continued blithering idiocy manages to stall Amtrak’s Gateway tunnels until after one or both of the Hudson River Tunnels fails,

and if Mayor Bill De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton succeed in wiping out the Times Square pedestrian plazas, one of America’s most successful urban street interventions, over a handful (sorry) of boob-related incidents,

please, please, please, do not all move to Philadelphia at once.  There are eight million of you, and as we are in the midst of proving, we have problems when more than a half million people or so show up at any one time.  (We will totally take that first half million, though.)  Also, you seem to have a penchant for electing dumb fuckups who ruin everything, and that is about the last thing we need to do.

 

More in sympathy than in gloating,

-STP

Wednesday morning service disrupted on PATCO and SEPTA after storm

The violent thunderstorm that swept over Greater Philadelphia Tuesday evening, disrupting all modes of travel during the evening rush, has apparently let the magic smoke out of at least six area rail lines. The most serious outage is PATCO, which is entirely without electric power and does not expect restoration until after the morning rush.

New Jersey Transit buses will have three extra burdens this morning, since in addition to cross-honoring PATCO fares and contending with detours around storm-damaged roads, they will be carrying passengers from the Atlantic City line, which also remains suspended. NJT has, in its usual inimitable way, been less communicative about what is wrong with the ACRL and when they expect it to be fixed. The only statement that affirmatively said that service would remain bustituted through the morning was a tweeted @-reply:

And on the PA side of the river, SEPTA is reporting that the Media/Elwyn and Fox Chase Lines are out entirely, the Paoli/Thorndale Line is out west of Malvern, and the Norristown High Speed Line will be suspended between Norristown and Radnor. The NHSL outage is the only one that has been definitively stated that it will last through the morning. Also, bus routes may be on detour due to debris. As usual, the most up-to-date information can be found on SEPTA’s eye-bleedingly designed system status page.

SEPTA surging extra service to to West Trenton Line and other routes to accommodate displaced NEC riders

SEPTA announced Wednesday evening that it would be moving trains and buses to Northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County to meet increased demand on parallel routes, in the wake of service suspensions after the derailment of Amtrak Northeast Regional 188.

The centerpiece of the new plan is a near-doubling of service on the West Trenton Line. Free NJT-operated bus shuttles will connect Trenton Transit Center and West Trenton Station throughout the day.. Additionally, Route 14 bus service has been augmented, bus shuttles are running from Cornwells Heights to Frankford TC, and auxiliary parking lots near some stations have been opened. Details of the emergency plan are available on SEPTA’s website.

Most of the new West Trenton trains are expresses, running nonstop between Bethayres and Fern Rock TC, and running with D-stops between Bethayres and West Trenton. That is SEPTA-ese for “we don’t know how well these trains will hold a schedule, so show up a bit early and forgive us if we’re late.”

Amtrak riders can have their tickets cross-honored on the West Trenton Line, as well as the NJT bus shuttle, meaning both detour routes from New York to Philadelphia are fully cross-honoring Amtrak fares.

This comes after SEPTA ran longer trains and unscheduled extra trains on Wednesday to cope with the crowding. This new level of service is possible in part because the equipment normally assigned to the Trenton Line would otherwise be sitting idle, while SEPTA and Amtrak wait for the investigators to finish collecting evidence at Frankford Junction. Only in the off-peak hours does SEPTA have the equipment to run more trains under normal circumstances.

It is expected to be sometime next week before trains run can run on the Trenton Line again, and it is possible that the first hours or days after the reopening will only have one or two tracks available, in which case Amtrak may keep the limited operating slots for its own trains.

How to go around the Northeast Corridor shutdown after the Frankford Junction derailment

UPDATE 5/14: As of Thursday morning, SEPTA and NJT are co-ordinating detour service via the West Trenton Line.  SEPTA will be running a new weekday schedule with about twice as many trains as normal.  NJT will be providing free shuttle buses between West Trenton station and Trenton Transit Center.  SEPTA is also providing extra parking at West Trenton Line stations, extra Route 14 bus service, and peak-hour shuttle buses from the Cornwells Heights park-and-ride to Frankford Transportation Center.  Amtrak tickets will be cross-honored on NJT and SEPTA for the duration of the service outage.


In the wake of the derailment of Amtrak train 188 Tuesday evening, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is shut down indefinitely while investigators pore over the crash site at Frankford Junction.  In addition to the disruption to Amtrak service, SEPTA and NJ Transit services that run on Amtrak’s tracks through the accident area have been suspended indefinitely.  This is going to create a lot of hardship for riders for the foreseeable future, and while SEPTA has some alternate service suggestions for every Regional Rail station in the system, they tend to be rather slow, and unattractive to suburban riders who own cars and want a time-competitive trip into Philadelphia.  And driving in is not really an option; not ever, and certainly not while I-95 construction is ongoing.  So while SEPTA’s instructions are valid and fine as far as they go, I want to take some time to point out some of the other options available.

NJT River Line

NJT's River Line provides an alternate route from Trenton
NJT’s River Line provides an alternate route from Trenton

This will be the easiest and fastest way for people coming from Trenton, including connecting passengers from New York: From Trenton Transit Center, go outside and across Clinton Avenue to the Trenton River Line station.

From the Bristol/Croydon area, go over the Burlington-Bristol Bridge (toll $2.00 westbound only, no pedestrian access), and turn right onto Broad Street for the Burlington South station. As an alternate route, take the Turnpike Bridge to US 130 south, for Florence station.

From River Wards and Tacony going to New York, take the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge (toll $2.00 westbound only). Drivers have a straightforward path down River Road to Route 73/Pennsauken station, while the few hardy cyclists and pedestrians who try this and who don’t enjoy the prospect of being squished by New Jersey’s finest stroad engineering can use Temple Boulevard and Cinnaminson Ave to Palmyra station.

South Jersey’s DLRT line takes an extra half hour or so compared to SEPTA, but is quite inexpensive: a flat $1.50 all the way from Trenton to Camden. From Walter Rand Transportation Center, connect to PATCO or a NJT bus to Center City Philadelphia. BE AWARE that the River Line has a late start and an early last run, to maintain temporal separation from freight traffic on the line.  (It also takes the River Line a while to run end-to-end, so starting up and shutting down take time.)

SEPTA West Trenton Line

The West Trenton Line will be thronged, but there will be ways to beat the crush
The West Trenton Line will be thronged, but there will be ways to beat the crush

For many others, especially those with destinations in West or North Philadelphia, the SEPTA West Trenton Line will be the next best option.  There is an NJT bus that connects West Trenton station with Trenton Transit Center, but it runs peak hours only, so use that at your own risk.  Passengers connecting to and from NJT may want to co-ordinate and share cabs. Since station parking lots will be oversubscribed all along the line, park-and-ride customers should probably consider backup parking locations, especially Oxford Valley and Neshaminy Malls.  Both malls have an mediocre but serviceable bus connection to the West Trenton Line: Oxford Valley to Langhorne via the 14, and Neshaminy to Neshaminy Falls via the 58.  Neshaminy Mall to Neshaminy Falls station should be walking distance, but Bristol Road is narrow and fast and has no sidewalks, so I can’t recommend it in good conscience.

As of 8:52 Wednesday morning, SEPTA has announced that it is adding cars to trains and running unscheduled extra trains on the West Trenton Line to deal with the crowded conditions.

SEPTA Local transit

If you’re coming into the city from Torresdale, Holmesburg, Tacony, or Bridesburg, then congratulations, your local bus service doesn’t entirely suck.  Busing to Frankford Terminal and picking up the El is not the most fun thing in the world, but it will have to do for now.

SEPTA Chestnut Hill Lines


The Chestnut Hill West Line does not run through Frankford Junction, but it is suspended for now due to sharing an electrical circuit with the accident site.  If they manage to turn on the power to Hill West before the NTSB releases the site, that will be a big boon to the Northwest, but as long as it’s down, riders should switch to the Chestnut Hill East line or to local buses.  CHW riders should keep a close eye on SEPTA news sources for updates.
Chestnut Hill West service is operating as of Wednesday morning.

South Jersey

Atlantic City Line passengers, who have been blissfully immune to the vagaries of PATCO’s frequently-altered schedules, should prepare to connect at Lindenwold.  Have nextpat.co bookmarked to keep track of the mess. Pennsauken riders should take the River Line to WRTC and connect via bus or PATCO.

Systemwide cascade

Riders not on the suspended lines who have a marginal decision between two transit options should be aware of how their commutes may be affected by crowding and associated delays.  Park-and-ride customers who live roughly halfway in between the West Trenton and Warminster Lines may want to ride Warminster this week.  Not many LaSalle University students take the Chestnut Hill East line at Wister, but for those who do, the 18 bus to Olney Terminal may be particularly attractive for the rest of the week, and so forth.  SEPTA probably doesn’t have much in the way of rolling stock trapped on the Trenton Line, but checking that hasn’t been anybody’s priority yet.

Cross-honoring

As of 7:30am Wednesday, NJT is cross-honoring Amtrak tickets on the Northeast Corridor Line between New York and Trenton, and on the River Line between Trenton and Camden. After a communications delay, PATCO is cross-honoring NJT Atlantic City Line and Amtrak tickets. So Amtrak ticket holders who don’t mind taking quite a long time to get where they’re going can get completely around the suspension with their existing tickets.

Looking back, looking ahead: New Year’s roundup 2015

In the last night of the year, five things we’ll remember from 2014:

  1. The year of citizen action.  I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when Conrad Benner launched a change.org petition to get SEPTA to run the subways overnight.  But it worked, and now another petition has sparked progress on a second front, in Wilmington.  Can we look forward to more petitions working in 2015?  If the trend of well-informed riders asking for achievable, concrete, inexpensive improvements continues, then yes.  And we’ll keep you posted.
  2. Bridges needing fixing.  A once-in-a-generation maintenance project on the Ben Franklin Bridge has made this an annus horribilis for PATCO riders, but after the major work wrapped in the fall, it faded into the background noise of commuter complaints.  A much bigger splash was made by the I-495 bridge, and only by the grace of higher powers did that not end with a literal splash into the Christina River.  The traffic snarls around Wilmington started out on epic scale, but soon enough people found other ways to get around the closed bridge.  And when the bridge reopened before Labor Day, it was a reminder that, in an emergency, when you don’t have to worry about keeping traffic open, work can get done very quickly.  Something to keep in mind, or look forward to, as SEPTA prepares to replace the Crum Creek Viaduct.
  3. Communication über alles.  PATCO’s troubles finally forced it to copy SEPTA and start monitoring and responding to people on its official Twitter account.  (For the first day or so, whoever was working that desk was the unluckiest schmo in South Jersey.)  In the modern world, this kind of real-time interaction with customer service is a requirement, not an option.  (Hint, hint, NJT, hint, DART.)  SEPTA’s successful app for iOS was joined this year by a counterpart for Android, but its copious APIs continue to put SEPTA in a clear technical lead over peer agencies.
  4. Labor brinksmanship.  In the fractious relationships SEPTA has with its unions, the one thing we all thought we could count on was Regional Rail needing a very long lead time before a strike.  SEPTA turned that axiom on its head by deliberately provoking a work stoppage from the BLET and IBEW.  The first Regional Rail strike since the big one in 1983 only lasted 24 hours before President Obama could intervene.  That assertiveness set the tone for the protracted negotiations and mutual threats between SEPTA and its largest union, TWU 234, whose contracts expired in March and April.  TWU wouldn’t get a new contract until late in the night on Halloween, and it mostly just kicked the can down the road to 2016.
  5. Bringing the word to where people live.  Dear well-off suburbanites: If you drive through communities of the oppressed, you should be prepared to hear from them.  Just saying.

And five things to look forward to in the new year.

  1. SEPTA Key.  The future of fare payment is coming, and in addition to convenience, it’s going to open up a treasure trove of data about how people use SEPTA, and how to adapt the system to the riders’ needs.  Mmmm, data.
  2. PHL Bike Share.  It’s late, it still doesn’t have a sponsor, but when it comes, it’s still going to be a revolution in how we make short trips around town.  Spring can’t get here soon enough.
  3. The Papal Meltdown.  Not all of the news is going to be good.  When Pope Francis visits in September, the crowds on the Parkway are being predicted for the 1 million-2 million range.  That will overtax every road and every transit resource in the area.  Remember the 2008 Phillies parade and Live 8?   His Holiness is going to be even bigger.  Hope the planners are already crunching numbers to minimize the amount of agony going around.
  4. Don’t mourn, organize.  The 2015 municipal election cycle will provide a lot of good fodder for discussion.  For instance: the 22nd Street bike lane needs to happen, and Bill Greenlee needs to either stop resisting it or stop being in a position to resist it.  I’m not saying that Greenlee doesn’t know that a bike lane will save lives, and is insanely popular in his neighborhood.  I’m just saying he hasn’t done anything that would suggest that he cares.  Even if Greenlee wins re-election, Darrell Clarke, may find it necessary to throw Greenlee’s pro-motor-vehicle fetish under the (metaphorical) bus to preserve Clarke’s own chances of ever being elected mayor.  Good luck, everybody!
  5. Shiny new things with wheels.  SEPTA’s Rebuilding For The Future program and ongoing Amtrak equipment orders will mean lots of new, unfamiliar shapes will be in and around Philadelphia.  Although some of the new orders, like the SuperNova buses and the Viewliner II baggage cars, have already made their first appearances, many equipment orders will be either fulfilled or placed in 2015.  But while the railfans and busfans will have their fun, the real joy will accrue to the the riders, who will get faster, more comfortable, and/or more reliable rides out of all the new equipment.

It’s been a pleasure writing for you all this year.  See you in 2015!