DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD

The Bergen Record is reporting that NJ Transit Executive Director and notorious fuckup Jim Weinstein is not long for his post.

Weinstein, 67, now appears to be on his way out. His faithfulness may not have been enough to overcome a series of high-profile failures that occurred under his watch, most notably, the agency’s ill-fated decision to abandon nearly 400 railcars and locomotives in flood-prone rail yards during Superstorm Sandy and its clumsy handling of Super Bowl transportation. Thousands of football fans were stranded at MetLife Stadium for hours because NJ Transit was unprepared for the 33,000 football fans that overwhelmed the system.

He is expected to be replaced by Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, a former senior vice president at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital construction program who is currently executive director at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

His pending departure comes amid growing dissatisfaction among NJ Transit employees, who complain of low morale and favoritism in the upper ranks; tensions with Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, who, as chairman of NJ Transit’s board, is Weinstein’s boss; and a commuter rail and bus system so plagued with breakdowns that some customers have told the board it’s no longer reliable.

It seems as though interpersonal politics, and not any kind of accountability for how badly NJ Transit has screwed the pooch under his watch, is the main reason for Weinstein’s departure. That’s a real pity. You’d think that, if there were ever a time that called for the establishment of command responsibility for a public official, it would be failure to protect almost half a billion dollars in public assets from a storm that was accurately predicted several days out. But no, the only thing that gets you fired in Chris Christie’s New Jersey is being no longer useful to Chris Christie. And as we know, Governor Christie is a classic windshield perspective politician with no use for transit in any form.

God help us all.

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Hold this thought

New Jersey Senate committee approves transit agency consolidation:

Should SEPTA and PATCO combine their commuter rail operations? Would North Jersey commuters be better served if PATH trains were run by NJ Transit or New York City’s MTA?

A plan to consider such mergers cleared a New Jersey Senate panel this week.

The resolution proposes the six commission members (two each appointed by the governor, Senate president, and Assembly speaker) would have 18 months to report their findings to the Legislature.

“We would question who is merging with whom. NJT/PATH? NJT/PATCO? PATCO/SEPTA? NJT/MTA?” Les Wolff, director of the New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers, said in an e-mail.

If the lawmakers want to expand rail service in the state, Wolff said, there are already a number of proposals, including one to restore commuter rail service between Camden and Glassboro. But a lack of money has kept all the expansion proposals on the shelf, he said.

This is the third time such consolidation legislation has been introduced in the state Senate; in each of the last two biennial legislative sessions, the measure was unanimously approved by the Senate but died in the Assembly.

I have 20+ posts in my draft folder, but this is something that’s in the news now that I want to come back to.

So, yes. Hang on to this one.

In the land of the unmoving, a limping transit system is king

Philadelphia had a rough day today, as up to a foot of snow fell on most of the region in a storm that arrived faster and lingered longer than initial forecasts had predicted. As the deep Arctic freeze settles in for the night, it’s worth commending SEPTA and PATCO, while they took considerable lumps, for staying mobile while the city and region ground to a halt around them.

Google Traffic layer, midday, 21 January 2014. Source: Philareddit
You wanted no part of this shit today.

As the snow approached whiteout conditions near noon, area employers quickly saw reason (or at least the threat of liability), and started sending workers home en masse around midday; this included the State of Delaware, which shut down at noon, and the City of Philadelphia, which locked up at 12:30. Area roads quickly filled with cars restricted to 45 mph on highways, and 25 mph on DRPA’s four bridges.

Sadly, this early rush hour meant that large numbers of Regional Rail traincars were left sitting fallow in yards and storage tracks across the region, waiting for a traditional rush hour — and traditional rush hour staffing levels — that was still four hours away. Still, trains managed to get people out of Center City, packed like sardines on trains that bypassed Temple and UCity riders for hours. Much better stories were told on the Subway, El, PATCO, NHSL, and trolleys, as each of those lines operated with rock-solid reliability. PATCO suffered speed restrictions on the bridge and 10-minute snow schedule headways, but that was the worst of it. Again, if you were leaving from 30th Street, Suburban, or Market East Stations, you got to your home station safely in no more than an hour extra time today, even if you were standing or otherwise discomfited.

It bears pointing out, if the storm hasn’t driven the point home enough already, that higher frequency of transit service doesn’t just mean higher quality of service in normal circumstances, but also greater resiliency in abnormal situations. SEPTA Regional Rail could have cleared crowds out of Center City much faster if its standard midday headway were 30 minutes or better, as opposed to the once-hourly trains that run on the majority of its lines today.

One local transit agency managed to cover itself in lack of glory, though not for success or failure of people-moving: njtransit.com went offline at the height of the storm, as people tried to look up information on unfamiliar trains and schedules. With NJT being the host transit agency of Super Bowl XLVIII in 12 days, it’s good to know that those tens of thousands of out-of-town visitors won’t be able to rely on NJT’s IT infrastructure on game day, either. Also, Jim Weinstein still hasn’t been fired for gross incompetence yet.

Tonight, the city and suburbs remain under a snow emergency. Cars parked on snow emergency routes will be summarily towed. PPA’s Center City garages are, in a rare twist, properly discounted. Owl bus routes will not run, but the Subway and El will run all night, every 20 minutes. A handful of suburban bus routes, and the 35 Loop, are suspended. School District of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Archdiocese, and the vast majority of suburban schools have already announced closures. Snow will continue to fall, and blow, and drift, overnight. And while PennDOT and the Streets Department will probably have major arteries cleared, the capillaries of the street system are probably boned for the next foreseeable hours. In the morning, the safest most reliable methods of transportation will be exactly what you should have expected they’d be from the beginning: transit, and a pair of good boots.

Stay warm, Philadelphia. We’ll shovel out in the morning. And the trains will run.

One more trip around the sun

Happy New Year! Time to ring in 2014 with a whole palletload of service changes!

One final reminder: with all this extra transit service tonight, you’d have to be very stupid to drive while intoxicated, and you’d have to be very foolish to drive tonight with all the very stupid people who will inevitably find their way onto the roads. Stay safe!

My own New Year’s plans involve radio silence through to the 2nd of January, so best wishes to everyone for a better 2014.

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.

Sandy + 1

Tonight marks the one year anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Sandy.

As you may remember, in addition to all the devastation caused by the storm, New Jersey Transit compounded the disaster in the Garden State, when it negligently left a third of its fleet in vulnerable, low-lying storage yards to be flooded. While the damage was proximately caused by wind and wave, we should remember that this was a man-made disaster. The agency’s hurricane plan (with no implementation details) was ignored in its entirety, and the agency’s own prediction of the storm surge was a classic case of “Garbage In, Garbage Out”.

When the storm was past, the damage done, and riders and taxpayers demanded to know why half a billion dollars of their rolling stock was left to drown, NJ Transit obfuscated, deflected, and self-justified their failure.

NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein is still in his position. Neither he nor anyone else at the agency has been held accountable for its failure during Sandy. Weinstein’s boss, Governor Chris Christie, is up for re-election next month, and the latest polling shows him leading by 33 percentage points. Christie has said repeatedly that Weinstein and his team retain his full confidence.

The Pennsauken Transit Center is open. Was it worth it?

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. Continue reading The Pennsauken Transit Center is open. Was it worth it?