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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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?

A Letter to the Past: Jonathan Chait, August 2002

Philadelphia-based freelance journalist (and one of many official reasons I will never have a paid writing gig) Jake Blumgart must have been doing some background reading last Wednesday, because he tweeted this excerpt from Jonathan Chait’s 11-year-old article on Delaware for The New Republic:

Because I am the type of person who falls for linkbait like this all the time, I clicked through and started reading. And immediately started gesticulating in rage towards my laptop screen. The opening two paragraphs, below the jump:
Continue reading A Letter to the Past: Jonathan Chait, August 2002

Don’t know what you got, ’til it’s gone

As I believe I’ve mentioned, I moved this summer, and I had a six week period in between when my old lease in Point Breeze ran out and when my new place in Francisville was ready for move-in. In the meantime, I crashed in the spare bedroom of a friend and former flatmate in Swarthmore Borough. And, while I’m immensely grateful for the hospitality, it was a soul-crushing experience to be constantly reminded, for the entire time I was out there, how terrible it is to be transit-reliant in the suburbs.

The sad part is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Swarthmore has comparatively excellent transit service for a suburb. It’s traditionally the top station on the Media/Elwyn Line by ridership. The 109 bus, which runs through Swarthmore on PA-320 on its way from 69th Street to Chester, is one of the best in the Victory Division for frequency (and, relatedly, ridership). And yet service, by absolute standards, is just not that good. The Media/Elwyn Line runs once-hourly outside of the rush hour peaks, which is fine for a pre-planned trip to a scheduled event in Center City, but no good for a more spontaneous walk-up trip. The 109 has the speed and comfort drawbacks of buses, and only goes to the asphalt wasteland of the Baltimore Pike STROAD corridor in one direction, or Chester in the other. Chester is either the region’s most distressed or most undervalued asset; one can connect to almost anywhere in southeastern Delaware County, as well as the Airport, Wilmington, and Newark, but the density of lines on the map belies their inconvenience. Most of the bus routes at Chester TC run once an hour; the Wilmington/Newark line runs once an hour to Pennsylvania points, and less often than that to Delaware. Meanwhile, the rider experience of actually making a transfer at Chester TC is marred by the obvious signs of severe and prolonged economic distress that confront you in literally every direction in Pennsylvania’s oldest city.

Contrast this to my new flat, still piled high with boxes and disassembled shelves. I am literally around the corner from the Girard Avenue stop on the Broad Street Line, where locals run 5-8 tph through much of the service day, plus express and Ridge Spur service, often good for another 5 tph and 4 tph, respectively. The 4 and 16 buses provide additional service on Broad Street, and the 2 runs every 20 minutes off-peak on 16th and 17th Streets. The 15 trolley (currently bustituted for track and platform work, for the balance of August) is plainly visible, but barely audible, from my front stoop. It runs every 15 minutes. These are the frequencies at which I no longer even check to see when the next trip is, I just put my sandals on and start walking, unless I’m connecting to an infrequent Regional Rail line. The very act of checking schedules is as likely to prolong my wait time by causing me to miss a train, trolley, or bus, as it is to shorten my wait time at all.

Now, granted, this is a location that is fantastically well-served, even by city standards. That’s not an accident, given my search criteria. And maybe I’m just spoiled. But go back to that point I made about the service being so frequent that I don’t check schedules for ordinary, nonconnecting rides. This is the psychological hump that most people need to satisfy before they will consider living without access to a car. I recognize that I’m personally unusual in my willingness to choose transit over driving, even when I have the unrestricted choice (I live in a household with more than one working adult, but only one car, a slowly shrinking demographic, according to Jon Geeting’s crunching of Census Bureau data). But I think that the basic concept of transportation you don’t have to think about is the critical one, and that the personal details are going to be mostly trivial. In the city, in addition to walking or biking around neighborhoods, transit can fill that role. In the suburbs, even in dense, walkable/bikable suburbs like Swarthmore, it can’t. Or, more precisely, as of now, it doesn’t.

So, what frequency qualifies as “frequent enough”? Obviously, this is not going to be the same number for everyone, nor is it even going to hold equal across modes, nor should it. The average person is prepared to wait longer for a faster ride, a more comfortable ride, a more predictable and reliable schedule, or waiting in a place that offers more protection from the elements. Of course, on all of those points, it provides an edge to grade-separated rail over mixed-traffic bus routes, with intermediate-order transit modes occupying intermediate positions. But for guidance, we may do well to look to the great bus transit capital of America, Los Angeles. In 2006, LACMTA published a map of all routes that ran every 12 minutes or fewer at midday, on the stated assumption that it was the service frequency that allowed riders to dispense with carrying timetables. Later versions of the map, including this one from August 2012 [PDF], relaxed that condition to 15 minutes. The original 12 minute criterion is probably the best for local buses in city traffic, but the 15 minute criterion takes in all of LA’s skeletal rail transit system at midday, which would explain the change. So, as a first approximation, I would say that “frequent enough” headways here in SEPTAland are 12-15 minutes on local buses, 15-20 minutes on trolleys and light rail, and 20 minutes on short Regional Rail lines, and 30 minutes on long Regional Rail lines. Clearly, that’s a long way away for most of the system, outside of rush hour, but it’s a good set of goals for the highest-priority lines.

In home news, I’m going to still be digging out from boxes for the next while, but I’ll try to get back to a full posting schedule before Labor Day.

FY2014 and NPT: The Monthly Pass Break-Evens

One measure of unlimited passes is: at what point do they become cheaper, per ride, than paying for rides individually? This ratio is one that calls for balance from any transit agency. Lower pass prices encourage the prepayment of fares, which is good for the agency financially, and increases discretionary ridership that drives mode shift to transit. But on the flip side the agency may be leaving revenue on the table if riders were willing to pay more, and also may increase cost liability if riders with unlimited passes make heavy use of their privileges. As SEPTA’s famously complicated (but also increasingly oversimplified) fare system comes up for a refresh, it’s worth running through some numbers and seeing where SEPTA is setting — and moving — that line for its riders.

I’m restricting myself to monthly passes in this post, and not running the weekly numbers, because monthly passes are far superior deals, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. And because after having made this batch of calculations, I already want to stab my eyes out.

Notes:

  • All single rides are calculated at the token/smart media rate (transit) or at the advance purchase one way ticket rate (railroad) except where indicated otherwise.
  • Direction indicated is AM Peak.
  • Bold indicates a change of more than one (1) ride per month.

...................................Now............Proposed 
...............................Rides Pass req'd Rides Pass req'd
Broad/Ellsworth - City Hall... | 54 | Transpass | 52 | Transpass
Drexel Hill Jct - 34th/Market. | 33 | Transpass | 33 | Transpass
19th/Market - 54th/City Line.. | 45 | Zone 1... | 52 | Transpass
Matsonford - Bryn Mawr (NHSL). | 54 | Transpass | 44 | Zone 1
Bridgeport - 69th St.......... | 51 | X-County. | 44 | Zone 1
Gulph Mills - Valley Forge.... | 54 | Transpass | 41 | Zone 2
13th/Market - King of Prussia. | 51 | Zone 3... | 41 | Zone 2
East Falls - 30th Street...... | 23 | Zone 1... | 22 | Zone 1
Suburban Station - Sedgwick... | 21 | Zone 1... | 22 | Zone 1
University City - Airport..... | 14 | Transpass | 16 | Zone 1
Sedgwick - Suburban Station... | 29 | Zone 2... | 29 | Zone 2
Swarthmore - Market East...... | 29 | Zone 3... | 29 | Zone 3
Temple University - Wilmington | 25 | Zone 3... | 26 | Zone 3
Suburban Station - Trenton.... | 18 | Zone 3... | 19 | Zone 3
Neshaminy Falls - Market East. | 29 | Zone 4... | 29 | Zone 3
Wilmington - Temple University | 29 | Zone 4... | 30 | Anywhere
Ridley Park - Claymont........ | 24 | IM-1..... | 32 | X-County
Paoli - Overbrook............. | 28 | X-County. | 32 | X-County
Lansdale - Suburban Station... | 31 | Anywhere. | 30 | Anywhere
Trenton - Suburban Station.... | 22 | Anywhere. | 22 | Anywhere
Wayne Junction - Ardmore...... | 24 | Zone 2... | 16 | Zone 2
Manayunk - Trenton............ | 17 | Zone 3... | 19 | Zone 3
Colmar - Bala................. | 21 | Anywhere. | 22 | Anywhere

I think the first object lesson has to be that, if you don’t transfer and don’t incur a zone charge (or “premium route fare”), the Transpass is a terrible deal compared to tokens. The second is that the changes to Intermediate and Via Center City riders were clearly pulled from a hat in 1234 Market, because clearly no design or thought went into them.

I should acknowledge Ben Kabak’s 30-Day Metrocard Challenge as an inspiration for this post, which is much more one-dimensional than this, probably to his great relief. (I can’t find the relevant post, but after the most recent MTA fare hike on the first of this month, the break-even point on 30 Day Unlimited Metrocards inched back down to 48.)

What Williamsburg can tell us about two tracks and short trains

Stephen J Smith has a piece up at the New York Observer on how much capacity can be squeezed out of New York’s L line (14th St-Canarsie), in relation to a massive proposed development in Williamsburg. The answer seems to be “a lot”, and Smith does an excellent job in showing his work. A combination of signals upgrades and power system upgrades can yield a 38% increase in the available capacity of the notoriously crowded two-track line (in trains per hour); while new rolling stock, and new development patterns permitted on the streets above the subway in Brooklyn, can balance the loading profile of the trains and make that capacity more productive. It’s a good case study in how to get maximum leverage out of existing infrastructure. Important in New York, where resources are strained by a cost structure resulting in $1 billion/km subway construction costs, and important here in Philadelphia where resources simply aren’t available.

The Long and Short Of It

It’s almost treated as impolite to mention, but SEPTA’s Regional Rail system has a definite class structure to it. This is apart from, or perhaps parallel to, the actual class divides that separate the communities served, but I’m referring here to the differences created by the most fundamental attribute of the individual lines: length. Short lines and long lines are not in any sense equal. They operate differently, serving different purposes and different markets, and the determination to treat them as equals actually creates distortive effects to the detriment of the entire system.
Continue reading The Long and Short Of It