New Jersey

Making Links in North Jersey

North New Jersey Transit Plans

Passaic-Bergen and Northern Branch Corridors would improve cross-county connections

New Jersey, it seems, is excited about its transit systems. Just a day after Delaware River Port Authority officials announced that they’d be pursuing a major expansion project in Philadelphia’s suburbs, New Jersey Transit reached an agreement with a private railroad operator to connect Hawthorne and Hackensack with a transit line. The Passaic-Bergen connection, if built, would run eight miles on an existing freight corridor and stop at nine stations in Hawthorne, Paterson, Elmwood Park, and Hackensack in two counties.

The project will use diesel multiple unit (DMU) light rail cars and cost between $150 and $200 million to build. It will serve an estimated 1,800 riders a day. The line won’t require significant track work, because the corridor is already operated by the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway (NYS&W); in all likelihood, NJ Transit will negotiate to run passenger trains during the day and freight trains at night, much like the River Line, which only operates until 10 pm on weekdays. Work on stations and sidings could begin in the next few months, with operation by 2012. A connection to a Main Line commuter rail station will be within walking distance in Hawthorne; the line will pass over or under the Bergen County and Pascack Valley Lines, but there will be no transfers for lack of adjacent stations.

The project’s low projected ridership has much to do with a variety of structural problems with the line: few people are expected to need to take the eight mile (or less) journey between the affected towns, and the connection to the Main Line rail corridor will still leave these commuters fifty minutes or more away from New York Penn Station, including a transfer at Secaucus Junction. The 2017 opening of the ARC tunnel, which will allow Main Line trains direct access into Manhattan, will shorten commutes, but not by a huge amount. The construction of the Passaic-Bergen connection, in other words, isn’t going to change commuting patterns dramatically.

But what if the project were extended towards the Hudson River to shorten commutes and improve accessibility between areas that currently lack a fixed-corridor transit option? As illustrated in the map above, NYS&W’s tracks extend down to North Bergen at the terminus of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system, and then extend to Croxton, near Secaucus. With a future extension of this project towards North Bergen, commuters in Hackensack and Paterson could have a direct connection to the Gold Coast of Hoboken and Jersey City. With a prolongation further south and a few hundred feet of new track, the system could head straight into Secaucus Junction, where connections to all of New Jersey could be made. In short, this project could be the start of a brand new day for transit in North Jersey.

This is where the Northern Branch Corridor, also pictured on the map, comes in. This line would extend north directly from the North Bergen light rail terminus to Tenafly, hitting the towns of Fairview, Ridgefield, Palisades Park, Leonia, and Englewood along the way. Though that project isn’t as far along and remains in planning, its construction in conjunction with the extension of the Passaic-Bergen line would make North Bergen Junction into a veritable grand central. Trains could operate on the Northern Branch using the same vehicles as planned for the Passaic-Bergen line, because both projects will be designed to use DMU trainsets.

13 replies on “Making Links in North Jersey”

The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail has Bergen in its name because it was originally supposed to go to Bergen county. The Passaic-Bergen connector and the Northern Branch (Bergen county) were supposed to be branches off of the line that has been completed (in Hudson county). There was also supposed to be a new commuter line along the West Shore Line, between the Northern Branch and the Pascack Valley line which went through the Meadowlands. All those projects took a backseat to the ARC/THE project and were going to be re-thought depending on the feasibility of connecting these lines (especially the Northern Branch and West Shore Line) to the new tunnel.

This is a map of the original proposal:

It was my understanding that the original plan is considered by many to be the best, especially since it can be completed before 2017. Although, there are many who would prefer the one seat ride on the Northern Branch to Penn with a transfer to the HBLR instead of more frequent light rail service on the Northern Branch with a transfer to a commuter line or ferry. The Passaic-Bergen Connector should definitely be an extension of the HBLR. Does anyone know why it is not being envisioned this way in the map above? Is it an issue of cost or conflict with freight or both? Would an extension of the electrical HBLR line need new track and be too costly? Paterson and Hackensack are certainly dense enough to support frequent LR service and a direct connection to Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City, etc.

The West Shore Line isn’t in very good shape. It’s single-track, without electrification, and with grade crossings that have no gates to prevent cars from crossing when trains pass through. It can and should be rebuilt to modern standards, but it’ll take money. Either way, commuter rail makes more sense than light rail. DMU light rail has a terrible track record – the River Line is a failure, even as the HBLR is booming.

A one-seat ride to Penn Station isn’t going to happen – unlike the Main Line and Pascack Valley Line, the West Shore Line has no access to Secaucus that would enable it to turn east. Even if it could, the dual-mode diesel-electric locomotives on the market can get electricity from third rail, not overhead catenary. The NJT is buying dual-modes that can be powered by catenary, but they’re still under construction, and incredibly expensive.

I wonder about New Jersey’s enthusiasm for diesel trains. I understand they’re cheaper, and maybe much easier to use in tandem with freight. Unfortunately, they smell and wear out, and are really susceptible to the price of gas. I used to work in Camden, near the riverline. The main station smelled of fumes something awful. I live near the trolleys in Philadelphia, and it is much more pleasant.

All the same, it’s great to see service expansion in New Jersey. I just wish there were expansion on this side of the Delaware as well.

What are the prospects for turning these DMU lines into overhead catenary at some future date, though? If getting DMUs on the tracks now can help build ridership, increase revenue and so on, maybe it makes the argument for stringing the more expensive overhead wires stronger down the road.

That may be true, but I think you’d still need to get new cars. So, if the DMU becomes popular, it’s very hard to switch until you buy enough electric cars to replace. (someone correct me if I’m wrong on this.)

Alon –
I’m not sure it’s fair to argue that the River Line is “failing.” The line – which was built very cheaply and which runs on a single track for much of its right of way – is now attracting 9,000 riders a day, which isn’t huge, but is still pretty good for this.

I don’t think that DMUs are the best, but they’re a cheap start. The fact is that New Jersey is putting in DMUs on lines even as it continues to expand the electric commuter rail system, rebuilds and expands the Newark light rail system, is extending the HBLRT south, and builds a massive new tunnel under the Hudson. The point is that there’s a limit to how much can be invested at the same time. (Whether or not this investment makes a future investment in electric LRT or commuter rail on the corridor very unlikely is a slightly different question…)

Robert –
Theoretically, you could put in the catenary and still use the DMUs on the line as you replaced them with electric LRTs. The opposite would not be true (if for some reason you took out the catenary).

There is another problem with Passaic Bergen; there are stations missing, mostly in Bergen County between Hackensack and the Passaic County Line. Towns have opted out. NJT, The Bergen County Executive and Board of Freeholders need to educated the borough councils that a station stop is smart for property values.

Next, I’m I missing something? The Passaic Bergen Line crosses the Pascack Valley line (a bridge) equidistant between Essex Street and Anderson Street Stations immediately adjacent to Hackensack High School. It would be worth studying the potential of a new station and transfer point here. The ride to Hoboken is about 25 minutes to Secaucus about a 15.

Rather than a station, another great investment would be connecting the two lines at that very point near Hackensack High School. There is a great deal of public property there that would make it fairly painless. Then NJT could forget about the DMU’s entirely and use traditional NJT diesel service.

Yonah: Riverline gets 9,000 riders a day, but HBLR gets 40,000. In addition, NJT light rail is incredibly expensive, with a farebox recovery ratio of, I believe, about 25% (the commuter rail has a ratio of 67%). They don’t break it down by line, but I suspect what pulls the average down is Riverline, since diesel has higher operating costs than electric and the passenger count there is so low.

Even if a good DMU could be suited for Bergen-Passaic light rail, it would be hard to find such a DMU. Most light rail vehicles manufactured are electric; finding diesel ones is a pain, which is why NJT is spending so much time and energy on dual-mode locomotives for 25kV AC catenary. Just today a Danish classmate explained to me how Denmark’s lack of electrification on its mainlines has created massive delays in train delivery; the new trains were supposed to be delivered by 2004 but are only beginning to be delivered now. Delays happen with EMUs too but not on such a scale.

Alon –

Look at the link I included in my post.

NJ Transit had intended the West Shore line to be connected to Secaucus via new track through the Meadowlands.

About the River Line, isn’t this just a discussion about how much we are willing to subsidize mass transit? Doesn’t the Staten Island railroad have even less farebox recovery with slightly more ridership than the River Line? Should we tear it up and tell everyone to drive or replace the railway with a busway? Would the farebox ratio be that much better if it were electric? In my opinion, rail transit is always heavily subsidized and has poor service at the beginning, but it leverages denser development and eventually brings about its own solvency and better service

I agree that EMUs are better than DMUs, but you have to start somewhere, no?

The SIR has a low farebox recovery ratio because it’s free, unless you’re going to or from St. George. The problem is not high operating costs, but low fares; I’d be all for making SIR commuters pay the same fares as everyone else. And although all mass transit is subsidized in the US, there are degrees of subsidy, ranging from that of the NYC subway and DC Metro to that of the SIR and NJT light rail.

I don’t agree that DMUs lead to EMUs in the future. There are no plans currently to electrify Riverline, or to build a DMU West Shore Line light rail and electrify in the future. It’s the same problem with BRT – it’s supposed to be a stepping stone toward electrified rail transit, but in practice it never is.

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