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Light rail takes off in New Jersey

21st Century trams are operating within sight of New York skyscrapers. By Charles J. Lietwiler

On the former Jersey Central Railroad alignment to Newark an outbound car to west Side avenue sets down passengers before passing under the highway by a new underpass.- Picture Charles J. Lietwiler
On the former Jersey Central Railroad alignment to Newark an outbound car to west Side avenue sets down passengers before passing under the highway by a new underpass.- Picture Charles J. Lietwiler

On 15 April, in a light rain that lasted most of the day, the initial phase of New Jersey's Hudson-Bergen light rail project was formally opened for service, and trams are once again operating within sight of the skyscrapers of New York. For the first time in North America a light rail project has been realised through a 15-year Design/Build/Operate/Maintain contract, between New Jersey Transit and the 21st Century Rail Corporation, a consortium led by Raytheon, together with the Japanese companies Itochu and Kinki-Sharyo. The contract value is USD 1100 million, making it the largest public works project in New Jersey. However earlier this year Raytheon's engineering and construction entity was purchased by Morrison Knudsen, a railway engineering company that has only just fought its way out of receivership. The ceremony was held at Liberty State Park station, where the operating centre is situated. The governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, a United States senator, several congressmen, state assemblymen, and the mayors of Jersey City and Bayonne, all gave short speeches. During her speech, Assemblywoman Rose Heck, chairwoman of the state assembly's light rail task force, praised the late Gordon Thompson for his many trips from Buffalo to solve crises and maintain the forward momentum of the project.

Picture Charles J. Lietwiler (Note picture taken from magazine and was across the page boundary which accounts for poor quality near LHS)
Tourists on the observation deck of the World Trade Center in New York have a clear view of the Hudson Bergen light rail cars as they go about their business in Jersey City, across the Hudson river. This view shows a southbound car which has just turned into Essex Street. Note the weather vanes on the attractive station building.

The new system consists of a trunk line from Exchange Place (within a year Hoboken) to Liberty State Park with two branches. One branch follows the main line of the former Jersey Central Railroad to Bayonne. The other branch uses a portion of the Jersey Central's former Jersey City - Newark line as far as West Side Avenue. The initial operating segment is 14.4 km compared with the authorised 32.8 km. Fearful of a repeat of light rail openings elsewhere, in which the trains were jammed with riders who did not want to get off after one trip, NJ Transit drew up a plan to prevent such an occurrence. Passengers were to be given a ticket good only for a oneway trip. Upon reaching a terminal station, they would be directed to leave the train and board buses for the return trip to the starting point. In support of this plan, a number of buses were positioned at 34th Street in Bayonne, and Liberty State Park, Jersey Avenue and West Side Avenue in Jersey City. The plan proved to be unnecessary. The rain discouraged many people from riding the new system. In the end, passengers were allowed to ride at will, for as long as they desired. Although nearly every two-car train had standees, crush loads did not occur. It was originally announced that passenger service would not be offered on Sunday 16 April. This was subsequently changed. However, passengers were required to pay regular fares. Single cars were operated about every ten minutes. Regular service is every 15 minutes on each branch to give a 7/8-minute headway on the common section (but half this frequency in the early mornings and late evenings).Service times are 05.15 to 01.30 daily. The 29 low-floor Kinki-Sharyo cars (68 seats, 122 standees) operate very smoothly and quietly. They have enough power to go up steep grades without slowing down or labouring. No instances of cars being taken out of service due to equipment problems were observed. Unfortunately, however, the interior station enunciators were not working properly.

Picture Charles J. Lietwiler
Further up Essex Street is the contrast between a rather run-down residential area and new development which is fast transforming the neighbourhood. This northbound car is on the reservation, while the outbound track is in the paved street.

The system begins at a temporary stub track just north of Exchange Place in downtown Jersey City (a one-stop PATH ride from New York's World Trade Center). It operates on street trackage for two blocks on Hudson Street and four blocks on Essex Street. With six 15 mph (24 km/h) curves on this 2.9-km section, the average speed here is only 8 mph (12.8 km/h). The northbound track on Essex Street is separated from traffic by a concrete curb. One-way traffic is permitted on the southbound track, and the remainder of the street width is given over to a single lane of parking. Essex Street is not a thoroughfare, and traffic should be limited to the residents who live along the street. From then on, the track is on private rights of way, with a number of grade crossings, none of which involve major streets. There are no crossings between Liberty State Park and 34th Street, and just three on the branch to West Side Avenue. Crossings are protected only by conventional traffic signals connected to the train signals. There does not appear to be any preemption of the traffic signals to permit shorter waits by trains for a signal to change. The Hudson River waterfront area is in the process of intense redevelopment. Most of the former manufacturing plants and warehouses have been demolished. The few that have not been, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad's freight terminal, have been or will be renovated as office space or apartments. The impetus for this redevelopment is the high cost of office and home space in Manhattan. Similar low-cost space in the waterfront area is available. The rents in the best buildings are USD 33 per sq ft, compared with an average of USD 61 per sq ft in Manhattan. Because of this difference, a number of buildings are being built on speculation, but quickly rented. Jersey City is a few minutes ride from Manhattan on the PATH system or the former Pennsylvania Railroad tunnel to 33rd Street station.

The light rail system will complement this redevelopment by providing a fast, reliable means for those who work in the waterfront area or Manhattan to reach their jobs without the need to drive. Parking is provided at 34th Street (28 spaces), 45th Street (218 spaces), with larger lots at Liberty State Park, and West Side Avenue, for an eventual total of 2,939 spaces. Additional parking is under construction at 34th Street. It will be connected with the station by a pedestrian overpass with an elevator to the station platform. A similar structure is under construction at the West Side Avenue station. It will span West Side Avenue and connect with the station platforms, which are about 20 feet higher than the large parking lot. Parking will cost USD 2 per day, far less than the USD 10 charged at most lots in the central area. Parking fees can be paid at the combination parking and ticket machines at each lot. The only opposition observed was that of the residents on one block of Essex Street, who have opposed the project from the beginning.

The fare structure is somewhat complicated. Unlike other light rail systems, where the rail and bus fares are identical and transfers are free, the Hudson Bergen system charges a premium fare for rail with no transfers to buses (a function of the private sector operation). The one-way adult fare is USD 1.50, compared with a USD 1 bus fare. It is valid for 90 minutes. Ten-trip tickets cost USD 13. A monthly pass costs USD 53 (USD 93 with parking), a 25% reduction over single tickets if 25 or more trips are taken. In addition, holders of monthly passes can transfer to and from local bus routes without additional fare. Seniors over 65 can ride for half fare at any time. Those between 62 and 64 can ride for half fare during off-peak hours. Ticket machines will also sell tickets for PATH trains. Revenue inspectors can levy USD 71 fines for fare evasion.

The ticket machines seem unnecessarily complicated to use and the queues which built up during the first rush hours indicated a source of frustration that will need to be addressed. Instead of pushing one button to select the type of ticket desired, a user must first answer a series of questions. Data is displayed electronically on a screen, and may be difficult to read when sunlight is shining directly on it. These machines are the same type that are used on the commuter railroad lines operated by NJ Transit.

Work is in progress to extend the line northward from Exchange Place. The extension includes three stations: Harborside, Harsimus Cove, and Newport (near Pavonia/Newport PATH station, and site of a huge shopping mall). This addition is scheduled to be completed and placed in service by Christmas 2000. In 2001 service will reach the recreated transport interchange at the former Lackawanna station on the Hoboken waterfront. Eventually, service will be extended to 5th Street in Bayonne and the West Side Avenue branch will also be extended by one station. Future extensions will continue north of Hoboken to Weehawken and then through the former Conrail West Shore railway tunnel under Union City to the Vince Lombardy Park & Ride site in Ridgefield Park, Bergen County. The target is to carry 100 000 passengers/day by 2010. After one month of operation of the first section to open, 3800 passengers/day were being carried.

The Hudson-Bergen line is just one light rail project being pursued by New Jersey Transit. On 8 May Governor Whitman was making a speech again at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Trenton-Cainden light rail line, a 54.7-km link that will cost USD 604 million and take three years to build. Last year New Jersey Transit agreed to buy an existing railroad from Conrail for USD 67.5 million. Immediately, the agency awarded the contract to design, build, operate and maintain the system to a consortium led by the Bechtel Infrastructure Corp. and ADtranz of Pittsburgh, a subsidiary of Daimler-Chrysler. Under the 13-year contract, the consortium will be paid USD 453.3 million to design and build the line and USD 151.2 million to operate and maintain it. The line will run over existing railway tracks between the two cities, with some new track in both Trenton and Camden to reach the central areas. Light rail trains will operate from 06.00 to 22.00 daily, with freight trains continuing to operate during the night. The project includes building 20 stations, improvements to more than 50 level crossings and repairs to, or replacement of 17 bridges. Electrification is not on the agenda - rolling stock will comprise 20 ADtranz/Stadler GTW2/6 low-floor diesel railcars. And NJT's existing light rail line, the Newark City Subway, is in the middle of wholesale modernisation, with new overhead installed, a short extension to a new depot, and replacement of the immaculate PCCs by 16 low-floors cars matching those on the Hudson-Bergen line. On Saturday 6 May Kinki-Sharyo LRV 113 was first to operate clearance tests on the line. 114 was also used for trials later in the day. At the other end work is in progress to extend the subway 1.6 km from Penn Station to Newark's Broad Street commuter rail station, the first part of what could be a much longer light rail line to the airport and Elizabeth.

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