When we arrived in West Windsor in 1957 the trains on what we now consider the main line tracks were those of either the Pennsylvania Railroad or the Jersey Central, which included both passenger and freight trains. Many trains were electric, but some used diesel engines and a few were still hauled by steam locomotives. Amtrak and Conrail did not exist, and just about every passenger train that went through Princeton Junction stopped there because it had to pick up passengers from the Dinky.
At the station there were no raised platforms and no ticket counter or machine. If you arrived at the station on the wrong side of the tracks, you simply walked across the tracks to get to the other side — looking both ways first, of course. There were wooden boards between the rails to form a kind of walkway so you wouldn’t trip on the rails or ties. (The rail and roadbed system we have today is of a radically different design to accommodate the high-speed trains.)
Eventually they posted signs that said, “Do not cross tracks.” Then, as the number of trains increased, they erected a dividing fence between north-bound and south-bound tracks. Even so, some people tried to climb over it. If you didn’t have a car, it was a very long walk to get to the other side by walking on the roads. Recognizing there was still a problem, one of the railroads finally built the first pedestrian underpass below the tracks. It was the predecessor of the one we have today.
The station had a covered waiting area — outside for standees, but no station building with ticket counters and indoor waiting areas. When a train arrived, you climbed aboard by walking up several very steep stairs at the end of the car, and you bought your ticket from the conductor — with cash. Credit cards did not exist.
There were virtually no commuters living in West Windsor or Plainsboro in those days, so the parking lots were very small, and most cars stayed only a few minutes. Most people had to get a ride to the station from someone else, take a taxi (which you had to call from Princeton), or else walk. My own “commute” was from Grovers Mill to my office not far from the station. It took about five minutes to go just over one mile each way from my house, and I did that for 40 years. Because it was along the —even then — dreaded Cranbury Road, I rarely walked or biked. When we wanted to go to New York, we simply drove to my company parking lot and walked a few hundred yards to the station.
Of course if you lived in Princeton and had to commute to New York or Philadelphia, you could take the “Dinky,” which was often referred to then as the PJ&B —Princeton Junction and Back. You could buy a ticket at the Dinky station in Princeton, and that is what most passengers did, since there were very few who got on the main line trains in Princeton Junction who had not been on the Dinky. We did because we lived so nearby. (The population of West Windsor in 1957 was less than 4,000. Today it’s over 29,000.)
But even in those days, the express train from Philadelphia to New York stopped at Princeton Junction because of the Dinky. It then stopped at New Brunswick, Elizabeth, and Newark before arriving at New York’s Penn Station. There was no station at Metropark or Secaucus, which was then in the middle of the “Jersey marshlands.” (Calling that area the “Meadowlands” started later, to make it sound more “high class,” I guess. It’s still the marshlands to me.) If you wanted to go to Newark Airport, you took a cab from the Newark station.
The local train was another matter. By local, they really meant local. Starting in Trenton, the first stop was Lawrence Station (the station building is still there), then came Princeton Junction, Plainsboro, Monmouth Junction, Deans, Adams, Jersey Avenue, New Brunswick, Highland Park, Stelton/Edison, Metuchen, Iselin, Colonia, Rahway, North Rahway, Linden, Elizabeth, North Elizabeth, South Street Newark, Newark, Harrison, and, finally, New York.
If you wanted to go to New York from Princeton Junction you avoided the local at all costs.