With decades of experience in regional planning, Princeton resident Ralph Widner knows a thing or two. He says the existing Dinky tracks could be a valuable resource for a new and improved transportation option between Princeton and Princeton Junction.

The future of the Dinky is once again in doubt. The Princeton Line has not run since October, when New Jersey Transit went into deadline mode to implement a new federally mandated safety technology system. In December the troubled agency announced it had finally met the federal equipment installation milestone.

At that point it was “currently evaluating the schedule for restoring regular service” to the Dinky and two other lines that had been suspended during the race to upgrade the safety equipment. Back in October NJ Transit had said it hoped to Dinky service would only be curtailed for about three months. By December it was saying it was working “as fast as possible” but there was “no determined date.”

This is not the first time that some uncertainty has clouded the future of the Dinky — this seems to happen every few years. Whenever something comes up, some Princetonians warn that the train will shut down forever, and that this will irrevocably damage the town. But there is a different question that others are asking: is there a possible replacement for the Dinky that could actually be better?

“The real question is the future of the Dinky corridor, and how to design a transit system that works with people the way they live,” says Ralph Widner, a Princeton resident and retired regional planner who has served on a variety of transportation planning boards and committees for the town over the past decade.

Change will happen at some point, sooner rather than later, Widner says. Emerging technologies and a more spread-out town mean that a single heavy rail line — each of the two Jersey Arrow cars used on the Dinky run weighs about 60 tons — may no longer be the best option for transit between Princeton and Princeton Junction. Since the heavy rail line also requires a conductor and an engineer, it has additional overhead in terms of personnel.

The Dinky has endured for more than 150 years — one or two railroad cars traveling the 2.6-mile distance between the Princeton University campus and Princeton Junction, where it meets NJ Transit trains on the main line of the Northeast Corridor. While the Dinky’s termination point on the Princeton campus has moved a substantial distance south from its original destination near what is now the Blair Hall arch (three miles from the main line), the basic Dinky ride has remained remarkably unchanged.

Ridership on the Dinky, however, has fallen dramatically in recent years compared to the days when cars had to be added to accommodate crowds for Princeton football games and other special events. According to documents NJ Transit provided under the state’s public records law, there were more than 600,000 rides on the train in 2012, but fewer than 500,000 in 2017.

Over the same period, total ridership on the Northeast Corridor line grew. It has dipped slightly over the past few years, as NJ Transit has faced increasing delays and infrastructure issues, but ridership on the Dinky has still fallen even faster than on the Northeast Corridor overall.

The important thing to remember in the debates over the Dinky, Widner says, is that most people are primarily concerned not so much about the Dinky itself as they are with getting where they need to be, ideally with as little cost and aggravation as possible. Almost everyone agrees that the Dinky is facing problems, so it makes sense to look for pragmatic solutions that work for everyday riders.

“It’s all a matter of schedule and time,” he says. “If we’re too fixated on the Dinky as it is today, we’re not going to solve the problem.”

The end of the Dinky line near the southern end of the Princeton University campus.

Widner has the experience to know that things will change over time: he has managed regional development efforts across the country and around the globe during his career.

Widner (pronounced wide-ner) was born in Philadelphia and moved around the country as his father, a Marine, was stationed at different bases. While his father was serving in the Pacific during World War II, the Widner family lived in a suburb of Philadelphia. Traveling into Center City Philadelphia and seeing deteriorating neighborhoods, Widner recalls thinking that “we could do better than this.” After college at Duke (graduating in 1952 with a degree in English), Widner served in the Navy during the Korean conflict, and then started a career in journalism, first at the Paterson Evening News and then the New York Times.

He soon was selected as a Congressional Fellow, part of a program in which journalists got to work with staffers in both the Senate and the House. As he was exposed to the inner workings of government he thought back to the images of Philadelphia and decided to see if he could play a role in revitalizing cities and economically challenged rural areas. Widner changed direction and became assistant director of Pennsylvania’s state planning board. This was a critical time in Pennsylvania’s economy: coal, steel, and other old-line industries were already in decline, and the state had to act.

Widner worked in regional development and planning for the rest of his career, serving as legislative assistant to the chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Manpower, executive director of the Appalachian Regional Commission, vice president of the Urban Land Institute, president of the National Academy for State and Local Government, and executive director of Greater Philadelphia First Corporation. During the 1990s he undertook missions for the State Department, World Bank, and UN to assist former Soviet-bloc countries get on their feet.

After Widner retired in 2006, he and his wife, Joan, moved to Princeton at the urging of their daughter, Jennifer Widner, a professor of politics and international affairs and director of a program called Innovations for Successful Societies at the university’s Woodrow Wilson School. The Widners have not regretted the move. “Princeton is a perfect scale,” he says, “and civically you can really make a difference.”

As an energetic 88-year-old Widner has done just that. Widner’s approach to questions such as the Dinky’s future is data driven. Before looking specifically at the Dinky, he says, we need to examine the larger problems surrounding transportation in the area. The community needs to ask what type of transportation will best serve Prince­tonians before trying to maximize the riders on the train. Finding the best way to serve the community will lead to higher ridership.

Thanks to Widner and people working with him Princeton is not without data on what the transportation problems are and where the solutions might come from. In 2014 he presented a detailed report for Princeton Future that drew on Census data to create a demographic profile of the town. In 2016 he was principal investigator of a committee that prepared a report on alternative mobility choices. In 2017 Widner chaired an ad hoc task force of the Complete Streets Committee that has completed a draft report on “Transportation Choices for Princeton: A Strategic Analysis.” The task group, which also included community members Nat Bottigheimer, Sam Bunting, and Surinder Sharma, expects to have a final version of this report in the coming months, once updated versions of some of the data used are available.

“Princeton’s Master Plan expresses the hope that motor vehicle traffic can be reduced if we expand transportation options,” the task force found. “That may not occur unless the alternatives offered are so appealing in convenience, reliability, and cost that at least some drivers will take advantage of them.”

A lack of coordination between transit agencies in Princeton makes mass transit less attractive to users, the study found. The town and the university operate separate bus systems that serve separate areas — the town’s FreeB mostly runs north of Nassau Street, and the university’s TigerTransit stays to the south. As the study found, this dichotomy happened because of the different bureaucracies, not because it is good for riders.

The interior of the new Princeton Station, designed by Arizona-based architect Rick Joy. The former station buildings were repurposed
into two restaurants, the Dinky Bar and Cargot.

More than a quarter of Princeton residents whose jobs are in town work at the university, yet few of them commute on either bus service. Around 625 people drive less than 10 minutes every day from the town to work at the university, and the study found that many of them could be served by better-coordinated public transit.

Another problem identified in the draft report is that many people did not know about the transit options offered in Princeton. Both the FreeB and the TigerTransit buses are free to all residents, and two low-cost NJ Transit bus lines run through town, but many residents interviewed for the report were unaware of the lines or where they stop. Part of this problem could be solved in the short-term through marketing the availability of bus service to town residents, the report finds.

Even within these regional transit issues, the Dinky has its own problems.

First, the train is not always reliable or convenient. On multiple occasions in recent years, service has been canceled for large portions of the day because engineers did not come to work. When the Dinky is running, it does not meet every train on the Northeast Corridor, so some commuters must wait longer at the Junction. And the Dinky does not always wait for trains arriving late at the Junction, an additional inconvenience for those commuters.

This problem extends to NJ Transit in general, which has suffered reliability problems for nearly a decade, Widner says. This led to the so-called “Summer of Hell” in 2017, and the spate of random train cancellations this year, in addition to regular delays that make the train a less attractive option.

Then, there is the price — taking the Dinky adds $1.75 each way to the fare to and from New York. The Prince­ton Junction station has expanded the amount of parking in recent years, so it is slightly easier to park there than before when spaces were available only after spending years on a waiting list. It’s also more expensive — rates were recently increased. But many commuters still prefer getting directly on the train at the Junction rather than taking the Dinky.

“The state wanted more and more people to get off of the highway and onto the train,” Widner says. “When they raise the fares, they get the opposite result.”

Some competition to the Dinky comes from the buses that travel from the center of Princeton to New York, Widner says. According to his data, more commuters have started using them in recent years, but the numbers are still small. For people who have to get a ride to the bus line on Nassau Street, the bus option is no better than taking the train from the Junction. “The irony is not a lot of Princetonians want to take a bus to New York,” he says. “There’s something about being Princetonians, we look down upon taking a bus.”

Part of any debate over the Dinky involves Prince­ton University — the Dinky is located on campus. Very few of the university’s 5,400 undergraduates have cars on campus, so they rely upon the Dinky for a connection to New York, the airport, and other points along the Northeast Corridor.

The university played a central role in preventing the Dinky’s closure back in 1984. NJ Transit considered shutting down the line due to low ridership, but the university bought the station house from the agency, providing funding for the Dinky to continue. A provision of this sale said that the university could move the Dinky station farther south.

“I don’t think there would be a Dinky today if we hadn’t intervened back in the 1980s,” says Robert Durkee, the university’s longtime vice president and secretary. He notes that the university’s administration is concerned about town residents who use the Dinky, but that about half of the train’s riders are associated with the university. That includes students, professors, lecturers, and visitors.

The university’s priority is making sure that people can easily go from the campus and town to the Junction, Durkee says. “Whether it’s a train or a bus is less important than preserving that unimpeded right-of-way between the town and the Junction.”

One idea has been to replace the Dinky with a bus on the same corridor. A 2010 study funded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation proposed a bus rapid transit system throughout the Route 1 corridor, from the Trenton through New Brunswick areas, that would include the current Dinky right-of-way. This idea is being reconsidered by the state, after the Christie administration shelved most transit projects.

Under the plan, buses could keep going past the station on Alexander Road into the town of Princeton, or they could stop in the middle of the current Dinky line, near Route 1, and meet up with buses from employers in suburban office parks.

“It’s just like a train, except that it has rubber tires,” Widner says. The tires can be a benefit, as a bus could avoid traffic around Route 1 on the Dinky right-of-way and then, he says, “you can take it up into town.”

In this archival photograph, passengers wait on the Dinky platform in 1891. Image courtesy of the collection of the Historical Society of Princeton.

In addition, multiple buses at a time could operate on the current Dinky right-of-way, which used to have two train tracks. The current train fills to capacity on certain days, so more buses could be added at the busiest times, such as the start and end of Princeton University’s breaks or the university’s reunions weekend in early June.

Bus rapid transit is a system in which buses are used for services that more closely resemble light rail. There are often dedicated lanes on the road for the buses, bus stops are upgraded with enclosed stations, and passengers buy tickets before boarding the bus.

Pittsburgh has one of the most successful bus rapid transit systems in the country, with its three “busways,” streets that are reserved for bus use. Each stop is easily viewable on smartphone applications, like Google Maps, which also show when the next buses are scheduled to arrive. Parking lots are available at many of the bus stops, just like at a train station.

Los Angeles, Hartford, Connecticut, Alexandria, Virginia, and other cities have also built bus rapid transit systems with dedicated rights-of-way. Buses often travel different routes on public roads at either end, but the dedicated roads allow them to avoid areas with high traffic.

The main advantages over a train, even light rail, are that the buses are cheaper and they can come off the dedicated lanes or corridors onto normal city streets for part of their journey. On the other hand, some people prefer just prefer trains — Americans tend to look down on buses — although many cities that have installed bus rapid transit have found that people separate those more efficient systems from traditional city buses.

Sheldon Sturges, co-founder of the civic planning organization Princeton Future, thinks that it is important to keep the train chugging between Princeton and the Junction. He has consistently opposed efforts to change the location and vehicle of the Dinky. “Trains work,” Sturges says. “They’re on time. Buses get stuck in traffic.”

A number of years ago Sturges and Princeton Future brought together representatives of the town and university to consider many scenarios for the Dinky’s future. One was replacing the Dinky line with a light rail train that could start and stop more quickly, and could possibly be extended along University Place to Nassau Street.

Cost presented the biggest problem: the light rail plan would have cost tens of millions of dollars even before considering an extension farther into town.

Sturges and many others were also adamantly opposed to the university’s decision to move the Dinky 450 feet farther south to make space for a new arts center at the university. After years of fierce fighting, the new station was built in 2014, and the arts center opened in the fall of 2017.

Sturges and others in town blame much of the drop in Dinky ridership in recent years on moving the station. Widner does not believe that the changed location of the new station has had any significant long-term effect on the Dinky ridership since the construction ended. Other factors, including increased parking at the Junction and reliability problems with the Dinky, have probably played a larger role.

Most of the Dinky’s riders drive or take a bus to Princeton Station, since they live too far to walk, and the 450-foot move did not make it much harder to get there. Likewise, most people who walk or bike to the station can handle the extra minute or two on their trips. Widner remembers one nonagenarian who was able to make the walk to the station, even with the increased distance. “At some point, it was a problem for her,” he says. “But she still did it.”

The traffic study shows the bigger picture: Drawing on data provided by the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey during the years 2011 to 2015, the 2017 draft report shows that an average of 884 commuted daily by rail from Princeton, but only 462 rode the Dinky to Princeton Junction. Most of the remaining 422 lived well beyond walking distance of the station in areas so dispersed that riding the Dinky was impractical.

The 2017 draft report noted that the state DOT identified the Dinky line as one of three principal axes for cross connecting transit in the region. “To perform the functions envisioned,” the report continued, “the Dinky rail line should serve as more than just a way to catch a train to New York. Confined to that role, its ridership is unlikely to expand much beyond its 2006 levels. Modernized, it should serve much more diverse purposes and ridership… One option is to install a stop intermediate between Princeton and Princeton Junction near U.S. 1 from which shuttles … could transport passengers to their destinations.”

Bus rapid transit is one option, but technology is changing so rapidly that nobody really knows what the best transit solutions will be, even in the next 10 to 15 years, Widner says.

Today’s gold standards may seem inefficient in a few years. Autonomous vehicles, for example, could dramatically change the cost basis of operating a transit system. GPS technology and smartphone applications enable transit operators to put buses on the roads when and where they are needed. Even now in Princeton the path of the FreeB bus making its way around town can be followed on a smartphone. The passenger can “see” the bus coming from miles and minutes away.

Transportation planners today are not limited to mass transit options. Widner sees technology making transit more personalized. Smartphones could call buses or smaller public transit vehicles right to where people are, obviating the need for bigger buses on routes around the less densely populated areas outside the town center.

The advent of Uber and Lyft has opened up opportunities for mass transit planners. Some transit agencies are hiring the ride-hailing companies to offer off-peak service to bus or rail stations or even to provide “paratransit” for riders with mobility limitations. In Summit, New Jersey, the city has instituted a program offering free or inexpensive Uber rides to commuters who otherwise compete for parking spaces at the town’s NJ Transit station. The goal of the program was to free up about 100 parking spots at the station, and delay the need to create additional parking there.

The “final mile” of a transit system could include dockless electric scooters, which are now appearing in more densely populated cities and can be rented on the spot with a smartphone. In San Jose, California, town officials already are worried about safety issues if dozens of speeding scooters descend on a transit center all at once. But technology even offers a solution for that: “geofencing” that would apply a governor to limit the scooter’s speed or stop the scooter entirely when its GPS sensor determined it had crossed a virtual boundary.

“Nobody can tell you exactly how this is going to wash out, because there are so many uncertainties,” Widner says. “One thing is almost certain: we’re going to see a dramatic change in how mass transit is delivered.”

Ten years ago, few people would have predicted the extent to which smartphones would revolutionize society, Widner says, especially in the transportation sector. Uber and Lyft have upended the taxi industry, and there is a chance that a combination of smartphones and autonomous vehicles could bring a similar change in public transit.

“When I was a kid, Philadelphia was a leading manufacturer of Stetson hats, but that’s all gone now,” Widner says. “In fact, the guys I worked for in the 1980s, all the companies but one are gone. The world is changing, and the trouble is you’ve got a lot of folks who fixate on one thing from the past, and they keep advocating that, without recognizing the ballgame’s changed.”

This article was originally published in the January 2019 Princeton Echo.