The shuttle bus that has replaced the Dinky waits for passengers on the southbound side of the Princeton Junction train station. (Staff photo by Bill Sanservino.)

The future of the Dinky rail line is once again in doubt. The train has not been in service since October, when New Jersey Transit shut down the line, which runs between the Princeton Junction train station and Princeton University’s Arts and Transit Village, in order facilitate safety equipment work on other lines.

Service was slated to be restored in January, but now NJT has pushed it back until sometime in the second quarter of this year, according to a release.

“The agency continues to address a continuing shortage of locomotive engineers, as well as equipment availability, as positive train control installations, maintenance inspections and testing continues,” the release said.

“We recognize the impact that these service adjustments have had on our valued customers, particularly those who use our ACRL and Princeton Dinky services. Our goal is to begin restoring a service that remains reliable and predictable for customers as quickly as possible,” said Kevin Corbett, NJT executive director. “I share our customers’ frustration and thank them for their continued patience during this time.”

NJT is continuing to run a shuttle bus service between Princeton and Princeton Junction (go to njtransit.com for the schedule. The 10 percent discount that had been offered on tickets and passes ended on Jan. 31.

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Meanwhile, community members in both West Windsor and Princeton have made statements to the media and on social media expressing concern that service will never be restored. Others are looking to future alternatives for the line.

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 NJT trains on Northeast Corridor line. 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 provided by NJT 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 NJT has faced increasing delays and infrastructure issues, but ridership on the Dinky has still fallen even faster than on the Northeast Corridor overall.

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 concerned riders warn that the train will shut down forever. But there is a different question that others are asking: is there a possible replacement for the Dinky that could actually be better?

One idea has been to replace the Dinky with a bus on the same corridor. A 2010 study funded by the state 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.

Under the plan, buses could keep going past the station on Alexander Road into downtown 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.

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.

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.

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.

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, said Ralph Widner, a Princeton resident and retired regional planner who has served on a variety of transportation planning boards and committees over the past decade.

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, 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 story is an updated and edited version of an article that ran in the December issue of the Princeton Echo. It includes additional reporting by Bill Sanservino.