It has been months of no news is good news for NJ Transit and the suspended Dinky train line between Princeton and Princeton Junction, but a glimmer of hope emerged in mid-February at a public forum with officials from the state Department of Transportation and NJ Transit.
At the meeting DOT Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti announced that NJ Transit planned to resume service on the Dinky line before June 30. NJ Transit has said it will announce a firm date sometime in mid-March.
As the wait continues, residents have been free to imagine more reliable alternatives, including ones mentioned by Ralph Widner in the January issue of the Echo. Below, Rodney Fisk, a former Borough councilman who has worked with airlines and other transportation ventures and who many years ago advocated for privatizing the Dinky, adds some ideas of his own.
Zombie attacks Dinky! New Dinky to the rescue
By Rodney Fisk
There are few municipalities within three miles of a station on the Northeast Corridor that wouldn’t trade half their town hall for a traffic and weather-independent rail link to the commuter trains. Hey, isn’t that just what Princeton has?
Some 10 years ago, NJDOT sponsored a comprehensive study of a major regional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service. A local team of well-intentioned leaders quickly agreed with NJ Transit that converting the Dinky to BRT should be the first step.
A group with a compelling counterargument — Save the Dinky — emerged, soon growing to thousands of online members. At the public presentation extolling the merits of BRT, hundreds showed up to energetically support retaining the historic rail shuttle, together with continued use of its historic station. Before the evening ended Princeton’s governing bodies and NJ Transit unequivocally declared BRT dead, preserving Dinky operation indefinitely.
Now along comes a zombie proposal to convert the Dinky to BRT. Imagine the convenience of boarding a bus at the Junction and being driven directly to, say, the end of Snowden Lane. Then hopping on a similar bus the next morning to return to the Junction for the daily commute to the city. Other BRTs could serve similar branches, like up Witherspoon Street or Route 206, or into Plainsboro.
Finally realized, the enormous, unrealized benefits of “regional transit!”
Other proposals deserve consideration: first, converting the Dinky to light rail but vastly improving its level of service. Imagine a new Dinky meeting every train at the Junction, even waiting until the last possible moment for late arriving trains from New York. Imagine a service so efficient that it could forego the $3,500 per day in subsidy that NJ Transit rail operations requires — all while reducing the fare.
What separates these two particular proposals is basically a difference in priorities and comparative costs. While both rely on an unimpeded, direct link over Route 1 to the Northeast Corridor, the primary argument for BRT rests on the value of a one-seat ride serving a much greater rider shed. In contrast the enhanced light rail (LRT) concept focuses most intensely on reducing commuters’ total trip time between origin and destination by adhering to carefully scheduled Dinky service, aiming for a consistent five-minute transfer time.
All previous proposals were scuttled based primarily on cost. So how do costs compare, BRT vs. LRT? The current Dinky infrastructure is valued at about $50 million. Total cost, including a new maintenance facility, to convert to optimal LRT could reach $12 million. BRT would cost some $45 million just to remove and replace the railroad with a standard roadway; a one-way choke point at the Dinky-Route 1 bridge would cost perhaps $15 million to remediate. Plus $400,000 for each bus or $60,000 for each van.
By far the largest operating-cost line item for transit services is labor. The new Dinky operation requires a single driver per shift only. A BRT service would require one driver per bus; the broader the area to be covered, the more buses and drivers needed. Absolutely no way to avoid immense operating subsidy — or clogging the streets with 40-seat buses with just a few riders.
Check out the efficiency of new privately operated services compared with NJ Transit’s current operation:
NJ Transit: a set of 35 year-old, heavy electric multiple units with a crew of two and 238 seats — and a median load of 10. Electric propulsion cost of $180,000 per year. Basic fare: $3.
Light-Rail Dinky: single crewperson, 80-seat vehicle (just handling peak load) consuming $19,000 in electric power each year; capable of making the trip 30 seconds quicker, providing additional cushion time of 20 minutes per day. Other savings add up to yield a profitable operation with fares lowered to $2.50, collected via pay enter/pay leave turnstiles at the Princeton end.
Battery-powered train: Another creative concept from one of this generation’s great railroad entrepreneurs (and Princeton alumnus) involves a different approach. Using coupled surplus London Transport 20-seat subway/surface cars, modified for battery operation, this service would operate every 15 minutes. The transfer time factor in total trip time would vary. To minimize turnaround time, there would be an engineer at each end; underway the rear crew person would collect the fares. The fare would increase modestly to $4.
Yet the January issue of the Echo reports that a distinguished urban planner — and BRT advocate — seeks a design for “a transit system that works with people the way they live.” What he really means is “where they live — and park their car.” “The way they live” is time-focused: minimum end-to-end travel time coupled with maximum convenience, even if that involves driving (gasp) to the Dinky station.
Let the town that gave its name to “the smallest of the world’s great universities” finally have an exemplary transit service befitting the community’s reputation.
This story was originally published in the March 2019 Princeton Echo.