Sunday, March 14, 2004


After years of political hand-wringing and other political embarassments, NJ Transit's controversial River Line connecting Trenton and Camden began accepting passengers this morning. Despite harsh criticism from this web site over many of the decision regarding the planning and construction of the nearly $1 billion system - originally named the "Southern New Jersey Light Rail Transit System" - I took a ride on the River Line this morning. Let's just say that all the delays were worth the wait, as the ride was smooth along the entire corridor. That's not to say that the first official day of revenue service following yesterday's dog-and-pony show by New Jersey politicians, NJ Transit officials, and assorted hacks and hangers-on wasn't without a few snags.

A lot of passengers - mostly the curious and a lot of railfans - boarded at Trenton. The lines for the TVMs at Trenton station were so long just 2 minutes before the train departed that passengers were simply told to board without a ticket so they didn't have to wait 30 minutes for the next train.

The stop announcement system repeats the same announcements (ie. No eating, drinking, or smoking; you must have a validated ticket to ride; please check your personal belongings, etc.) constantly throughout the entire trip, which can be very annoying on any bus or rail line. Additionally, the visual stop display actually read, "Thank you for riding the New Jersey Transit." (We presume this is a lot different from various Ohio State alums referring to their alma mater as "THE Ohio State University," but annoying nonetheless.)

Arriving at Camden, it was observed that several of the TVM's were not accepting dollar bills; among the locations with this problem was the E-Centre stop at the end of the line and the northbound Aquarium stop (the southbound did accept bills). Also, from an initial look, none of the TVMs inside the Trenton Railroad Station appeared to be programmed to sell River Line tickets (in fairness, I didn't really get that good of a look).

There is also no signal prioritization along some of the street-running portions of the line, particularly between Walter Rand Transportation Center and the E-Centre in downtown Camden City, or at least none that I was aware of. That may be several years down the road, but we'll see.

And, last but by no means least, the train arrived at the E-Centre 6 minutes late.

Yet, in spite of these relatively minor complaints, there were quite a few positives from this trip.

For starters, the train really flew along the sections between Cass St/Trenton and Burlington Towne Center, and between Palmyra and 36 St/Camden. Even the street-running portion was fairly manageable, at least speed-wise. The tracks are adjacent to the curbs along S 4 St, Cooper St, and Delaware Av, and it appears the construction of the tracks will make for easier operations when compared to downtown Baltimore City.

Every station is built flush with the interior floor of the rail car, which would presumably make it a lot easier for wheelchair passengers to board the trains. The platforms themselves are a few inches above the rails.

The cars themselves are powered by a Mercedes-Benz engine in a format similar to SEPTA's diesel-electric hybrid buses. The engine - housed in the center portion of the car - provides the electricity which powers the rail cars. This makes for a much quieter ride than many people anticipated.

The interior of the articulated diesel multiple-unit LRVs featured high-back seats save for near the doors of the cars, which were fold-up seats in areas where passengers in wheelchairs would sit. There is a luggage rack, but only in the high-floor portion near the operator's cab.

For the most part, it's highly doubtful that NJT can count on two full rail-cars of passengers on most trips after the initial "novelty" period wears off over the next few weeks. However, NJT is making the best of what had turned into a political hot potato (remember that this system was initiated during the Whitman Administration, and even then there was controversy about the routing and a future Camden-Glassboro line).

To its credit, Burlington County has been touting the line for quite some time, even initiating the expansion of the county-owned BurLink system to connect with the River Line prior to the official launch of the system. Whether it actually helps the Riverfront towns remains to be seen. But, I guess that's why the run the system, now isn't it?

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