Princeton Dinky Train Ridership: A Double-Digit Decline

The Dinky train arrives at the new station. Photo: Amy Banner.
The Dinky train arrives at the new station. Photo: Amy Banner.

After the historic Dinky train station on University Place closed down in August of 2013 and a temporary station was opened on Alexander Street, it was difficult to get a clear picture of how regular train ridership would be affected.

In addition to the train at the temporary station, a shuttle bus ran between downtown Princeton and the Princeton Junction Train Station. Some people who previously walked to the old Dinky station rode the bus to Princeton Junction because the bus stop was located closer to the center of town than the temporary station. Many people also rode the bus because it was free.

The new permanent Dinky station opened on Nov. 17 of 2014, and the free shuttle service between Princeton and Princeton Junction was eliminated.

For the first time since that move, data has become available to make an apples-to-apples comparison of ridership at the old historic station and the new permanent station.

Planet Princeton obtained ridership figures for the first two full months of ridership on the shortened Dinky line — December of 2014 and January of 2015 — and compared the data with the same months two years ago when the train station was still located at University Place.

For the two-month period, ridership declined 15.3 percent  when compared with the same period two years ago.

Dec. 2012      47,131  trips              Dec. 2014    40,435 trips              -6,696  (-14.2 percent)
Jan. 2013      47,589  trips             Jan. 2015     39,800 trips              -7,789  (-16.4 percent)

Anita Garoniak, president of the citizen group Save the Dinky, said the drop in ridership is no surprise.

“It is especially unfortunate given that the town is adding hundreds of housing units at distances comfortably accessible by foot and car to the street level station on University Place. It is obvious that people are finding the new station less convenient,” Garoniak said. “Considering this, the Dinky ridership promotion plan that was agreed to in the memorandum of understanding between Princeton University and the town must be formulated and immediately implemented. We have not seen any clear movement in getting this done, even though it was agreed to in 2011, presumably in anticipation of a loss of ridership.”

The memorandum of understanding Garoniak is referring to is an agreement approved by Princeton University and the governing bodies of the former Princeton Borough and Princeton Township. Under the agreement, officials promised to provide numerous enhancements to public transit in downtown Princeton.

Several residents and a few local officials vocally opposed the agreement at the time it was approved back in 2011.

The agreement included funding from the university for a transit study and a traffic study, and a timeline for key elements to be implemented. It called for the creation of a transit task force that would study mass transit issues and future transit, and a second study that would look at traffic issues in Princeton as a whole, with a focus on the central business district downtown and how new university projects like Merwick would affect traffic patterns. Princeton University also agreed to provide an additional $450,000 for three illuminated pedestrian crosswalks on Nassau Street. The agreement extended the period for a new right of way along Alexander from 50 years to 65 years.

Princeton University also promised to develop plans to promote Dinky ridership. Excerpts from the memorandum of understanding related to those promises:

– “Upon approval of this agreement by the government bodies of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, the University will work with the municipalities and local merchants to develop a formal plan to promote Dinky ridership, including but not limited to train ticket receipts being utilized to obtain discounts at McCarter Theater, University athletic events and local stores and restaurants.”

– “Upon approval of this agreement by the governing bodies of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, the University will work together with Princeton Borough and Princeton Township to encourage New Jersey Transit provide additional service, including during off-peak hours and weekend hours.”

– “Upon approval of this agreement by the governing bodies of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, the University shall continue to encourage additional use of the Dinky through the mass transit subsidy it provides to faculty, staff and graduate students and its Transportation Demand Management program.”

Save the Dinky members are now asking what has become of the promises more than three years after the memorandum of understanding was approved.

“To date, unfortunately, we have seen no formal plan,” Garoniak said. “We hope that our elected officials will move forward in conjunction with the University to make good on this promise in the memorandum of understanding.”

Kristin Appelget, director of community and regional affairs for Princeton University, said school officials are working in cooperation with a subcommittee from the town’s public transit committee on the various items in the memorandum of understanding that relate to ridership promotion and service enhancements.

“The subcommittee had a meeting in February and intends to meet again to continue the discussion,” Appelget said.

Princeton University implemented a mass transit reimbursement program for staff prior to the memorandum of understanding. Graduate students became eligible for the program in July of 2011.

The transit task force will present its final report to the Princeton Council on April 27 at the council’s 7:30 p.m. public meeting at the municipal building located at 400 Witherspoon Street.