New Jersey Transit officials see Dinky train service as expendable, at least when it comes to work needing to be done on other train lines. For at least three months, the Dinky train will not operate at all as New Jersey Transit implements positive train control on trains across the state.
But positive train control, a safety measure mandated by the federal government, is being implemented on all New Jersey Transit train lines except the Dinky. The federal government has exempted the Dinky line from being required to use positive train control, state officials confirmed today after Planet Princeton made an inquiry about the issue.
Nancy Snyder, a spokesperson for New Jersey Transit, said the federal government has exempted the Dinky because only one train runs on the Dinky line.
The Dinky is being shut down for at least three months. The rail equipment and crews need to be used elsewhere in the system to facilitate PTC installation systemwide, Snyder said.
Beginning in the mid October, the Dinky will be replaced by buses. Service will not be restored until at least mid January. Officials said the reduction in service is necessary to meet federal deadlines.
Local train advocates worry that Dinky ridership will not rebound after the three-month break. Ridership declined after the train station was shut down in August of 2013 and was replaced by shuttles. Ridership numbers never quite rebounded after the new train station opened on Alexander Road.
Kip Cherry, a member of the local train advocacy group Save the Dinky, has compiled data from New Jersey Transit that shows that ridership declined after the Dinky train line was shortened. In 2012, 605,783 people used the Dinky train. After the station was relocated and buses were replaced by the Dinky again, ridership was 538,187 passengers in 2015. For 2017, ridership dropped to 481,867 passengers, according to Cherry’s data.
“Congestion is a big problem we have,” Cherry said. “Having all those people on the road is going to make congestion worse. This is a lousy time to have a shut down. It’s the worst time they could choose, when ridership is normally high in October. We should press New Jersey Transit hard on this issue.”
John Kilbride, another member of Save the Dinky and a member of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, attended the Princeton Council on Monday night with Cherry and questioned why the Dinky needs to be shut down for three months. “The hardware involved does not require extensive work on the tracks, and the line is very short,” Kilbride said. “Why not do the work at night, as other line upgrades have been done?”
Kilbride said equipment was installed on other lines without curtailing line operations.
“This community deserves an explanation. Many commuters in and out of Princeton who rely on the Dinky will be seriously inconvenienced,” he said, adding that a three-month hiatus could jeopardize the long-term viability of the line. He urged local officials to send a letter to New Jersey Transit and the governor asking for an explanation about why the service is being eliminated for three months. He also said officials should ask for assurances from New Jersey Transit that the three-month stoppage is not a prelude to eliminating Dinky service altogether.
At the council meeting, Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said she shared Kilbride’s concerns, but was under the impression that the Dinky needed positive train control. She suggested that the municipal public transit committee draft a resolution on the subject. “I learned a little bit about positive train control over the weekend. There is no way around it,” she said. “The Dinky does need it. It is a federal regulation. It protects the intersection and two ends. It stops the train if the conductor fails to do so. No matter what, you still need it.”
Councilman David Cohen said it was his understanding that the service shutdown was partly being done to save money for the positive train control on other train lines. “We’ve heard for years that the Dinky is not a money maker, so it saves them money to stop the service for a while,” he said. “I think they should still be running it, but I just wanted to clarify the facts of the situation. I think the issue is that it’s more of a money saver.”
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said the federal deadline for installing the new technology is the end of the year. “That’s why there is this crunch time,” she said. “The impact is concerning though.”
Lempert said she has invited a representative from New Jersey Transit to come to next council meeting on Oct. 8 to answer questions and give officials assurances that the trains will be replaced by buses. She said she is also talking with Princeton University officials about the issue. The Dinky is scheduled to be replaced by buses starting Oct. 14. Some Dinky supporters said waiting for a board to approve a resolution, or holding a meeting with a representative from New Jersey Transit the week before the train is scheduled to be shut down, is too little, too late.