NJ Transit is conducting a ‘Princeton Transitway Study’ of the Dinky train right of way

Could a driverless shuttle replace the Dinky? Image from the Sept. NJ Transit request for proposals.

NJ Transit is conducting a study of the Princeton Branch right of way and travel connections to the branch, a 2.7-mile rail line that connects Princeton with Princeton Junction. The two-car train known as the Dinky currently runs along a single track in the right of way and is the shortest scheduled commuter rail line in the United States.

According to documents, the purpose of the study called the “Princeton Transitway Study,” is to evaluate potential transitway improvements in the Dinky right of way.

“The study will investigate opportunities to provide and expand service on this corridor using state of the art transit modes,” reads a Sept. 24 request for proposals from NJ Transit obtained by Planet Princeton. “It will consider alternative transit modes to accommodate ridership demand, including new and emerging technologies that have the potential to improve service and potentially function more cost-effectively than the present arrangement.”

Buses, multi-modal transport, autonomous high headway service, and more will be considered as part of the study.

“The study will also explore the possibility of using the corridor as a backbone for additional transit, including other local or regional transit where use of the transitway would offer an operational benefit,” reads the request for proposals. “This may include existing bus services, new services, or potentially the extension of the existing services into downtown Princeton.”

A primary consideration of the assessment will be travel demand relating to Princeton University’s proposed expansion. The school is adding two new residential colleges, building new engineering and environmental science facilities, and creating a new campus in West Windsor called the Lake Campus.

Asked on Wednesday where the study stands, NJ Transit provided very little information.

“This study is in its very early stages,” said Lisa Torbic of NJ Transit. “No public meetings have taken place as of now.”

Torbic would not say if a firm has been hired to conduct the study, and if so which firm was hired. She also did not respond to questions about the general timeline for the study’s completion, and whether any meetings called for in the study have been held already with local or regional officials.

More than a decade ago, NJ Transit conducted another study of the Princeton Branch right of way and developed a concept plan for a bus rapid transit system for the Princeton area. The bus would have replaced the Dinky train and would have run along the Dinky train right of way. Citizens packed public meetings to protest the replacement of the Dinky with buses, and the plans were scrapped. Residents proposed other alternatives at the time, such as replacing the Dinky with a light-rail system or trolley that would run all the way to Nassau Street. The Dinky remained, but the line was shortened by 460 feet at Princeton University’s request to make way for the Lewis Center for the Arts building and a new access road to the university’s parking garage. The battle over the future of the Dinky and the shortening of the train line was a major setback for town and gown relations, with residents filing unsuccessful lawsuits to try to stop the truncation of the line. The two historic train station buildings were converted into restaurants, and the new station on Alexander Road opened in November of 2014.

A goal of the current study effort, according to the request for proposals, is to determine if a “multimodal Transitway in the study corridor” can function in a similar way to the former bus rapid transit concept, “serving existing travel needs while also supporting the new overlay services that would benefit from operating on this corridor to efficiently access Princeton municipality, Route 1, West Windsor, the university, and regionally.”

Another goal is to consider replacements for the Dinky train cars. According to NJ Transit, the current Dinky train cars were built in 1977 and are nearing the end of their useful life. NJ Transit wants to retire its entire fleet of the Arrow III EMUs electrical multiple-unit cars and replace them with new higher capacity, multi-level cars that officials say would be ill-suited for operation on the Princeton Branch.

As part of the study, the consultant will hold four outreach meetings with the university, the municipality, and county and state transportation representatives, according to the September document. The consultant is tasked with evaluating current conditions along the train line and coming up with recommendations for future use of the right of way, after looking at four alternatives.

Alternative one – A road cart-way with embedded rail, to facilitate both rail and rubber-tired tram services on a shared-use right of way. The road vehicle could do a loop around town and connect to the Princeton Branch right of way.

Alternative two – A standalone rail with a parallel roadway for rubber-tired tram or bus service. Continued use of the current arrow train cars or replacement with another federally approved rail vehicle. The adjacent cart-way would require new bridge work over the D&R Canal, Lake Carnegie, and a tributary of the Assunpink Creek near Princeton Junction.

Alternative three – A road cart-way with a guideway for rubber-tired tram or bus service (similar to one but also allowing for buses).

Alternative four – Continued use of Arrow III cars, restoring them or replacing them with another suitable vehicle. No new stations or structures.

The consultant is also supposed to consider two optional additional stations on Princeton University properties — one somewhere between Canal Pointe Boulevard and and Route 1 south, and one behind a parcel on Alexander Road in West Windsor, east of route 1.

All of the alternatives must, at a minimum, match the current service level, and estimated costs for each alternative should be provided by the consultant, according to the request for proposals. Autonomous vehicles or semi-autonomous vehicles could be considered. New services sharing the right of way or operating parallel to it may be operated by Princeton University and could connect with the local road system, according to the document.

The consultant can also forecast ridership growth from 2025 to 2040, and could consider the potential for a bike and pedestrian pathway parallel to the proposed transitway.

A potential bus overlay route. Image from the Sept. NJ Transit request for proposals.

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