Today, June 4, is the last day to complete NJ Transit’s survey for the Princeton transitway. If you want to make your voice heard about the future of the Dinky train and the connection between Princeton and Princeton Junction, you can complete the survey online: https://www.research.net/r/Dinky21
The survey is part of a study that is looking at the Princeton Branch right of way and travel connections to the branch, a 2.7-mile rail line that links 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.
Officials said the study will help direct the future of transit service along this corridor. The study will evaluate existing conditions and estimate future demand for public transit along the corridor, taking into consideration planned developments such as the expansion of Princeton University, as well as new and emerging transportation technologies and other trends that are changing how and when people want to travel. The study will also evaluate the potential for the corridor to become a “multi-modal backbone” for public transit that could be used to improve local and regional connections for bus and rail transit, as well as pedestrian, bicycle, and other modes of transportation. A potential extension of service into downtown Princeton and the potential to add new stops along the corridor will be evaluated.
According to NJ Transit, the Princeton transitway study is exploring various transit alternatives, including:
- A roadway with embedded rail that can support both rail and rubber-tired transit vehicles.
- A stand-alone rail corridor with a parallel roadway for rubber-tired tram and/or bus service.
- A roadway with a guideway that could support a rubber-tired tram and buses.
- A no-build option that continues to use the existing Arrow III cars or similar rail vehicle. No new stations would be considered under this alternative.
The result of the study will be the selection of a preferred alternative that state officials say would improve the quality, reliability, and frequency of service on the Princeton Branch to meet the needs of the surrounding community now and in the future. The preferred alternative could then be studied more and the project would then be designed. The estimated cost of the project is about $61 million.
For more than 150 years, the Princeton Branch has linked the Princeton and Princeton Junction stations. NJ Transit officials have said the agency has reached an “important crossroads” for the service, necessitating a study of the corridor to address existing and future anticipated needs including:
- Aging rail vehicles. The vehicles that are used on the Princeton Branch, as well as other rail corridors, are 43 years old and will soon be replaced with high-capacity, modern, multilevel vehicles systemwide. Officials said three vehicles minimum are required to make up a “train consist,” they said will present significant operational and efficiency challenges on the short Princeton Branch.
- Providing access to new, comfortable vehicles, improving the reliability of service due to the elimination of electrified rail, reducing operating costs, and improving the safety and reliability of the surface transportation system that would replace electrified rail are also considerations.
- According to NJ Transit, Dinky ridership has declined from 1,095 average weekday boardings in 2009 to 515 in 2019. State officials have attributed the decline to several factors, including limited service frequency, service reliability issues due to the age of rail vehicles, and the availability of parking at the Princeton Junction station. Advocates for the Dinky have attributed some of the decline to the Dinky station in Princeton being closed temporarily when the station was being moved from University Place to Alexander Street, and the relocation of the station just over 400 feet farther from the center of town.
- Changing demands for transportation. Officials said the COVID-19 pandemic has changed travel patterns and will likely have a longer-term impact on working from home. NJ Transit officials said they want a “more robust and flexible system that can be scaled” to meet changing demands.
- New demand along the corridor. With development planned by Princeton University and transit-oriented development in West Windsor, state officials said transit demand is anticipated to increase. They said growth will require more efficient connections to the Northeast Corridor, as well as the potential for new stops along the corridor to serve new developments.
The primary study area includes the Princeton Branch corridor between the Princeton Station and Princeton Junction Station. NJ Transit officials said concept plans will be prepared for alternatives that fall within the study area. In addition to looking at alternatives for the Princeton Branch, the study will assess opportunities to improve connections to bus, pedestrian, bicycle, and other transportation modes.
Advocates for changes to the Dinky say if the university organizes future growth along the transitway, a high-frequency transit service that stops at key points, will be an important asset in helping the school meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals by creating a walkable, bikeable area.
Advocates for the Dinky fear that the goal is to replace the train with bus rapid transit, a proposal that many area residents opposed when it was first proposed about a decade ago. Transportation expert Alain Kornhauser, a professor at Princeton University and an alumnus of the school who has been active in the citizen group “Save the Dinky” over more than a decade, argues that the university never should have moved the Dinky station farther from the center of town and should move it closer to the center of town if officials really care about walkabilty.
“There is a purpose to this study. It is the first move in the endgame of the university’s long run ‘land-grab’ of property that is deed-restricted to be use exclusively for transportation purposes,” Kornhauser said. “The first land-grab moved the Dinky from Blair Arch in order to create a ‘rail-crossing-less” dormitory complex. The latest move was to create a rail-crossing-less secondary access road to a parking garage. The purpose of this study is to finally create an entirely rail-crossing-less campus. Thus the ultimate land grab. “
Deputy University Spokesman Michael Hotchkiss said in a written statement that the university has long been a supporter of transit options throughout the region. “We value the work that NJ Transit is undertaking to evaluate the important Princeton-West Windsor transit corridor where the Dinky operates,” he said. “We appreciate being included as a project stakeholder by NJ Transit and its consultant team and look forward to participating as the study continues.”
A Prineton transitway stakeholder group began meeting in April to discuss the future of the Princeton transitway. The members of the group represent the university, NJ Transit, planning and transportation organizations, consultants, and representatives from local, county and state government. The stakeholders group includes just one citizen who is not representing an agency, organization, or government body, Kip Cherry from Save the Dinky. Public forums about the transitway have not been scheduled yet.
For more information about the study, visit NJ Transit’s Princeton Transitway page.