Op-ed: Don’t let them pave over the Princeton Rail Line

The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers, the statewide railroad advocacy organization formed in 1980 to give transit users a voice in their transit future. NJ-ARP has been following the travails of the Princeton Dinky service from Princeton Junction on the Northeast Corridor rail line to Princeton proper. We have reached an inflection point where this service may be forever changed from an exclusive coordinated electrified rail operation to a rubber-tired motorized service. We say this because the exclusive right-of-way of the Princeton Dinky is undergoing a study to determine the future of transit service along this corridor. Notice the use of the word “transit” versus “rail.”

The advocate group “Save the Dinky,” as well as NJ-ARP, fears the worst and fear they should. We believe the fate of the Dinky is a foregone conclusion and the goal is to replace the rail service with bus rapid transit. According to NJ Transit, four options are being studied:

  • 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 vehicles.

Notably missing from the options is improvements to the existing coordinated rail service that connects Princeton with the Northeast Corridor at Princeton Junction, where passengers transfer to both New Jersey Transit trains to Newark, New York and Trenton, and Amtrak trains to stations between Boston and Washington, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Providence, and New Haven. Perhaps this is another version of Option 4, but that does not seem to be the case. The current operation, which involves a small amount of capital investment to remain serving the public in a viable manner, is threatened by New Jersey Transit’s desire to scrap the Arrow III cars, which currently serve to transport passengers between these two points.

Sadly, a robust version of Option 4 above is highly unlikely as the winner. Exactly why? NJ Transit itself has admitted that it needs the study because it plans to replace the Arrow III electric multiple unit cars (EMUs) used on the line and various others in the state, which are 43-years old, with rolling stock that is unsuitable for the Dinky. The organization will soon supplant them with new three-car sets consisting of one multi-level power car sandwiched between two existing multi-level trailers, many having driving controls. Because they have arbitrarily indicated that ALL the Arrow cars will be retired and the new EMU lash-ups they chose to order will be such that they must run in a minimum of long three-car consists, NJ Transit claims the plan they devised would pose “significant operational and efficiency challenges on the short Princeton Branch.” Which it does, but only due to its own making. One does not have to read between the lines to know that NJ Transit is not going to devote 3 high-capacity cars to what is a one-car operation, plain and simple. NJ-ARP knew this in 2017, when in a December 17, 2017 meeting with then NJ Transit Executive Director Steve Santoro and Director of Rail Operations Robert Lavell their response to NJ-ARP’s asking about the Dinky was revealing. NJ-ARP asked if the new EMUs would be used for the Dinky service. Messrs. Santoro and Lavell looked at each other with Cheshire cat grins before answering our question with “no decision has been made on that.” But it really had, as it was inherent in their official fleet strategy. It was a no-go and they knew it.

For this latest study, NJ Transit has named 44 “stakeholders” to a committee to evaluate the study. Notably absent are rail advocates and regular riders of the Dinky. The roster includes politicians, representatives from NJ Transit, Princeton University, the Regional Plan Association, the Delaware River Planning Commission, Princeton’s administrator, the Mercer County Planning Director, Suburban Bus Transit, North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, Keep Middlesex Moving, and contractor Stantec. Missing from the collection of 44 individuals who will decide the Dinky’s fate are true regular riders who should have a voice. It is a stacked deck that also should have members of NJ-ARP, as our organization represents many true stakeholders.

NJ-ARP recognizes there will be public hearings on the matter. We believe the hearing process is no more than a formality. From previous history, we all know what NJ Transit and Princeton University want to do — get rid of this electrified rail line, one that already meets the New Jersey mandate for electric transportation. For those that do not know, the governor of New Jersey is also a trustee of Princeton University. We hope Governor Murphy will not cave to whatever the university wants, and make no mistake, Princeton University wants the railroad replaced by a road. Governor Christie succeeded in truncating the branch, much to the university’s desire, relocating the Princeton terminal farther away from the center and thereby eliminating most riders who walked to the train, which therefore resulted in a drop in ridership. We certainly don’t want to see Governor Murphy finish the job and eliminate the branch altogether.

NJ-ARP Vice President and Membership Director Joe Versaggi, as well as NJ-ARP member John Kilbride, have it absolutely right in that this is no more than a veiled attempt by NJ Transit to make the Dinky corridor a busway, as single-level EMUs are purposely not in their equipment plans. But they should be. It’s been over 40 years since NJ Transit purchased a new single-level EMU, while both the MTA and SEPTA have purchased over a thousand similar cars over the past 20 years. NJ Transit’s service model is not like the MTA’s or SEPTA’s; it is reminiscent of the MBTA’s in Boston (and even that agency plans to replace its slow diesel trains with EMUs).

Vice President Versaggi indicates that if all the Arrow III cars must go, NJ Transit could actually keep the Dinky running by purchasing several Metro-North M8 cars by tagging along onto the next Connecticut DOT order, buy several EXO MR90s from the Montreal commuter rail system, or even lease a few surplus SEPTA Silverliners, which currently run from Trenton to Philadelphia. In the meantime, other rail technologies have become available if the Arrow cars must be replaced. Included among them are Vivarail’s new battery-operated train and the use of rolling stock that is identical to NJ Transit’s own River Line diesel light rail cars.

Thus, there are a number of alternatives that would keep heavy rail service running in the corridor, retaining the primary purpose of the line, which is as a conduit for bringing residents of Princeton to the Northeast Corridor and enabling them to ride to New York City, Philadelphia and other points. Any of these options would cost far less than $60 million. Another advantage of retaining the existing heavy rail service is that it would continue to afford a path for freight service to industries and distribution warehouses that might be attracted to the line, thereby creating jobs and more riders of the trains serving these facilities.

Among the improvements that could be made to Dinky service would be the restoration of a station stop at Penn’s Neck along Route 1 and the installation of a passing siding to allow for increased service. All that is needed is some imagination, common sense, and a will to do the right thing. Once rail service is discontinued and the right-of-way is paved over, this major asset will be gone forever. Princeton University and NJ Transit’s desire to kill the Dinky and replace it with a captive roadway will then be accomplished. NJ-ARP will do all it can to prevent that from happening, just as it did in resisting the truncation of the line. We are involved in the fight.

The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers


  1. The “truncation” of the line discussed in the above thread could not, in my opinion, have stopped people from walking to the station as I feel the total distance from the old station, now a restaurant, to the new must be perhaps 100 yards, which I do not regard as far. I have walked to the new location from the center of town more times than I can count since it opened. And goodness knows the parking is far better now than it ever was st the old location. Please comment on that statement in the article. Using that argument in reverse might be the equivalent of saying that McCarter is losing potential audience because people have to Park down beyond the new Dinky Station and walk farther to the theater…

  2. You don’t mention the environmental impact of the various alternatives. That needs to be a vital part of any study.

  3. One advantage of the paved “road” approach would be the ability to include a cycle path directly into downtown Princeton avoiding the need to interact with traffic on Alexander & Washington roads especially the crossing of Rt. 1

  4. Yup. McCarter blessed the move, even though it is now more difficult for its patrons and performers to access. In addition, with the expansion of the two restaurants intentionally on the right of way, the University has ensured that rail service will likely never be restored.
    It sure is good that parking at the Princeton train station has been improved; however, the overwhelming preference for non-walkers is to park at the Junction once they’ve decided to get in their car. And this fact does not address the other important benefit of the Dinky: being an affordable and accessible transit system for those coming to Princeton, not just leaving.
    All so sad. What has not been mentioned so far is that the deed for the 3.5 acres that is now occupied by those two eating establishments restricted that land to be used exclusively for transportation purposes. Overriding this deed restriction proved trivial to Nassau Hall with the Governor on its board. Taking up the track and eventually making the RoW into a bike path and walking trail is the natural conclusion.
    It must be 20+ years ago that Marvin Reed came to my office all excited to tell me about his vision for a regional Bus Rapid Transit system focused on the Dinky. I didn’t buy it then, I don’t buy it now. Its primary value then was as a mechanism for the University to absolve itself of the responsibility of having a rail line run through its property. That responsibly has liability implications that have weighed heavily on its perception of the Dinky. Rather than view it as an asset that can enhance the diversity and inclusivity of Princeton, it is viewed as a liability that can’t even be crossed by an access road to a parking garage (the primary reason the University fought in the courts to curtail the Dinky service). This latest study is simply a continuation of that mind set. With such a lack of appreciation and respect for what is an historically notable and uniquely irreplaceable asset to the Princeton community, we might as well turn out the lights right now.

  5. My understanding is it hurt ridership, and I suspect the numbers are there to prove it (hard to tell now during the pandemic).

  6. The curtailment of the line certainly affected my feelings about using the Dinky. I have relied on the train mostly to get to Newark Airport. Dragging luggage to the station was always, well, a drag, and the extra distance was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s (or rider’s) back. Nowadays, I prefer to get a ride to the Junction. As someone else said about the parking, once you’re in a car, you might as well go over to the Junction and skip the stress and hassle of the extra connection with the Dinky.
    Even in days when I was going to New York for work, the extra distance affected how I felt about walking to and fro with a laptop and briefcase . If I ever traveled empty-handed, then yes, I would happily walk to the Dinky, and I look forward to NY museum trips by that route.
    I do hope the Dinky stays. I would like to see a bike path added, and making it possible for buses to use that route when the Dinky is out of commission would be better than those lumbering buses stopping at every light between here and there.

  7. Make sure that the hearings are packed with “The public”. The last hearing I attended that was run by NJT there were two of us from the public there and about 50 from NJT. I felt like I was testifying to an empty church. It was sad. Load those hearings up with real people!
    Ron Baile

  8. What I don’t understand is why the University just spent a ton of money building a new station designed by a famous architect if their intention is to get rid of the train altogether.

  9. Princeton is always behind in thinking. The piece is great, but with all the people running around Princeton making money from their intelligence, it shouldn’t take a genius to see that anything leading to the potential greater use of the internal-combustion engine should not be seen as a novel (or even good) idea to solve anything. The planet is dying. Does no one care? I mean seriously care? Yes, it would die anyway–eventually–but we don’t have to accelerate it. And certainly not at the pace we are going. This business with paving-over railroad rights-of-way was all proposed once before in New jersey under the 1967 Alden (sp.?) Plan that was to cover the Jersey Central Railroad mainline. Now, I think its fair to say that most are glad it never happed. In Britain, something similar was done on a grander scale and it was a disaster.

    Also, by the way, I don’t think I’m SO offensive in what I try to submit to this paper, but it’s clear that what is wanted is not me but tea-hour journalism. I am not talking about this bit but the other things that are delayed forever. This is the last I’ll submit, which will grieve no one in any event. You have a right to your kind of village. F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Princeton is the finest little Southern town north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

  10. RE: The moved Dinky station. People use “100 yards” to trivialize the negative impact of the station moving farther from town. I commuted by train for 20 years. That 100 yards is 1) uphill, 2) lonely (I don’t feel safe walking it alone at night), and 3) difficult to find parking on an ad hoc basis. Before, we could always pay for a day’s parking at the Dinky, it was safe to be there after dark, and it was close enough (though more than a mile) for me to walk home. That last hilly, lonely “100 yards”, plus loss of easy parking nearby, did indeed represent the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ridership reduced. Don’t lets damage the commute even more by converting to buses, which are much slower getting across Rte 1.

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