Light Rail from Camden to Trenton

Camden Courier-Post - March 12, 2004

River Line to debut amid hopes, criticism
Sunday start is historic, but not everyone is on board


The River Line passes through Camden en route to Trenton, a trip that will take 73 minutes.

Shortly before 6 a.m. Sunday, a diesel-powered train that can carry 180 passengers will pull away from the Entertainment Center station here, marking the start of service on the South Jersey light rail line.

Just how many passengers the train will actually carry - on Sunday, Monday and in the days and months to come - remains the billion-dollar question about the controversial billion-dollar line.

Full or empty, Sunday's inaugural run of the 34-mile, Camden-to-Trenton "River Line" will be a historic occasion.

It is the start of the largest-ever public sector investment in South Jersey, the first "trolley" to run through the streets of Camden since 1937 and the first passenger train to run along the Delaware from Camden to Trenton since 1963.

By comparison, the PATCO Hi-Speedline, which opened in 1969 and which carries roughly six times as many passengers a day as the River Line is expected to carry, cost $94 million.

The Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry bridges together cost less than $350 million to construct (again, of course, in "yesteryear" dollars.)

Some people, such as Hamilton resident Rosa Rivera, are planning to give it a try.

"It will drop me off right outside my building," said Rivera, director of financial services at Rutgers-Camden, who plans to take the train from Bordentown.

But most people interviewed Thursday called it a waste of money, even as they hoped it would succeed.

"I used to teach environmental science," said Rick Hall, 55, a chiropractor from Willingboro, "so I'm aware how important it is to get cars off the road. But I don't think this line is going to get enough people off the road to justify the expense."

The current administration in Trenton took office cursing the River Line as a terrible investment that should never have been built and that the state could ill afford.

Gov. James E. McGreevey went so far as to launch a criminal investigation of the project more than a year ago - an investigation that disappeared into the recesses of the Attorney General's Office and hasn't been heard of since.

But having completed the line - albeit 14 months behind schedule and several hundred million dollars over budget - the current administration is determined to make the best of it, it says, both as transportation and as an engine for economic development.

When McGreevey, State Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere and NJ Transit Executive Director George Warrington break a bottle of champagne over a rail car Saturday to christen the line, they will urge residents to put behind them the line's "colorful history," as Warrington put it recently.

They will talk instead of their hopes for the revival of Camden and Trenton and all the old riverfront communities in between.

On Thursday, Joseph North, the NJ Transit official in charge of light rail operations, predicted residents will be "pleasantly surprised" when they hop aboard the line.

Given the generally low level of expectations, North may be proven correct.

Rosa Feketics, a 93-year-old Beverly resident, said she was going to ride the line, describing it as "convenient."

But others find it unnecessary. Hall, of Willingboro, says everyone he hears talking about it in his office in Burlington Township views the line as a "waste of money."

Planners and developers, however, see bright promise in the rail line, talking about the millions of dollars that have already been invested on nearby projects such as the Burlington Coat Factory in Edgewater Park and the Merck Medco offices in Willingboro.

But those are on Route 130, not on the line itself, critics note, as is most of the retail development that has taken place in recent years.

And in the old riverfront towns, there are only limited signs of revival in downtown business districts that are hard-pressed to compete with the big box stores on the highway.

"Everybody's hoping for success," said Joseph Domenus, the owner of the Riverside News Agency. "But I don't see it happening. They can push it any way they want, but what the line amounts to is transportation for people who don't have transportation."

More or better bus service would serve the same purpose at far less expense, Domenus said.

Critics of the line complain about more than the economics of the line. They don't like the additional traffic signals that have been installed, saying the line is causing congestion, not relieving it.

They don't like the horns that are sounded at each of the 70 grade crossings, comparing the blare to the sound of a "strangled duck," as one resident put it.

They worry that the trains will bring more drugs and criminals to their towns than tourists or shoppers.

Transit officials have adjusted the traffic signals and are "working" on the horns, although they are limited in what they can do by federal regulations, they say.

They have set a bargain basement price of $1.10 anywhere on the line to attract riders.

They are doing what they can to ameliorate one of the principal problems with the line - its limited hours.

Because it shares the tracks with Conrail, the River Line will operate only between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., which limits its utility for night-time entertainment events in Camden and Trenton and connections coming back from Philadelphia or New York.

The trains will operate until midnight Saturdays, when there are no freight runs.

And on other days NJ Transit will run a late-night shuttle service between Pennsauken and Camden (on tracks that it does not share with Conrail) for concertgoers and baseball fans who want to avoid the hassle of parking in the city.


Camden Courier-Post - March 12, 2004

Riders will face a learning curve


It took time, but riders on the light rail trains in Dallas mastered the art of the newspaper "commuter fold."

They also figured out how to read train schedules and learned when to leave home in case they hit a traffic jam on the way to the station. And they know how to use the automatic ticket vending machines.

"It's learning about using transit," said Morgan Lyons, spokesman for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, which opened its first line in 1996 and expanded several times. "When we say the train leaves at 6:05 a.m., it leaves at 6:05 a.m."

Sunday morning, residents along the Route 130 corridor begin the learning curve as New Jersey Transit starts public operation of the 34-mile River Line between Camden and Trenton. That includes figuring out how to fold a newspaper so commuters don't bump elbows, understanding schedules and buying tickets.

The white, blue and yellow diesel-powered trains will run every 30 minutes, making the trip from the Tweeter Center in Camden to the Trenton train station in 73 minutes.

People other than the riders also must get used to the trains, officials from other transit agencies said. That especially includes drivers traveling roads along the tracks.

In Houston, there have been 18 crashes between vehicles and streetcars since the 7 1/2-mile light rail line opened Jan. 1. None has been fatal.

The biggest problem with Houston MetroRail, which runs from downtown to the Reliant Center, is motorists making illegal left turns in front of the 100-foot-long streetcars, said spokesman Ken Connaughton.

Much of the track runs through city streets, similar to the setup in Camden.

"There may be the element of the line being new and strange," Connaughton said. "But it's really people not taking responsibility for their own driving."

At some locations along River Road from Palmyra to Riverside, traffic lights blink yellow for the main drag until a train approaches. As a train nears, the traffic light goes through its cycles to keep drivers off the tracks or from turning into the train's path.

When the train is gone, the lights go back to flash mode.

There have been no collisions between motorists and trains on the River Line, said Joseph North, general manager of light rail operations for NJ Transit. There are 70 road crossings on the line.

"We've minimized left-hand turns," North said.

Earlier this month, NJ Transit workers continued to flag the main crossing in Riverside. But the signals are now working properly, said Pat McWilliams, manager of operations.

There are 20 stations along the River Line and about 3,300 parking spaces. The trains are serviced in an industrial-looking building off 36th Street in Camden, which also houses the dispatch center.

The 20 light rail cars - which can each hold 186 people - are powered by 12-cylinder Mercedes-Benz engines and get 2 miles to the gallon, North said. In the shop, workers wash the cars and do routine maintenance on the wheels and engines.

In other parts of the country, light rail is expanding. Work is under way in California to connect the state capital of Sacramento with Folsom to the east.

For nearly a week after opening one extension this year, customer service people helped riders work the ticket vending machines and read schedules, said Mike Wiley, an assistant general manager with Sacramento Regional Transit District.

"There's a period of time where people need to know how things operate," he said. "But people got acclimated to it fairly fast."

Riders also needed to get accustomed to the length of time that trains stop at the stations, Wiley said. It's not like a bus where the driver might wait if he sees someone making a dash for the stop.

Trains must run on schedule, he said. Because part of the Sacramento line is single-track - as is the River Line - one late train could have a ripple effect across the system.

"When a train pulls into a station you have 20 seconds," he said. "You need to be ready."

Sherry Edwards, 53, would rather take the train than the bus when she heads from her Cinnaminson home to shop in Burlington City.

"I'm going to give it a try," she said. "I can walk from home to the station."

Edwards has no fears about using the ticket machines or figuring out schedules. As she waited Thursday for her bus home, a test train rolled past the corner.

"I'm fine reading the schedules," she said. "They're similar to bus schedules."

On the River Line, riders have about 30 seconds to get on the trains when they stop at the stations, North said. But drivers will wait if patrons have trouble getting on or are seen rushing along the platform.

"We tell operators that they can stay longer than 30 seconds," he said, adding that time can be made up in the schedule. "Safety is more important than schedule."

For the first week of service, NJ Transit will have employees at the stations to help riders use the ticket machines, North said.

The folks in Dallas probably had a tougher time getting used to light rail than residents will in South Jersey. Until the line was built, Dallas went several decades without any commuter rail or trolleys.

In South Jersey, those kinds of services have been available for decades. While trolleys have not run in Camden for more than 60 years, there is the 30-year-old PATCO Hi-Speedline, as well as subways, commuter trains and streetcars in Philadelphia.

"In New Jersey, even if you don't regularly use mass transit you've probably been on it occasionally," North said. "It won't be totally alien."


Camden Courier-Post - March 12, 2004

The South Jersey light rail line, recently renamed the River Line, is scheduled to commence running along a 34-mile route from Camden to Trenton Sunday March 14.

 Riders can board at any of its 20 stops and ride to any other on the line for $1.10, a rate well below bus service for comparable trips. The bargain rate is intended to attract riders to a line that has been controversial from its inception in the summer of 1995.

The line is expected to carry less than 6,000 fares on an average weekday, an amount, that combined with the lower fare, will make it the poorest performing rail line in the nation in terms of the fare box. Fares generated will cover less than five percent of the line's operating cost.

The 34-mile line, which cost more than $1 billion to build, will run every half hour from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days, with extended service to midnight on Saturdays when it does not have to relinquish the 

tracks to freight service after 10 p.m.

Transit officials see it as an important link to other rail service. Riders can debark at Camden and get on the PATCO high-speed line to Philadelphia or get off in Trenton to take NJTransit or Amtrak trains to North Jersey and New York.

State and local officials hope the line will stimulate economic growth in addition to providing transportation.

A trip from the E-center in Camden to the Amtrak station in Trenton will take 73 minutes.

Upper Left: The River Line running west on Cooper Street on its first day of service,

Upper Right: Eddie Ruberte of Mount LAurel prepares to ride the River Line with his two daughters, Anadie, 4, and Evanna, 6.

Left: Laurence Storm, 46, of Pine Hill, and Brtandon Harris, 16, of Camden, were the first two people to buy tickets Sunday for the first trip pn the River Line at the start of the line in Camden

Camden Courier-Post - March 15, 2004

First things first: Riders get up early for initial trip


They didn't step on board the train at 5:45 a.m Sunday because the price of gasoline is soaring or because the roads between here and Trenton were congested.

The first people to ride the River Line, South Jersey's long-awaited 34-mile light rail line, were there for just that reason - to be first.

"My dad dropped me off about 5," said Brandon Harris, 16, of the Parkside section of Camden, who was first to buy a ticket at the Entertainment Center station, the start of the line at the Camden end.

"I just wanted to be the first guy," Harris, a student at the Camden County Vocational-Technical School, who said he had no particular interest in trains or mass transportation.

By the time the white, blue and yellow train pulled into the station shortly before 5:45, a half-dozen other riders had gathered on the platform.

And there already were about 20 people aboard, savvy riders who had boarded in Pennsauken, next to the garage where trains are stored overnight.

But no one seemed to be jockeying for bragging rights. Everyone was smiling and the line was universally declared a good ride.

Passenger service on the billion-dollar River Line began as the sun rose Sunday.

It did so without hoopla, far different from the day before when dignitaries - allowed to take a preview run - gave speeches, bands played and the governor broke a bottle of champagne over a rail car.

Most of those aboard the first passenger run on Sunday, appropriately enough, were rail buffs for whom trains and their history are a passion.

Mike Friedberger, 56, of Rockaway, got up at 2:30 a.m. to ride the first train, his 12-year-old daughter, Rachel, in tow.

For him, the inaugural run was old hat.

"I rode the first PATCO train (in 1969)," Friedberger said, "and the first train to Atlantic City (in its latest incarnation)."

About 85 passengers made the inaugural River Line trip to Trenton, arriving "on or close to schedule" about 6:58 a.m., said Penny Bassett-Hackett, spokeswoman for NJ Transit.

Eddie Ruberte drove in from Mount Laurel with his two daughters, Anadie, 4, and Evanna, 6.

Ruberte said he wanted to see what the line was like "after all those delays."

The girls seemed excited just to be on an early morning adventure with Dad.

One rider who expects to be back is Bob Vogel, one of several members of the West Jersey Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society who boarded the train at the 36th Street Station in Pennsauken.

"I'm going to take it to New York City," said Vogel, a 62-year-old chemist from Collingswood, adding he'll take PATCO to the River Line to a NJ Transit train north.

"It will take longer," he conceded.

But it also will relieve him of the drive to Hamilton Township he now makes to catch the train to the city.