Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert has expressed concern about the “long-term negative impact” on Dinky ridership when the rail service temporarily goes dark starting Oct. 14 and is replaced by bus service until sometime in January.
She said that during that span, “people can create new habits and so you’re having this sort of short-term fix with long-term negative implications for the Dinky line.”
“I think they would use a car,” Lempert told reporters at her Oct. 8 press conference. “One of the main attractions of the Dinky is that it’s faster than driving. But if you’re waiting for a bus vs. just driving yourself, people are going to make the calculation that it’s going to be faster to drive.”
She added that bus service “really is never to going to be a substitute for the train when there’s congestion on the road.”
NJ Transit said it has a schedule for the bus service mirroring the Dinky schedule, but Lempert said the ride will be longer than taking the train because it’s a bus that “has to go through congested roads.”
At the Princeton Council meeting on Oct. 8, an NJ Transit official said the agency needs the equipment and manpower from the Dinky to help them meet a federal deadline of Dec. 31 for installing Positive Train Control (PTC), a high-tech system to make rail travel safer.
“It’s not a decision we wanted to make, it’s one we have to make,” said Thomas Clark, regional manager of government and community relations.
NJ Transit risks incurring “substantial” fines if it misses the deadline, Clark said.
“We are doing our very, very best not to fall into that position,” he said.
NJ Transit has said it is about 70 percent complete toward installing PTC.
Lempert said NJ Transit intends to “remove the (Dinky) cars and put them on other lines that are undergoing improvements.”
But the Dinky line, which runs from Princeton University to Princeton Junction, is exempt from PTC installation, according to NJ Transit.
“It’s classified as a non-main line track, meaning it’s isolated from other trains,” Clark said. “The single Dinky train has exclusive use of the tracks and therefore, is not subject to PTC designation and installation.”
But Princeton officials, who passed a resolution protesting the rail line’s suspension, were not happy. Council President Jenny Crumiller said officials were never told the Dinky was not getting PTC.
“It really made things worse to feel a little bit like we were hoodwinked, because we probably would have started complaining earlier had we known,” she said at the meeting. “I feel like there was either a lack of communication or something, so we had to find out, really, by pressing ourselves for the answers.”
Councilman Tim Quinn raised concern that the suspension of the Dinky service “is just a step that is testing to make the Dinky go away.”
He sought assurances from Clark that NJ Transit was committed to continuing the rail service “in perpetuity or for as long as you could commit.”
“I am prepared to tell you today that the Dinky is not going anywhere and it’s coming back once this PTC installation is complete,” Clark said.
Two state lawmakers, including the head of the state Assembly transportation committee, attended the council meeting and weighed in.
Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (D-Mercer and Middlesex), the chairman of that committee, said he was “frustrated.” He said that in August, his committee had a hearing on “service disruptions all across the lines,” but the Dinky was not “on that agenda at that time.”
“That is why when we heard about this, how surprised we were,” Benson said. “Like you, I initially had that same thought about Positive Train Control being on here. I get the distinction between the cars will have to have it, but not the line itself. But again, we’re not benefiting here in this local community.”
“To not to be consulted, but informed of this decision at the late hour is beyond frustrating on this,” said Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Mercer, Hunterdon, Somerset and Middlesex), a member of the transportation committee.
Starting in November and lasting through January, NJ Transit is reducing rail fares by 10 percent.
“It’s a small way of compensating you,” Clark said. “But we’re doing our best.”