By Philip Sean Curran
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert was rebuffed on Nov. 20 in her bid to get New Jersey Transit officials to restore the suspended Dinky train service immediately or sooner than the mid-January timeframe the transportation agency has in mind to run the train again.
Lempert appealed directly to NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin S. Corbett during a meeting she had with him in the Hamilton office of state Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (D-Mercer and Middlesex). Benson is the chairman of the Assembly transportation and independent authorities committee.
The Dinky, a train that runs from the Princeton University campus to Princeton Junction, was taken out of service in October so NJ Transit can install on its rail network a high-tech safety system known as Positive Train Control. The agency is up against a federal deadline of Dec. 31 to complete that project.
“Obviously there is concern about the shutdown of the Dinky for the Positive Train Control installation,” Lempert said by phone on Nov. 20. “We wanted to meet with NJ Transit to ask for Dinky service to be restored … immediately or before when the original restart was going to be. NJ Transit said that is not going to be possible for a variety of reasons, including labor contracts they have entered into.”
In October, NJ Transit representatives came to a Princeton Council meeting to say they needed to take the Dinky out of service temporarily because “the crews are needed from the Dinky, the equipment, in order to help us meet” the Dec. 31 deadline.
“NJ Transit continues to work closely with community and other officials to address concerns during the Dinky temporary service suspension,” NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy J. Snyder said by email on Nov. 20.
NJ Transit has sought to make up for lost time, having begun the year with only 12 percent of the Positive Train Control (PTC) installation complete. The Dinky is exempt from PTC installation as a “non-mainline track,” NJ Transit said. While the Dinky is not running, bus service is being provided.
Lempert said she has received comments from members of the public “that the bus is not an adequate substitute, particularly at rush hour.” She said she conveyed those concerns during the meeting.
“The whole point of what makes the Dinky such a valuable transportation asset is that it’s on a dedicated right of way and it can get you to Princeton Junction from the Princeton station in about five minutes,” she said. “If you’re in a bus or in a car, that same trip can take up to 45 minutes.”
Lempert said NJ Transit representatives agreed to address complaints about the bus service, have regular meetings with Princeton officials every few weeks until the Dinky is restored, and to better communicate.
“What NJ Transit is disappointing with is, I don’t think they have the skill set in place on knowing how to execute a communication plan, how to communicate with the public well,” said Assembly Roy Freiman (D-Mercer, Hunterdon, Middlesex and Somerset), a member of the transportation committee who attended the meeting at Benson’s office. “I think they recognize that, but they still don’t know how to do it well and that’s their own doing.”
Benson, who arranged the meeting, could not be reached for comment.
The issue with the Dinky comes with state officials looking to improve NJ Transit, an agency of which Gov. Phil Murphy has been critical. A firm the state hired to analyze NJ Transit found a series of deficiencies within the organization, including the lack of a strategic plan.