Thursday, June 19, 2008

Function at the junction

Three routes are being considered for the MOM (Monmouth-Ocean-Middesex) line, which would start in Lakehurst. The Monmouth Junction line would serve western Monmouth and three southern Middlesex towns before joining Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line in South Brunswick. The proposed Red Bank route would join the North Jersey Coast Line in Red Bank, while the third option calls for laying tracks along the Henry Hudson Trail and joining the North Jersey Coast Line in Matawan.
Extension of NJ Transit commuter rail service in this part of central Jersey is unavoidable, no matter what opponents say. The NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection rejected the Monmouth Junction option because it runs too close to a Revolutionary War battlefield park. I had thought this the best route, least susceptible to bottlenecks & delays, skipping Rahway Junction, where the Jersey Coast line narrows to two tracks & meets the busy Northwest Corridor, with all the Amtrak & freight traffic.

From Red Bank southward, Jersey Coast is like a light rail line, especially the nonelectrified stretch from Long Branch to Bay Head, which runs at street level & has numerous gated grade crossings. Very old-fashioned. If the need existed, it would be suitable for the new trolleys. They could reopen stations in north Asbury Park & Avon, reactivate the spur into Monmouth Park racetrack, & serve Fort Monmouth when it converts to civilian use.

When railroad trackage & rights-of-way were being abandoned all over Jersey in the decades after World War II, it was crackpot to suggest they might become useful again at some point in the distant future. Trolleys & little passenger stations in rural towns were nostalgia. Now many of those towns are huge suburban developments & it costs big, big bucks to put them back on the rail grid, made even more expensive for lack of having held on to & minimally maintained property only a few yards wide.Who knew? Gas was cheap enough even during the stressed 1970's, & Popular Science magazine predicted we'd all be using personal rocket packs to get around by now.

As a teenager, I watched the building of the Raritan Valley passenger Line through Roselle Park along the Lehigh Valley tracks, which no longer handled much coal. The tracks were raised up on embankments, dangerous grade crossings eliminated, a new station constructed, & the old Jersey Central station a few blocks away [postcard], which had inconvenient connections to New York, slowly went out of business. The guy who owned a liquor store near the old station had the foresight to move over by the new one into the only available retail space before anyone else got the idea. Although that was a long time ago, I can now see it was really the start of the new transit era. All newer NJ Transit stations are like the one in Roselle Park, with long elevated platforms. No attempt was made to disguise it or integrate it into the neighborhood, like quaint downtown stations of the past. We thought it was ugly. But it ended the train-meets-car (or bus) wrecks that had occasionally provided tragic small town entertainment. For the first time, I rode the train rather than bus to New York City, transferring at Newark, on the trips Jersey kids still take to Manhattan for no reason other than to wander around staring at everyone & everything.

There's been a proposal on the board for awhile to extend light rail service from Newark all the way to that abandoned Jersey Central Station. Nearly the entire route is on an existing right-of-way. I had considered it the somewhat fanciful idea & ideal of trolley-lovers in an office somewhere having fun with their fat contract from NJ Transit. Now I'm not so sure.

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