Riders Will Face a Learning Curve

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.

Camden Courier-Post – March 12, 2004

By MICHAEL T. BURKHART

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 ½-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.”


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