Sat Apr 18th, 2009 at 03:38:15 AM EST
In Puente AVE, I reviewed various ridership statistics, and also discussed the phenomenon of slow success for new railway services with real bad starts. All my examples were high-speed, but I indicated that there are similar stories for other types of railways, too. Here is one – one with a really bad start.
The River LINE is a transit service on a railway line along the Delaware River in New Jersey, run by that US state's public transport company NJ Transit. It operates GTW 2/6s, European-standard low-floor articulated diesel multiple units (DMUs) made by Swiss maker Stadler. Due to the higher US structural stiffness requirements, they are categorised as "light rail".
NJT 3509 headed north to Trenton passes over the Crosswicks Creek on the curved trestle at Bordentown. October 2008 photo by Gerald Oliveto from RailPictures.Net
The River LINE was troubled already at project stage. It was originally intended for the other shore, which had a higher population and was more well-off. However, transit opponents (more on this later) organised a successful NIMBY campaign.
Most of the 55 km (34-mile) line is single-track. Except for brief sections at both ends, it is a pre-existing railway branchline (in fact, it used to be one of the first railroads in the USA: the Camden & Amboy RR). To avoid accidents, it was agreed to run the "light rail" exclusively by day, and the freight trains exclusively by night.
Map from Light Rail Now!
No tunnels or major bridges, no electrification – in effect, the project was a simple branchline upgrade. However, in the end, project costs totalled a staggering $1.1 billion (of this, half a billion are secured operational subsidies).
I still have no clue how they managed to achieve this level of over-spending – even if 'consultants' explain two-fifths. For scale, a comparable upgrade, that of the 53 km Haller Willem in Northwestern Germany, cost altogether 55 million (in two phases).
Currently, Haller Willem is served by the TALENT DMUs (a product of Bombardier's Aachen/Germany-based subsidiary Talbot) of NordWestBahn, a private operator owned by two city transit companies and Veolia. Photo of VT 715 in Dissen on 6 November 2008 by André Beutel from Bahnbilder.de
With full ticket prices fixed at $1.1 (even today, it was raised only to $1.35) and the projected ridership, it would take centuries for the River LINE to bring back the investment, not to mention operating costs. So financially, it was and remains an unmitigated disaster. Even transit proponents called it a white elephant. But, what about other benefits?
While costs were rising, even the initial ridership estimate was reduced from 9,300 to 5,900 and then 5,700 per workday.
But when the line started in 2004, in the first few weeks, ridership was a fraction of even that. As the (Devoid of) Reason Foundation wrote with satisfaction:
Now the preliminary ridership numbers have been released, and the picture they paint is grimmer still. A scant 1,500 riders are using the line on an average day, which is approximately one-quarter of NJ Transit's own projections. [Nice spin: the author divided actual ridership by two, assuming two-way rides; but the projection was simply for ridership. -DoDo] This is in spite of the fact that fares were cut to the bone ($1.10 per trip – cheaper than buses) in order to draw in riders.
Incongruously, NJ Transit spokeswoman Janet Hines claims to be "encouraged by the numbers" and hopes to meet projections by year's end. At this point, few share her optimism.
As you'll see, those few proved right. However, let's focus on this article a little more.
European readers may not be aware that in the USA, there is a well-developed anti-rail lobby: a network made up of well-financed libertarian think-tanks, corrupt and ideologically anti-public-services politicians, attack groups, and media workers, which is always at hand to badmouth every new passenger rail project. The (Devoid of) Reason Foundation is one of the main nodes.
The quoted article wasn't just crowing about the initial lack of success – but asked for the closure of the line:
What has been lost in this whole discussion is the question of whether or not it is wise to continue rail service along the River Line at all. Many seem to feel that South Jersey has no choice but to "make the best of it," as the Courier-Post once editorialized, and should invest even more money into guiding residential development to enhance ridership.
...You can't redeem the project or justify the investment. You can only waste more money.
...The tracks are already being used to haul freight, and can continue in this capacity even after passenger service is discontinued. Additionally, rail cars and other equipment can be liquidated to settle the debt associated with the line's construction.
Ha! Haha! Except... the triumphant naysayers were a bit too fast in declaring failure.
NJT 3510 as northbound train to Trenton enters Bordentown Station with trees in full boom for spring. April 2008 photo by Gerald Oliveto from RailPictures.Net
Below, the evolution of ridership numbers (in passengers per workday) – and the evolution of media opinion in quotes:
- 3,290 p/wd in March 2004, the month of opening
- 5,643 p/wd in August 2004: the (reduced) initial ridership goal reached
NJT's River Line shows good numbers
New Jersey Transit's River Line is showing better numbers than anyone expected - especially the nay-sayers.
- 6,912 p/wd in February 2006
Riders Slowly But Sure Buying Into The Riverline
PALMYRA, N.J. (AP) ― Critics have derided it for costing too much money for New Jersey taxpayers. But ridership is nevertheless increasing for the Camden-to-Trenton River Line.
- 7,900 p/wd in the third quarter of 2007
Gas prices fuel higher ridership on two commuter rail lines
Commuters board the River Line
- 9,750 p/wd in the third quarter of 2008
River Line plans to expand
The River Line, the five-year-old Camden-to-Trenton light-rail route, is growing up.
By the end of this year, ground is supposed to be broken for a $40 million station in Pennsauken to link the River Line with the Atlantic City Line. That will open the way for easier travel to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, as well as to the Jersey Shore.
And the River Line is getting $24 million for an upgraded signal system that will allow for more frequent service and improved safety.
Seems like some more money will be "wasted" :-)
Urban sprawl is a cancerous development of US origin, but it is not constrained to the USA for some time now. Still, an idea to counter-act it was also born in the USA: transit-oriented development. The theory is that commuter services will generate more dense development (shops, offices, apartment blocks) near stations, and thus also economic growth.
At the time the financial disaster of the River LINE became apparent, advocates were already arguing that this externalised benefit should not be ignored:
Fast Track to Nowhere?
Supporters of the line stress its potential for spurring economic development in Camden and other riverfront towns. Riverside, which has sketched plans to revive its commercial district, seeks designation as a transit village.
..."The transit village concept lends it self to the plans we have," says Gary LaVenia, Riverside's township administrator. "When you look for a transit village, you're looking for high-density housing and a commercial destination. The high density lends itself to more users of the rail going out in the other direction."
"In Camden, says economic consultant Smith, "the light rail coming right through the downtown is going to create tremendous opportunity for office space, restaurants and retail businesses. People who own the commercial space on Market Street and Cooper Street that lease to small professionals are optimistic that the light rail will be positive because people will locate along the commuter rail line."
Two years after opening, new development was indeed emerging:
NJ Transit officials say that the line's success should not be judged by how many riders it carries, but rather how much economic development it sparks along its 34-mile route.
Some businesses have said that the trains were a major factor in their decisions to open or expand along the route. In Cinnaminson, for example, a new residential development will have direct access to the train platform. And since the line opened in Riverside, Zena's Patisserie & Cafe, across from a station, has expanded from a small bakery to a booming lunch spot.
Another article from the same time:
...Restaurants started popping up close to stations and proposals for building conversions and brownfield developments began to take shape. Sure enough, new and existing businesses, such as restaurants and stores reported growing business soon after opening day, leading one local newspaper to very quickly ask, "Could it be that the River LINE will be a success?"
Key indicators would suggest that the answer is "yes." There is major activity visible now all along the corridor. A perfect example is the agreement Riverside Township recently signed with developers to transform the industrial area known as the Golden Triangle into a $200 million transit-oriented, mixed-use development. The centerpiece of the 32-acre brownfield is Keystone Watchcase Tower, a classic 1908 building that's been vacant for more than 50 years and is located directly opposite the River LINE station. The seven-story tower, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will have commercial space on the ground level and 120 two-story lofts above. Two hundred new condominiums and 66 townhouses will flank this adaptive reuse development.
One of the new developments next to Cinnaminson station
In December 2006, NJ Transit was boasting about it (pdf!):
Joe North, NJ Transit's general manager of light rail operations, says the River LINE's success is all the more impressive if you add in impacts beyond the right-of-way...
"We knew right from the start that we'd have to do a lot more than just run a good light rail service," says North. "George Warrington said we would need every tool we could think of to promote it and integrate it into the mainstream of life throughout this corridor. Well, I think that's what has happened. That's most evident in the Burlington County Office of Economic Development's finding that the River LINE has played a significant role in $1 billion of area investment since we opened."
...and so it continued since.
Tracks run right through the heart of once pivotal towns. Each River Line journey reveals new nearby buildings spawned by the light rail system, as well as freshly restored old ones. One disembarks among dazzling red Knockout roses, which have grown to a height of more than five feet since the train started to run. There's no wrong side of the tracks along this route. Approaching each town, a riverine Renaissance is palpable. New law offices abut new real estate establishments. River Line Realty signs dot tended lawns before quirky Riverton houses. Every excursion reveals new restaurants, and additions to existing restaurants.
Running right down the center of East Broad Street, NJT 3503 leaves Burlington. Photo on 15 September 2007 by Gerald Oliveto from RailPictures.Net
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