NEWARK, NJ—As the temperature ramps up and the school year winds down, Madison’s New Jersey Transit commuters are just weeks away from what officials call the “Summer of Hell.”
Madison train riders this summer will bear the brunt of the “hellish” conditions that will halt all direct train service to New York from July 10 until Labor Day as major Penn Station track repairs halt service on the Morris-Essex line only. No other lines will experience a reduction in service.
Many are feeling the pain from these repairs already, which have resulted in a speed reduction in the Penn Station tunnel, leading to delays of 15-30 minutes on all trains traveling in and out of New York, no matter what line.
Morris-Essex commuters will be redirected to Hoboken and forced onto ferries and PATH trains that will shuttle them into Manhattan once the construction begins, a detour that NJT Executive Director Steve Santoro said could add 30-45 minutes of travel time each way.
That could be a big change for many Madison commuters, whose trip times to Penn Station would increase by 50 percent or more when the redirect goes into effect.
“There are fewer people commuting in the summer, which is why we’re doing (the construction) now,” Madison Mayor Bob Conley said. “But for those that are commuting in the summer, it would be nice to get home and have time to go to the community pool and be with their kids. That may slip away.”
Maplewood mayor Victor DeLuca said he didn’t think NJT understood the “horror” of what it is to transfer in Hoboken, and other officials expressed skepticism about the capacity of other modes of transit, many of which are already overcrowded, to offset the six-week service outage.
“People already have to wait for two cycles of trains to pass by before they can get on, let alone get a seat,” said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex).
Madison is currently considering the possibility of bus service from the Madison train station to New York Penn that could ease the pain for residents, according to Mayor Conley. To gauge public interest, the borough is interviewing a list of commuters to gauge public interest, he said.
A joint committee hearing led by Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) Wednesday in Newark to discuss the impact of the service reduction on more than 7,000 commuters, attracted several New Jersey mayors, including Madison Mayor Bob Conley, who said they were not directly informed by NJT of its plan to shut down Morris-Essex service, but instead found out in a May 23 press release.
Conley said he was embarrassed at the level of communication from NJT, which never notified the mayors of affected towns of its plan to single out the Morris-Essex line.
“There was not time for hearings or public feedback,” Santoro said. “There is no better option than what we proposed.”
The repair agreement was made by all three transit entities, but Amtrak said it left service reduction decisions up to the individual agencies, making NJT solely responsible for the decision to isolate the Morris-Essex line.
Santoro brought up several other points that were not included in the May 23 press release announcing the plan, including how the overflow would be offset and how an analysis of train movements, crew assignments, yard storage and average number of customers led to the singling out of the Morris-Essex line, though he did not provide specifics on how these factors led to the decision.
This all seemed to be news to the entire room at Wednesday’s hearing.
“It remains to be seen how we all would have found out about this without calling a hearing,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio.
Throughout the hearing, more evidence of miscommunication between NJT and public officials continued to pop up. Though the NJT site says all Morris-Essex train service to New York will halt after July 10, Santoro claimed Wednesday that four Midtown Direct trains will run in the early morning, 5-7 a.m., on the Morris-Essex line to Penn station during the six-week period.
These trains will most likely be very crowded as customers choose the most timely modes of morning transportation, but will still force them to return home via Hoboken.
NJT is offering some reprieve for Morris-Essex riders: At least 50 percent off of all Morris-Essex ticket purchases to Hoboken and cross-honoring at the PATH and ferry, which will cost an estimated $15 million.