SOMERVILLE, NJ – New Jersey commuters have a lot riding on the future of rail service to and from New York City but finding viable solutions is as tough as finding a seat on the 5:39 p.m. out of Manhattan.

It’s an adventure, aggravated by a mad dash up-and-down the stairs at Newark Penn Station to make the switch from the Northeast Corridor train in time to catch the Raritan Valley Line - on a different track.

The Raritan Valley Railroad Coalition, which has had some success in NJ Transit’s implementation of one-seat service met yesterday in Somerville to review last year’s accomplishments and look ahead to 2016 and beyond.

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Somerset County Freeholder Peter Palmer, recently elected to a two-year term as RVRC chairman, led the discussion which focused on the massive bi-state Gateway Project and construction of a new tunnel beneath the Hudson River; the proposed Hunter Flyover outside Newark’s Penn Station; and replacement of the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River, a 105-year-old swing bridge that often malfunctions and stops trains in their track.

All of these projects are undergoing environmental and engineering studies, with construction several years away.

Funding is also a challenge, with billions of dollars needed; the Portal Bridge project is pegged at $1 billion, according to Palmer.

Following years of lobbying the The RVRC convinced NJTranist to implement a one-seat ride during off hours in March, 2014; nine months later, NJ Transit added a direct service train at 8 p.m However, because of the added expense of running more trains and limited time slots, NJ Transit has delayed adding more one-seat rides.

“We’re not willing to wait 15, 20 years for new tunnels to be built before we get one-seat rush hour service,” Palmer said.

Palmer is working with state legislators in five districts encompassing towns along the Raritan Valley Line to lend their support to the RVRC's ongoing lobbying effort to increase the number of one ride trains.

The RVRC, formed almost 20 years ago, is just one of several public and private agencies searching for consensus to clear the choke points on the Northeast Corridor -  the main rail line shared by Amtrak and NJ Transit -  and finding the necessary funding to improve the critical rail connection to New York City.

Many of the 200,000 New Jersey train commuters who travel to New York City daily live in towns along the Raritan Valley Line.

Ridership on the the Raritan Valley Line has increased more than all of the other NJ Transit lines that funnel into New York City, according to Palmer, with the biggest increase coming from stations between Union and Cranford. Westfield commuters comprise the biggest number using the Raritan Valley Line, he added.  

The RVRC yesterday also previewed two videos promoting the Gateway Project and One Seat Ride initiative. The narrative of both productions  underlines convenience, economic benefits and urgency.

Somerville Councilman Thompson Mitchell suggested the videos be made available to local access cable channels.

The videos were produced without charge by videographer Aimee Nuzzio.

Here are details on the three major projects discussed yesterday:

- At Hunter Interlocking, the NJ TRANSIT Raritan Valley Line joins the NEC just west of Newark Penn Station. Currently, peak-hour Raritan Valley Line trains headed east to Newark must cross three to four Northeast Corridor main line tracks at grade to access the eastbound tracks at Newark Penn Station.

With 40 Newark-bound trains per day, Raritan Valley Line trains create conflicts on one of the busiest stretches of the entire NEC. During the morning rush, Raritan Valley Line trains are often delayed as they wait for a “slot” to make the complex crossing, while Amtrak trains must occasionally wait for the trains to complete the crossing.

To solve these issues, Amtrak and NJ TRANSIT intend to partner to construct the Hunter Flyover, which would carry Newark-bound Raritan Valley Line trains up and over the six-track NEC main line. This new flyover would remove many directional conflicts between trains and dramatically reduce delays for NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak.

-  The Gateway Program is a proposed set of strategic rail infrastructure improvements designed to improve current services and create new capacity that will allow the doubling of passenger trains running under the Hudson River.

The program will increase track, tunnel, bridge, and station capacity, eventually creating four mainline tracks between Newark, NJ, and Penn Station, New York, including a new, two-track Hudson River tunnel.

The program also includes updates to, and modernization of, existing infrastructure, such as the electrical system that supplies power to the roughly 450 weekday trains using this segment of the NEC, and rebuilding and replacing the damaged components of the existing, century-old Hudson River tunnel, which was inundated with sea water during Super Storm Sandy.

By eliminating the bottleneck in New York and creating additional tunnel, track, and station capacity in the most congested segment of the NEC, the Gateway Program will provide greater levels of service, increased redundancy, added reliability for shared operations, and additional capacity for the future increases in commuter and intercity rail service.

The Gateway Program is still in the planning and design phase and a reliable program cost estimate has not yet been developed. Amtrak has directed more than $300 million, mostly from federal sources, to the Gateway Program since 2012. This includes approximately $74 million for planning and pre-construction work and $235 million to the Hudson Yards concrete casing from federal Sandy Resiliency funding under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013.

-  NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak have completed final design and federal environmental review to replace the century-old, swing-span Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River with a new, more reliable, fixed-span bridge.

The existing Portal Bridge, which hosts about 450 trains per day traveling between Newark, NJ and New York Penn Station is a major bottleneck and source of delay of train traffic; the aging mechanical components sometimes malfunction while opening and closing for maritime traffic. 

The two-track replacement bridge, known as Portal Bridge North, is designed as a high-level, fixed-span bridge, eliminating the movable components and risk of malfunction.

The new bridge is estimated to cost approximately $1 billion and will proceed with the cooperation of NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak, as soon as funding can be secured, according to Palmer.

 The recently completed design process involved a preliminary design phase, for which costs of $31 million were shared between NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak, and final design, funded by a Federal Railroad Administration grant of $38.5 million. 

A second, two-track Portal Bridge South span is proposed as part of the Gateway Program and when complete will double train capacity along this critical length of the Northeast Corridor.

Planning and design of Portal Bridge South will be finalized following the completion of the federal NEC Future study and environmental review process. 

If work were to start tomorrow on the massive Gateway Project, it would take 15 years to complete, according to Sen. Corey Booker, D-NJ, one of several public officials interviewed in the videos.

Martin Robbins, RVRC trustee mentioned “ the elephant in the room” - the obvious challenge of finding the necessary funding to move the project along.

Gov. Chris Christie and state legislators have not agreed on a method to fund the state’s ailing New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund, which  will run out of money in June.

Until that problem is fixed, moving forward with any transit project will be difficult, Robbins said.

Palmer interjected “It’s not just the elephants, it’s the donkeys, too,’ a reference to both political parties and their inability to reach any legislative remedies.

Mitchell suggested there would be progress “when pigs fly.”

Underlining the problems with NJ Transit, trains on the Raritan Valley Line were running one hour behind schedule during the peak of Monday’s morning rush hour; service on the Gladstone line had been suspended because of ongoing problems caused by the weekend blizzard which dumped more than two feet of snow across New Jersey.