N.J. Senate panel clears rail-merger plan

Posted: February 01, 2014

Should SEPTA and PATCO combine their commuter rail operations? Would North Jersey commuters be better served if PATH trains were run by NJ Transit or New York City's MTA?

A plan to consider such mergers cleared a New Jersey Senate panel this week.

The proposal, by two North Jersey Republican lawmakers, would create a six-member passenger rail study commission to find ways to save money and expand rail service "through the unification, consolidation, merging, sharing, and coordination of transit services among the various transportation agencies in the region."

"Can the boys share their toys?" asked Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R., Essex), one of the sponsors of the resolution, SJR-14.

Rail operators in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York sometimes duplicate services that might be consolidated, Pennacchio said.

"A thorough examination of the many rail systems throughout New Jersey to create a more streamlined, efficient and cost-effective mass transportation system is long overdue," he said.

The other sponsor of the resolution is Sen. Michael Doherty (R., Warren), who said in a statement: "All opportunities to cut costs through consolidations or mergers should be explored to assure commuters are receiving the best service possible and that taxpayers are being protected from duplicative costs and infrastructure projects."

The resolution proposes the six commission members (two each appointed by the governor, Senate president, and Assembly speaker) would have 18 months to report their findings to the Legislature.

"We would question who is merging with whom. NJT/PATH? NJT/PATCO? PATCO/SEPTA? NJT/MTA?" Les Wolff, director of the New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers, said in an e-mail.

If the lawmakers want to expand rail service in the state, Wolff said, there are already a number of proposals, including one to restore commuter rail service between Camden and Glassboro. But a lack of money has kept all the expansion proposals on the shelf, he said.

This is the third time such consolidation legislation has been introduced in the state Senate; in each of the last two biennial legislative sessions, the measure was unanimously approved by the Senate but died in the Assembly.

Its prospects might not be much better in the Assembly this session.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), who chairs the chamber's Transportation Committee, which would review the measure, called it ironic that Republican lawmakers were looking for ways to expand rail service even though Gov. Christie killed a key component for expanding service: a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River between North Jersey and New York City.

"Our rail system is constrained by one fact: There is no more capacity to get to New York City," Wisniewski said. "You can't really increase ridership unless you have more capacity to Manhattan."

"There is no point in figuring out how to consolidate if you can't get more trains under the river," he said.

And, Wisniewski said, each state's rail system has particular idiosyncracies that could make combining them difficult. Different tunnel dimensions, different electrical voltages, and different railcar sizes, for instance, could impede consolidation, he said.

There have been other efforts to combine rail services.

Plans to merge the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad, both run by New York City's MTA, died several years ago.

The plan to consolidate the two railroads into a company called MTA Rail was seen as a way to cut costs and streamline operations. But the reorganization was opposed by Long Island leaders who feared losing local control.

Now, Amtrak and the California High-Speed Rail Authority are joining to seek bids for a new train that could operate on both the Northeast Corridor and the proposed high-speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Even that effort is challenged by the many differences between the two, including the trains' top speed. Amtrak wants new Acela trains that will run up to 160 m.p.h., while California is seeking trains capable of 250 m.p.h.




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