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Monday, March 10, 2008

Signal Failure Exposes Vulnerabilities

Saturday night, for two hours, a catastrophic signal failure suspended all PATH services severing connections between Jersey City and New York. Around nine o'clock, the last train for two hours limped into the Grove Street station a few feet at a time while nervous New Yorkers looked on in horror. For two hours, the Hudson River might as well have been the Berlin Wall.

Many Jersey City bound passengers stuck in New York were sent on a circuitous route on NJ Transit trains, requiring a transfer at Secaucus Junction to Hoboken bound trains before a second transfer to the light rail. Ferry services were not operating.

The signal failure may bolster Mayor Healy's argument in favor of building a Jersey City light rail connection to Secaucus Junction via Sixth Street and the Bergen Arches; such an alternative route would have reduced the total number of transfers required to circumvent PATH services and would have put Journal Square within walking distance of a train line. Still, if such a failure was to occur during a rush hour, the thousands of daily passengers would likely crush alternative services.

The PATH recently celebrated a 100 year anniversary, and the need for modernizing the system is obvious. The Port Authority last year promised to upgrade the PATH signals with a modern system that would allow a 20% increase in peak period trains, but that project will require 7 years to complete.

But even modern systems are not without flaws. For instance, the MTA began upgrading the L lines signals more than a decade ago, and while the line is now perhaps the most efficient in New York's system, the initial launch was not without hiccups, and peak efficiency is still two years away. Another signal fiasco in 2005 threatened to disrupt A C service for years after a fire destroyed signal equipment; that problem was later resolved within months, not years.

Yet while disruptions in MTA trains are inconvenient, the system continues to function. Not so with the PATH as Saturday's signal problems went on to shut down the entire system. Its certainly not a premature notion to suggest the time has come for a new, separate subway line connecting Manhattan and New Jersey. After all, the Second Avenue subway line was first proposed in 1929, and that may not be completed for another twenty years. Not only are thousands of new residences being constructed in Jersey City, but new developments adjacent to the Harrison PATH station will be dependent on the service. Newark's revitalization too will add commuters, as well as proposals in Bayonne, connected to the PATH by the light rail.

Saturday's service disruption was rather benign in contrast to what could have happened at rush hour on a weekday, but it should still serve to remind riders and the Port Authority alike just how vulnerable the system is, and the need for redundancies.



Blogger brooklynfoo said...

A great way to celebrate 100 years. I was one who was stranded on sat with no way of getting into the city. The most aggrevating part is that there is no where to find this info out unless you go to a station and hear this second hand. No PATH employee was around to give me info and the path info line said the trains were running fine. Theres really no excuse for that for such a small subway system.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Toby said...

Great post. I think the light rail option is an excellent way to go, but it needs to be a skosh more widespread than Healy's Bergen Arches idea. They are cutting bus service like crazy down into Westside and, like it or not Downtown folks, this is where a lot of development is ratcheting up in JC. There needs to be some sort of sensible connecting line between Journal Square and MLK or Westside Station. The buses suck. This raises the issue of whether or not the light rail would suck, but at least NJ Transit would be accountable, not Red and Tan. What a miserable lot that bus company is.

You could "easily" create a street light rail from JSQ to either MLK or Westside. This would require eliminating street side parking on JFK which is nuts in the first place, but it would also have a traffic calming effect.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a need for infrastructure of all kinds in JC. Additional PATH capacity is needed right now, let alone decades from now. Here are my modest proposals:

Extend the L train across 14th street to Secaucus Junction, with stops in Hoboken, the Heights and Kearney.

Add one additional track in each direction to the PATH. Permit express PATH trains to go directly from Newark to WTC. Extend PATH to the Newark Airport station.

Add an additional tube to the Holland Tunnel that directly connects to a new bus station downtown, and from there to the Bklyn Battery Tunnel. The tube could be used for buses during weekday rush hours -- tyhe bus station could be used by both NJ and NY commuters (via the Battery Tunnel), and could be used by all vehicles the rest of the time.

Build a direct connection from the LIE/BQE to NJ via a new tunnel from Greenpoint to the NJ Turnpike via 23rd street without any entrances or exits in Manhattan. This would take traffic going to/from Brooklyn and Queens from Hudson counties and vicinity off of our streets and Manhattan cross streets and free up crossings for traffic actually bound for Manhattan. It would also allow bus service from/to employment/residential centers in northern NJ to/from the outer boros.

Add better cross streets within JC using the arches or any other right of ways that can be rustled up.

Build an overpass over the rail yards from JC to Observer Hwy.

Build an elevated roadway above the light rail right of way from JC to Weehawken allowing traffic to bypass JC and Hoboken when bound for the Lincoln Tunnel and points north.

Make 1/9 a real limited access highway all the way to the GW Bridge.

Get tyhe private sector to build these projecst and charge for them, otherwise we'll never see anything done.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I've mentioned before that I think the most useful subway project would be linking the eventual Second Avenue subway from its planned terminus to the southern tip of Jersey City, running west along Grand Street, then South into Bayonne and eventually linking up with the Staten Island Railroad's abandoned North Shore Line. Politically, this might be the most realistic, garnering support from two states with a great deal of power in Washington as well as providing the first subway connection between Staten Island and the rest of the city.

Alternately, I think an extension of the 7 train under the river would also serve as a vital connection to municipalities in the northern half of the Gold Coast that are comparatively under served by mass transit. The ferry systems probably would not be pleased by this plan though.

As far as new roadways, I think this is a patently bad idea. The city needs fewer cars, not more. A better alternative I think would be to bury the Holland tunnel for another few miles westward, eliminating the surface entrance in downtown Jersey City and eliminating the elevated portion of the turnpike. This change would provide better north-south movement between Hoboken and Jersey City, restore the street grid, and remove a physical barrier between the downtown gentrification and the western portions of the city. In addition, 139 should be severed from the Holland tunnel, thereby creating an expressway to downtown Jersey City and Hoboken; the vehicles that enter the tunnel by way of 139 would then enter the tunnel by way of the turnpike, a more modern highway better equipped for high speed, high volume traffic.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The car vs. train argument would just be endless. But let me make a couple points. First, I just believe we need better mobility through added transit options of all sorts. Cars, even in built up areas, are highly useful. You can take them away, but when you do so you lower standards of living, you don't raise them. I am a subway commuter, but there are many trips that I make using a car. A transportation system is about more than just moving a single, relatively spry individual who is not carrying anything to an office job. A transport system also involves moving people who are traveling with kids, with "stuff", it involves moving the relatively infirm, it involves moving freight, it involves moving people on the spur of the moment and in improvised travel and in travel to accomplish multiple errands and tasks. There is nothing sinister about wanting, and really, needing a car to accomplish these tasks.

Simple example: I want to grocery shop in JC, visit a relative in eastern Queens, then pick up something in a store in Hoboken. If I'm driving I can do all three, if I'm taking public transit I can pick one.

At the risk of rambling, as for fewer cars: if you really think that people paying 500k to a million for downtown apartments won't pay another 60k for a car with a parking spot, you're dreaming. These people will own cars, they will want mobility, and we may as well accommodate that travel rather than make ourselves crazy trying to use a road system designed in 1920 for a 2008 populace.

I get beside myself with frustration when I see the hell families dispersed across Essex, Hudson, Bronx, Staten Island, Queens have to go through to reunite for dinner. Many of us have family in L.I. or CT. We aren't doing anything "wrong" in trying to see them; no mass transit system contemplated can handle moving families during weekend hours through dispersed suburbs. These miles and hours long backups at our tunnels and bridges keep people apart, raise the cost of goods and services, and waste time and money.

The simple fact is that some trips will be accomplished by a car or not at all. Let's say I'm a doctor and I work at Coney Island Hospital. I live in JC, I need to be at work by 7 (this is based on a true story). I'm either driving or I need to find a new job. Why do I live in JC if I work in Coney Island? Maybe I got transferred, but more likely I'm in a 2 earner couple, my spouse works in New Brunswick and we find a geographic middle. Two earner couples are particularly in need of a car option often times. You can stop me from working where I work - then I take a less fulfilling job somewhere else and you limited the labor pool the hospital can draw from. That's only a "win" if you take distaste for the car and elevate that distaste above a lot of other points I'd personally value much higher.

You need a solid mass transit system to wed the central city to it's outlying areas, but you can't expect a subway system to accomplish full mobility over an area as physically large as the relatively small part that is the central core of the metro area (the 5 boros and the adjacent counties). And so, not through people being evil, but simply because people want to live their lives and get around places, traffic gets worse but the road capacity doesn't budge.

We've spent 40 years in this metro area wishing away the car. We need to re-think this fantasy that at some indeterminate point the car will disappear and that somehow lives will improve as a result. We should allow that the car is not evil, it's a highly useful tool and the urban area should permit road connections and capacity additions (underground where possible) to permit its use. Sorry if I'm offending everyone, but the present state affairs is to my mind absolutely maddening.

9:10 PM  

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