The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail

22nd Street to Hoboken Terminal

(c) 2013 C. Walton

The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, my former employer, and the light rail system that started my interest in light rail systems many years ago.

This system, a part of the New Jersey Transit Light Rail Division, was opened in 2000 as part of the Hudson County waterfront redevelopment plans of the 1990s, when Jersey City’s riverfront was a wasteland of former railroad warehouses, stations, train depots, and passenger ferry terminals of yesteryear.  As Jersey City and Hudson County created a revamp plan for its “Gold Coast,” it was brought to the table that a light rail system would not only be a centerpiece of the plans that would provide a link to every other development site, but would also partially solve Jersey City’s transportation issues, including a lackluster bus system filled with many private companies.

The light rail system operates from Hoboken to Bayonne and from Jersey City to North Bergen, with stations in Union City and Weehawken.  About 45,000 riders each day ride the system to work, home, play, and stay.  From the small-town, peace-and-quiet feeling of Bayonne to the Wall Street of New Jersey in Jersey City, from the hustle of Hoboken to the spending and playing at Newport Mall, the HBLR has a destination for everyone.  Its busiest route is the Hoboken-8th Street line during the weekdays and the West Side Avenue-Tonnelle Avenue line during the weekends.  Bergenline Avenue in Union City, the HBLR’s only tunnel station, is one of the busiest stations in the system.  Exchange Place is a major PATH connection station, and Hoboken is a major intermodal station connection, with NJ Transit and NY Waterway service.  The first light rail trains are around 4:30am and the last trains run until after 2am.

Some of the pluses of the HBLR, from the standpoint of the rider and of the transit enthusiast:

  • Multiple-unit operation.  The HBLR runs a single car on the Hoboken-Tonnelle service and all weekend and late evening service on the West Side and Bayonne services, but runs a two-car operation on Bayonne and West Side during the weekdays.  Due to the design of the cars, asthetically speaking, a multiple-unit train (or MU) looks better because it resembles a “regular” train as opposed to a glorified streetcar.  Due to the ridership at peak hours (and even during the middays sometimes), the extra car is especially welcome as it offers more room for seating and standing.
  • Multiple services.  The HBLR is more than just a light rail line, it’s an actual system by itself, with three lines that carry altogether roughly 45,000-50,000 riders a day on weekdays and just under 30,000 riders a day on weekends.  That’s pretty impressive, given that most other similarly sized systems only carry half as much with the same amount of cars, if not more.  Because of multiple service, frequency on the overlapping service is usually every 8-10 minutes, which makes it convenient to travel up the line from your office to the mall for lunch or from your home to nearby colleges.
  • Operating speeds.  The HBLR’s speeds in the street-running portions of Jersey City (from Marin Blvd to Harborside Financial Center) and in places where there are tight turns and numerous intersections (from Liberty State Park to Newport Mall) may be slower and akin to a streetcar, but once you get south of Liberty State Park or north of 2nd Street, it acts as an interurban rail line or a subway.  HBLR trains can travel up to 55MPH throughout the Bayonne Branch (Liberty State Park to 8th Street) with an average of one mile between stations.  Thus, travel times from 8th Street to Liberty State Park is roughly 12 minutes.

Some of the minuses of the HBLR include:

  • The cars themselves.  Kinkisharyo Ltd of Japan built some off-the-shelf lowest-bidder rail cars which do operate fairly well for the type of system it is but still fall short maintenance-wise, causing reliability to go down, sometimes causing delays in service and performing a disservice to its passengers.  Many components are falling apart or deemed obsolete, causing band-aid solutions to issues that would normally be quickly fixable with modern light rail vehicles…and these were considered “modern” when they were designed and built in 1999!
  • Lack of foresight.  Most of the system was built with two-car trains in mind, but due to the overwhelming crowds at times and the 20-minute service frequency during most hours of the day, there are times when three-car trains are required.  Problem is, much of the system was built with two-car platforms in areas where expansion to three-car platforms is nearly impossible.  The system north of Newport was built with three-car trains in mind, but that was when the extension into Bergen County was in the forefront.  Since that was delayed for many years and money for the expansion isn’t really there yet (never mind the resurgence of political talk), the longer platforms cannot be used to their potential.  The proposed Hoboken-Tenafly service (now Hoboken-Englewood) would warrant the three-car trains due to the population density in Bergen County and rider dependence on NJT bus lines such as the #83, #158, and #166, and Red&Tan Lines route #11A and #20.  Once the HBLR expands to Bergen County, finally, we can now start calling it the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and it would actually MEAN something, unlike now, where it only serves Hudson County.
  • Low frequencies on the weekends.  HBLR trains run every 20 minutes on the West Side and Bayonne lines.  There is no Hoboken-Tonnelle service, which forces a timed connection at Newport, one of the busiest stations on the weekends.  If trains are so packed that they leave people behind and cause Newport to get dangerously crowded, then either one of two things should happen:  a) two-car trains on at least the West Side Line (Jersey City and Union City passengers flood trains on either end of the line), or b) service every 15 minutes.  Either option would thin out the crowds and make the line more pleasant to deal with on a Saturday afternoon.  Since NJ Transit doesn’t want to spend the extra money on wear and tear on these trains, the 20-minute service stands.

The HBLR is a great system for what it accomplishes, as far as ridership and comfort goes, but it can go much farther than it is now.  Especially comparing HBLR to other light rail systems that I have ridden.  Try getting from Bayonne to Hoboken Terminal in 30 minutes using the local bus system, or from Jersey City to Union City in 25 minutes via Bergenline Avenue or Journal Square.  Imagine what the light rail, and Hudson and Bergen Counties, would look like with the extension past Tonnelle Avenue, taking it up to Fairview near US1&9, Ridgefield near the Causeway, Leonia near Glenpointe Park, and Englewood right in front of the Bergen PAC and Englewood Hospital.  The ridership possibilities would be endless.  Travel times would approach 45-60 minutes, but at least it would be more convenient for many people who would otherwise rely on the #83, #127, #166, and other bus routes.

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