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Camden-Trenton: River Line Light Railway Gains Riders, Spurs Economic Development

Light Rail Now! Publication Team – May 2004 (rev.)

Southern New Jersey's River Line light railway – connecting Camden and Trenton with diesel-electric multiple-unit (DEMU) trains – despite heavy criticism from naysayers, has nevertheless been a big hit with the public, and reportedly is attracting more riders than expected since it opened in mid-March of this year (2004). New Jersey State Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere told the state's Assembly Budget Committee that the 34-mile interurban rail transit line that opened for revenue service March 14th has carried an average of about 3,000 riders per day on weekdays and nearly 6,000 per weekend day.
[Trenton Times, 2004/04/07]

River Line opening dayHuge crowds, such as this one in Burlington County, greeted River Line trains during the special opening-day ceremonies on March 13th.
[Photo: R. Shields]

The number of weekday riders actually matches the ridership projections by NJ Transit, but many opponents of public transport and rail transit, as well as other critics, doubted the system would draw that many passengers. "We've had more riders than any of us anticipated when we started" Lettiere told a Trenton Times newspaper reporter.

The line's trains run every half-hour from 06:00 to 22:00 (6:00 AM to 10:00 PM), except for Saturday, when trains run until midnight. NJ Transit officials hope to have trains running every 15 minutes by the end of May.
[Trenton Times, 2004/04/07]

Design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) project

As noted above, the River Line light railway is 34 miles (55 km) in length, mainly paralleling the Delaware River (see map, below); it includes 20 stations and runs 20 light DEMU vehicles, either as single units or in 2-car trains. Each railcar, provided by the Swiss manufacturer Stadler (in partnership with Bombardier), seats 90 passengers and can speed up to about 60 mph.
[Bombardier Transportation brochure, 2003]

River Line light railway map

The project, sponsored by New Jersey Transit (NJT), proceeded as a design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) contractual project. As a result, actual costs are somewhat obscure to the public at large, and it is unlikely that published operational costs will be comparable with other US transit operations reported in the Federal Transit Administration's National Transit Database, because the River Line's costs will probably include financing expenses and other capital-related costs – costs which are routinely tabulated separately for most other US rail systems. (Such is the case with costs associated with the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit [LRT] system in North Jersey, also a DBOM project.)

Light railway, but not light rail transit

While the River Line is publicized as "light rail", the system was installed without the electrification which characterizes LRT technology. This was intended to reduce the initial capital cost of the project (and to assuage local community resistance to a fully electrified LRT line).

However, there is some question as to how much capital investment has actually been saved. With a capital cost reportedly of $1.1 billion, the unit project cost of the River Line comes to approximately US $32 million per mile ($20 million/km). For a project almost totally on pre-existing railroad right-of-way (with about a mile of street alignment into downtown Camden), this is roughly equal to the unit cost of full, electrified LRT systems or extensions constructed in similar alignments in recent years (e.g., Salt Lake City, Denver, St. Louis).

(Veteran public transportation engineer E. L. Tennyson points out that new LRT lines in Denver and Salt Lake City, and the eastern extension of St. Louis's LRT, constructed on railroad track or roadbed, averaged only $23 million per mile in cost, including rolling stock and maintenance/storage facilities. Even with seven percent added to cover inflation, these lines averaged only about $25 million per mile – including Salt Lake City's downtown street trackage similar to that of the River Line.)

Nevertheless, one must take into account that NJT's rail construction costs, on the whole, seem to be substantially higher than elsewhere. Thus it is likely that the River Line project cost was actually somewhat lower than what a full-fledged electrified LRT system might have cost NJT in equivalent circumstances.

Differences from LRT

While an affordable, attractive rail transit service has clearly resulted from NJT's decision to compromise with non-electrified propulsion, the River Line's DEMU system does appear to have significant drawbacks compared with electrically propelled LRT systems. it's useful to review some of the more significant of these drawbacks, particularly as other transit systems are considering the River Line as a possible model for installation of some form of rail transit.

There are important differences in the physical characteristics and requirements between an internally engine-powered light railway and true LRT – the need for fueling facilities, for example, vs. LRT's need for electrical substations, an overhead contact system, and other power-related infrastructure. Also, while the DEMU operation could ultimately prove to be a precursor to LRT in the corridor, conversion to standard LRT operation could prove difficult because floor heights for these particular DEMU railcars, at 584 mm (23"), necessitated higher-than-normal platforms for level boarding. This compares with 350-mm-high (14") floors and platforms for standard lowfloor LRT. This will probably require substantial reconstruction if the line were to be converted for operation by standard LRT lowfloor cars.

River Line light railwayPer unit of length, significant capacity is also lost in the 30.6-meter (100.5-foot) DEMU railcars because 3.9 meters (nearly 13 feet) is consumed by the prime mover diesel engine (placed in the middle articulated section). The cars are also slow to accelerate – 2.0 mph per second (0.9 m/s/s) – compared with the typical rate of 3.0 mphps (1.3 m/s/s) for electric LRT cars, which have far more power available via the external power distribution system. This means that running schedules are somewhat slower, and more rolling stock is required to maintain schedules and provide needed capacity than would be the case with LRT. Yet, typically, a DEMU car costs more than a comparable LRT vehicle because of the extra cost of the diesel power plant (actual prices of the River Line DEMUs are buried in the DBOM costs).

The slower vehicle capability may be reflected in the River Line's average schedule speed. Trains are scheduled to make the 34-mile end-to-end trip in 73 minutes – an average speed of 28 mph. While this would be considered relatively fast for urban LRT, it is slow for a predominantly suburban and rural modern light railway with station stops averaging about 1.8 miles apart. it should be noted however, that the line is somewhat hampered by very slow street running in downtown Camden and numerous grade crossings throughout the higher-speed alignment, where trains must often slow down as a safety precaution.

E. L. Tennyson has performed a comparative analysis which underscores the significant differences in schedule speed between a light DMU or DEMU vehicle and an electric light rail vehicle (LRV). "An LRV would cover 34 miles with 20 stops in 60 minutes, plus three minutes for street delays in Camden" Tennyson observes. "That is ten minutes faster than diesel, worth roughly 30 per cent in passenger volume at 3 percent more per minute saved."

Tennyson notes that "This rule of thumb comes from extensive tests run by Saint Louis Public Service Company years ago", although, he adds, "Current modelling gives heavy weight to time saving, perhaps too much." in contrast to the River Line running time, Tennyson notes, Bus Route 409, on a route parallel to that of the River Line, "takes two hours from Camden to Trenton over a longer route." The bus service frequency is relatively high from Philadelphia to Burlington, but considerably less frequent from Burlington to Trenton. Thus, "The River Line has far better service than the buses."

Tennyson also observes that Bus Route 419 is closer to the River Line, but runs only from Philadelphia to Burlington via Camden, Palymra, and Riverside. According to Tennyson's analysis, the River Line schedule beats the Route 419 schedule by half an hour to Camden, but by only 15 minutes, after factoring in a transfer for rail passengers, into Philadelphia. "Over 90 percent will prefer to transfer to save 15 minutes, based on Newark City Subway and other experience" Tennyson notes. He also predicts that "...bus service will have to be cut to avoid budgetary disaster." Tennyson also emphasizes that it would be extremely useful "to know how many River Line passengers did not ride the bus."

Tennyson also takes note of NJT's substantial reductions in ridership forecasts for the River Line, raising the issue of whether original performance assumptions for the diesel operation were excessively optimistic: "The original 10,000 estimate may have been based on a faster running time advertised by diesel proponents, but physically impossible. The 2,980 average weekday passengers by the third week suggest 5,960 after 18 months, which is exactly what NJT expected when they revised the estimate."
[E. L. Tennyson, personal calculations, 2004/04/24]

Beyond the problem of schedule speed, perhaps the most serious drawback of DEMU operation seems to be higher operation and maintenance costs, which have been projected to be $21.5 million per year. The cost per annual vehicle operated in maximum service is roughly double that for electric LRT in general, and 2.5 times that achieved by the most efficient LRT systems.
[Camden Courier-Post, 2003/03/06; calculations by L. Demery, Jr. and E. L. Tennyson, PE]

Economic development benefits

But, despite weaknesses compared with LRT, the light railway appears to be attracting its projected ridership, as reported above, and – perhaps even more important – achieving some of its economic development goals as well. As the Philadelphia inquirer related earlier in the project in 2002, the line "has the potential to revive riverfront towns, generate development, boost businesses, and increase property values."
[Philadelphia inquirer, 26 Aug. 2002]

"As with all light-rail lines, they're business magnets, and wherever there are terminals, they tend to attract businesses" assessed Joel Naroff, chief economist at Commerce Bank. The strategic goal of the Southern New Jersey light railway, the inquirer explained, was "to link communities along the Delaware River to employment centers and recreational venues in Camden and Trenton."

Today, upon its opening for service, the River Line appears to be fulfilling this objective. Retail businesses newly connected by the line have reportedly been experiencing a surge of customers.

"As thousands of first-time passengers spilled off NJ Transit River Line trains last week," wrote the Burlington County Times about eight days after the opening, citing "several local business owners", "cash registers in restaurants and shops along the 34-mile light rail line got the heaviest workout they've seen on a Sunday in years ...." The paper gave several examples:
[Burlington County Times, 22 March 2004]

On the River Line's first official day of operation March 14, business at Burlington Antiques and Art Emporium on High Street in Burlington City probably increased 20 percent, according to Scott Carlbon, the owner.

In Bordentown City, the Farnsworth House restaurant was packed with twice as many diners as on a typical Sunday, according to Halil Gungor, the owner.

In Riverside, just down the street from the new rail station, tables and bar stools at Madison Pub were hard to come by all day and night, according to Jon Aneson, the general manager.

"We had the busiest Sunday we've ever had here," Aneson said. "We also had the busiest Monday and the busiest Wednesday."

Some pro-LRT critics of the River Line have insisted that the non-electrified light railway project would somehow impair the case for expansion of bona fide electric LRT in the state of New Jersey. However, other LRT supporters argue that the River Line has actually expanded the range of debate over where LRT is appropriate in the Garden State.

Will the River Line ultimately prove to be a precursor to true LRT in this corridor? With success in the form of continuing ridership increases and the stimulation of local economies, it seems well on its way.

E. L, Tennyson emphasizes that, despite his critcisms of the weaknesses of diesel operation for this particular transit application, "the main issue is that [the River Line] runs, it saves transit time, people do like it, it serves backwater communities very well, and it will generate far more revenue when it gets a rational fare schedule after the 'build-up' period is over." Tennyson insists that the current $1.10 fare is inappropriately low, and suggests increasing fares to a level (perhaps $2.20 to $3.30, depending on distance) more commensurate with the long trip lengths typical of a 34-mile line. Perhaps attention to good transit operations, adroit marketing, and the bottom line will ultimately help resolve many of the issues impacting the future of light railway public transport in the state.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2004/05/24

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