By David Cruz
When it opened in 2000, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system was considered a dubious investment. Today, the system is straining — overburdened with daily riders. Officials say getting a seat nowadays, especially at rush hour, can be a challenge.
“In the past seven years alone, passenger trips have doubled to more than 45,000 daily trips we serve per day. Naturally with this growth in ridership comes a growing need for increased capacity,” said Rail Operations Deputy General Manager John Squitieri.
NJ Transit unveiled a prototype light rail vehicle today that officials say will expand capacity by 50 percent per train, not by adding new train trips, but by expanding the trains already on the tracks.
A little “vestibule” — as NJ Transit calls it — allows them to add an additional middle car and expand capacity significantly.
“The additional sections increase the car length by 37 feet and expand seating capacity from 68 to 102 seats,” Squitieri said.
Officials say the new sections run about $1.5 million per train, roughly 20 percent of the $5 million or so it would cost to put a whole new train into service. The agency said it expects the federal government to pick up most of the cost of the upgrade. Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise was a city councilman when the light rail system began operating 13 years ago with about 1,900 riders a day.
“This new addition to the arsenal of carrying people around Hudson County, the increase in capacity is very welcome. You have the feeling that in a few years, we may be down here again, with a new innovation that will add more ridership to it,” DeGise said.
This is a six-month pilot program. Officials say tomorrow’s fireworks along the Hudson River will be a good first test for the trains. They say with big events like the Super Bowl and Formula 1 races becoming more frequent, more seats on trains will become a necessity, not only for tourists, but for locals as well.
“There are thousands and thousands of people in North Hudson. They don’t have cars. They take buses or jitneys to get someplace. This gets them to the PATH station. This gets them to all of Jersey City, the Newport Mall, to Bayonne. On the weekends it is at capacity. If you go to the Newport Mall and you wanna get back to North Hudson, you cannot fit on the train,” Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said.
In a lot of ways, NJ Transit’s Light Rail system is a victim of its own success. Even with the announcement of today’s increased capacity, commuters are already calling for increased capacity — on the weekends. No plans for that, just yet, say transit officials.