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Newark City Subway: The One You Forget About

Prologue

The Newark City Subway… do you mean the New York City Subway? Well, no, and it’s not a tram, so why would I be reviewing it? Anyway, when listing the “famous 9” systems in North America,1 you always forget about either Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or Newark. And it’s a bit hard to imagine Newark, an industrial hub with an airport near New York, having a streetcar subway, but it does have one, and we should be grateful for it.

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Overview

Sorry I didn’t make my own map this time, it’s very time consuming. Anyway, this is a map of the system. (User Darkcore via Wikimedia Commons)

This multi-service but otherwise relatively short system is located in Newark, a city of about 280,000 just west of New York, in the state of New Jersey in the northeastern United States. The northern edge of the main line also crosses into the suburbs of Belleville and Bloomfield.

The system is composed of two lines, totaling 10 kilometers2, being only slightly longer than the Mattapan Line previously reviewed. I like short systems, it seems, maybe because they’re easier to review 😄. Anyway, unlike the Mattapan Line, electrification here is 750V DC, slightly stronger yet still a commonplace standard, and in case you doubted it, the line is double tracked, except for where it’s one way.3 The rolling stock used is a fleet of 21 Kinki Sharyo three section double ended articulated units, nearly identical to the ones used on the Hudson Bergen Light Rail. They were introduced in 1999, and replaced PCC streetcars previously used on the line, with the latter being fitted with pantographs later in their lives.

An LRV at Riverfront Stadium stop on the Broad Street Branch in 2009 (User Jim.henderson via Wikimedia Commons)

As typical with light rail systems, the schedule here is unimportant during rush hour, with trains running on the Subway every 3 minutes and every 10 minutes on Broad Street. Trips take 20 minutes on the subway and 9 minutes on Broad. Considering this is going to be monotonous regardless of how I write, here’s a boring table with all the information:

Service:SubwaySubway Short Turn4Broad St.
Start Time:4:106:285:18
End Time:1:1519:5623:44
Morning:30-10 minutes30-5 minutes540-10 minutes
Rush Hour:7 minutes3 minutes10 minutes
Midday:10 minutes30 minutes
Evening:10-30 minutes10-30 minutes
Saturday:20 minutes20 minutes
Sunday:25 minutes25 minutes
Trip Time:20 minutes14 minutes9 minutes

As you can see, the Subway itself easily provides rapid transit service during rush hour and midday, with Sunday frequency being a bit less than optimal. The Broad Street Branch, on the other hand, provides service similar in characteristics to a bus, except for higher speeds, with frequencies of only 10 minutes at rush and rapidly dropping off to 30 minutes at other times. This is fairly good for a typical American bus route, but personally I think it deserves more being light rail.

Fares are of a system unique to the NLR, with a standard trip costing $1.60, and a trip that includes only the underground section costs only $0.75 one way. No transfers to other modes of transport are included in the fare, which, while a common occurrence in the US, is not optimal, especially considering many of the buses and trains in the region are operated by the same operator, NJ Transit.

History

Well, you may be confused with how a relatively small city such as Newark ended up with a streetcar subway. Such things are usually reserved for the larger metropolises like Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Seattle, but you have to remember that Newark’s population has declined from a peak of 442,000 in the 1930s, and it is one of the US cities that was most affected by suburbanization in the mid 20th century.6

The right of way of this system is of a slightly weird origin, but it is not the only case of this, although it is rare enough that it is likely the only origin story of this kind you’ll see on the blog for a while.

The main portion of the right of way originates from:

The Morris Canal (1829–1924) was a 107-mile (172 km) common carrier coal canal across northern New Jersey in the United States that connected the two industrial canals at Easton, Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River from its western terminus at Phillipsburg, New Jersey, to New York Harbor and the New York City markets via its eastern terminals in Newark and on the Hudson River in Jersey City, New Jersey.

(…)

The Morris Canal remained in heavy use through the 1860s. But railroads had begun to eclipse canals in the United States, and in 1871, it was leased to the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Like many enterprises that depended on anthracite, the canal’s revenues dried up with the rise of oil fuels and truck transport. It was taken over by the state of New Jersey in 1922, and formally abandoned in 1924.

Wikipedia on Morris Canal (accessed December 7th 2020)

So… we have this, uh, canal, that connects the port of New York to the industrial lands of northeastern Pennsylvania, using a large number of locks and inclines to climb up and down the hills of northern New Jersey. With railways being better suited than canals for long distance high capacity transportation, the use of the canal declined throughout the second half of the 19th century, and by the turn of the century it was mostly useless.

How is this relevant to us? you may ask. Well, if you look at a map of the canal you’d see it flowed right through the middle of downtown Newark, what a nice right of way! And it’s even grade separated! This is likely what the Public Service Corporation, the main streetcar operator in New Jersey, thought. When plans were brought up to close the canal, they announced the construction of a subway through downtown on the canal bed. The first proposal coming in 1910, and the one that actually got traction being the one from 1927. The subway opened in 1935.

A PCC approaching Orange Street in September 1965. (Roger Puta, scanned by Marty Bernard, via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr)78

Upon the subway’s original opening on May 26th 1935, it ran from Broad Street to Heller Parkway,9 and it was served in its entirety by the new route 7 with a few ramps for other routes to continue into downtown. In 1937 the line was extended to Newark Penn Station, together with the Hudson & Manhattan (today the PATH) being relocated there. Immediately north of Penn station a flying junction was built to connect to the lower lever of the Public Service building (the local streetcar/bus terminal), from where streetcars continued underground for a few blocks on the Cedar Street subway before a portal near Washington St.

It seems like the subway was extended by one stop to Franklin Ave. (today Branch Brook Park) in 1940. Sadly, the line’s operation as as the core of a streetcar system was short lived, as bustitution10 began in the 30’s, and by 1952 it was the only streetcar line left. 30 PCC cars were brought over from Minneapolis-St. Paul in the early 1950’s.

PCC with panto ; )
An undated and unlocated photo of an NJ Transit PCC on the line, note the pantograph. (Jim Mauer via Flickr)

From what I’ve read, basically nothing has changed with the system throughout the latter half of the 20th century, other than the PCCs as said earlier, the handover from the Public Service Corp. to NJ Transit in 1980, and the fitting of the line for pantograph operation sometime after that.11

The early 2000’s saw the system brought into the LRV era, and making it somewhat less lowly. The first major improvement was the replacement of PCCs with the Kinki Sharyo LRVs in 2001, this brought accessibility and increased capacity, comfort, and likely speed. The second two were extensions; one in 2002, took the line two stops along the EL‘s12 Orange Branch right of way, where trains shared tracks with Norfolk Southern freight trains using time separation for a few years before freight service stopped, the other in 2006, added a branch which utilized the old Cedar Street flying junction and connected it to a portal, where the Branch runs along McCarter Highway for a while before going in and splitting into two one way sections near Broad Street, and continuing to the EL Broad Street train station. This improved connectivity, and provided rapid transit connections to an important rail station. While the Broad Street branch may look like one of the US’ “circulator” projects13 due to its one way sections and short length, but it is not, as it doesn’t share a inch with road traffic, and was actually part of a since cancelled project to provide better transit to Newark Airport and Elizabeth.

Analyzation

While the Newark Light Rail is a great asset to public transportation in Newark, it still does have its shortfalls.

Frequency: Looking at the frequency of the line, it can be seen that the main service likely provides adequate frequency at rush hour, while trains on the Broad Street Branch may be a bit infrequent during that time though. The main service’s frequency seems to be fine on weekdays, but weekend service is lacking, as 25 minutes is simply not fit for a light rail line. The Broad Street branch deserves more of the same, especially that 30 minutes midday frequency, which is again inappropriate for a light rail service.

Intermodality: The fare structure of NJ Transit does not seem to provide for transfers of any kind, which is, while expected, disheartening. Considering the abundance of bus, rail, and even subway connections, an integrated fare for the area would go a long way for improving intermodality and providing better service. The $0.75 subway-only fare seems to be a byproduct of separate fares, which is sad to see.

From what I’ve seen, the line does not have faregates and relies on proof-of-payment (it is assumed that you have a ticket and inspectors will come at random to check them). While some people may point out the merits of this system, I personally prefer faregates as they allow for better fare integration and potentially save on labor costs. Additionally it is a bit unexpected for such a system to not have them in the subway section, which is what’s seen in Boston, SF, or some European systems.

Character: In terms of character the system can be described as a miniature version of what’s in Boston, one line that is completely on a right of way and another that’s off-street-but-not-in-a-RoW. The main branch starts at a loop under Newark’s Penn Station, where a few platforms are present, and it continues under Raymond Boulevard, passing through an underground flying junction where the Broad Street Branch branches, and then continues the stops of Military Park, Washington Street, and Warren Street. Right after Warren St. the branch goes into a cut, where the stations of Norfolk and Orange Street are located, and right after Orange Street the line crosses the street itself, then immediately passes over a commuter rail line and under a highway. The line then continues along Branch Brook Park, stopping at three stops, and passing under streets intersected. Near the end of the park the line passes through the disused Heller Parkway station, then to Branch Brook Parkway station, where a few trips short turn. After Branch Brook there’s a siding, then a sharp curve and a grade crossing through Franklin Avenue. The line then continues along an old railroad right of way,14 passing through Silver Lake station, then to the terminal at Grove Street, where a yard is present. The shorter Broad Street Branch was described earlier during the history section.

The stations are simple, with concrete platforms, green canopies, and ticket vending machines, there do not seem to be countdown clocks, which is a small but important detail.

Type

Considering the main branch contains only three grade crossings, while the other branch is separated from traffic, the lines deserve the category Light Rail, of the subcategory Streetcar Subway. If not for the simple stations the main branch might’ve qualified for Low Floor Metro, but alas, not everything should have the prestigious15 title.

Newark @ Night - Jan. 30, 2014
An LRV on the Broad Street Branch in January 2014. (Katie Wilson via Flickr)

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One reply on “Newark City Subway: The One You Forget About”

Great post! When I went to NJ I totally miss this! Next time a better pay a visit.
And yes the ability to make transfers in NJTRANSIT is really bad. In this day and age we need intermodality and a better fare structure. Like I always: one fare to rule them all

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