June 21, 2007

YO!......Look Out for the Locomotive

Judging by an article this week in the Star Ledger it appears as though the UC Board of Chosen Freeholders is working to get what has been referred to as the UC Garbage Train back on track.

County Manager George Devaney released some snippets from a report prepared by the county’s Department of Economic Development at the request of state Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri. Before the state sent another dime Kolluri wanted a full review of the costs and benefits of restoring service on the two train lines: the Staten Island RR, from Cranford to Linden and the Rahway Valley Line, from Cranford to Summit.

Work was stopped on the controversial reactivations over one year ago when financing was halted much to the delight of many residents who reside in close proximity to the tracks and others who do the daily drive on the heavily traversed roads which would be impacted by grade level crossings.

According to a new analysis by the county of the 14 mile stretch of track there would be created at least 500 jobs and more than $10million generated. But, what is particularly interesting is that the report also states that 1,000 jobs could be created and that the county itself could end up receiving an estimated $200,000 a year. Well which is it?

The history of the project has indeed been confusing all along, starting with former Freeholder Nick Scutari’s letter to residents stating that the train would not be reactivated when indeed a contract had already been signed 5 months prior for track maintenance. The freeholders did some back pedaling at the time telling residents we feel your pain and stated that they had to sign a contract so that they could maintain control of the situation to protect the interests of the residents and not let it fall into other more powerful and heavier hands like the federal government.

The questions remain over what is to be transported and how frequently residents would have the 9:02 passing by their bedroom windows just feet away, who are they to believe.

On first blush the train sounds like a “sweet” idea, relieving our roads of traffic by encouraging industry along the lines to move materials and goods by rail, taking over 30,000 or more trucks off Union County’s roads per year, but is it really?

Two recent rail accidents come to mind. The first of course is the Graniteville train disaster in January 2005 where 10 people died and at least 250 were treated for chlorine exposure while 5,400 residents within a mile of the crash site were forced to evacuate their homes for nearly 2 weeks.

The second just recently, Feb ’07, nearby in South Plainfield, NJ where two locomotive engines and a box car crashed 150 feet through the cinder block wall of a pigment manufacturing plant before coming to rest. The locomotives were pulling a train of 82 tanker cars loaded with ethanol fortunately none of the cars ruptured and thankfully no one was injured as it was during non working hours.

Both accidents involved rail sidings and switching situations in light manufacturing areas in proximity to residential settings. These are the kinds of scenarios that the towns residents are concerned about as they realize that the county misrepresented the situation already and now has no guarantee what the trains will be hauling in 9, 10 or even 11 years as the contract with the rail line was very limited in duration and quite open ended in scope.

I first heard of the UC project when appointed to the UC Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) in 2000 representing Garwood. We would be unaffected as would other towns on the Raritan Valley line that runs along North Avenue; after all, those trains are of the commuter variety so few of the powers that be cared.

However that could change in a minute as there was talk, even at that time, of adding a third track to provide light freight service along the Route 28 corridor, including investigation of how track use is combined overseas. We know that these ideas just don’t disappear once proposed as someone usually figures out how to make a buck and the public’s safety be damned.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn just who owns stock in what RR’s here in NJ.