You probably already know that the largest mass transit system in North America is in New York City. Perhaps you didn't know that this system is supplemented by a very heavily used sister-system between New York City and New Jersey called the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, or PATH for short. PATH runs two lines through Jersey City, Newark, and Hoboken, carrying tens of thousands of passengers daily. My hometown, Hoboken, is considered one of the most densely populated cities in the country, and a large number of those residents commute via PATH on a daily basis. As the popularity of living in the city has increased, so have the swarms of passengers crowding onto PATH each morning and afternoon in their daily commute between New Jersey and Manhattan. The cars are very old and make for a rickety, sometimes enthralling ride. So it is not with anything but a huge warm welcome that we began to receive new rail cars over the past month. While claims of higher capacity are yet to be determined, one thing is clear; these cars are significantly more comfortable and quiet than their predecessors.
Shiny, Clean, And SMOOTH!
After September 11th, 2001, the complete collapse of the World Trade Center over the PATH terminus at that location provided a rare opportunity. The New York/New Jersey Port Authority was able to run new rails between downtown Manhattan and Jersey City as part of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center PATH Terminal. The result is a very smooth and quiet ride that makes the Midtown-to-Hoboken ride feel like a roller coaster (particularly late at night when the trains travel significantly faster due to less rail traffic). Replacing the rails required several months, however, so providing the same upgrades to the Hoboken line was simply not feasible. To be honest, when word was out that PATH would be getting new cars, I was highly skeptical that the cars could make a difference in the ride quality without the replacement of the rails. Well, I was wrong!
My first ride in a new PATH train this morning between Hoboken and 33rd Street in Manhattan was a pleasure. Yes, the air conditioning was humming happily, seats were shiny, rails and walls were proudly sparkling, and the live news feed on ten inch LCD screens overhead added to the bling. But what overwhelmed me more than any of these incremental improvements was the amazing softness and relative quiet of the ride! I could hear and slightly feel that the same old wicked tracks were trying their best to shake us up, but somehow those new cars were able to isolate us from the majority of the treachery down below. We glided pleasantly under the Hudson River and through the several station stops before reaching our terminus. People were happy. Conversations blossomed about world peace and summer's joys. A man stood up to offer his seat out of raw kindness, even though everyone was already seated.
Well, perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but the truth is the ride is surprisingly improved, and all without the enormous expense and disruption of major track repairs. With the new cars also comes intuitive routing signage on the car exteriors (replacing the three-letter abbreviations that baffeled tourists and PATH newbies) and clearer annoucements (although we'll forever miss the engineer pronouncing "Hoboken" using three different local dialects). So, kudos to PATH and their car manufacturer! And for all you transit planners out there, please consider this as a successful precedent for the rationale of a car-only ride-quality improvement strategy.