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Princeton U. Moves a Storied Train Station Farther From Its Users

Princeton Station saw its last train at the end of August. (Chronicle photographs by Lawrence Biemiller)

Princeton Station saw its last train at the end of August. (Chronicle photographs by Lawrence Biemiller)

North America’s shortest scheduled passenger-train route, which runs into the heart of Princeton University’s campus, just got shorter—again. And critics of the change are steaming.

pb&jThe line appears on New Jersey Transit schedules as the Princeton Branch, but everyone else calls it the Dinky. It links Princeton with Princeton Junction, where riders can get connecting trains to Philadelphia, New York, and other destinations. When I first rode, some years ago, the schedule said the 2.7-mile trip took four minutes.

But now the trip’s been shortened by some 1,200 feet as the university moves forward with its Arts & Transit Project, which involves building new arts facilities and improving automobile circulation. The current Dinky station—a handsome Collegiate Gothic complex that dates to 1920 and that the university bought from New Jersey Transit in 1984—closed at the end of August and was replaced by a temporary structure that will serve riders until a new terminal is completed next year. The existing station’s two adjacent buildings will become a restaurant and a cafe, according to plans.

But here’s the rub: The replacement station will be 460 feet—more than a football field and a half—farther from most passengers than the current station, which is already half a mile farther from the heart of town, on Nassau Street, than earlier stations on the line (it opened way back in 1865). Critics of the replacement station say the actual walking distance from the site of the current station to the new location will be more like 700 feet, given the planned layout of the area.

Some time back, opponents formed an organization called Save the Princeton Dinky, and they continue to fight the move in court (the next hearing is set for October 11). But they say the university “is rushing  to create facts on the ground that will destroy the track bed and right of way to the station before the courts rule.” Already, the university has cut into the 1920 station’s platform.

Why would anyone move a transit station farther away from so many of its users in 2013? The university says it has to move the station “a short distance” to “create an attractive public space” at the heart of its new arts district, as well as to “to improve traffic patterns and congestion that had long been a concern to local residents” and “to provide direct access from Alexander Street to the University’s West Garage.” But you have to wonder why a university as devoted to sustainability as Princeton didn’t rank convenience for rail commuters above improving access to a parking garage, and whether planners as clever as those Princeton must be able to hire couldn’t come up with a solution that pleased more people.

fixedblairhall

Blair Hall was designed to serve as the entrance to the campus for passengers arriving at an earlier Dinky station, built in 1890 and long since demolished.

Rail transit wasn’t always an also-ran at the university, by the way, and one of Princeton’s most imposing buildings proves it: The oft-photographed flight of stairs descending from Blair Hall’s arch was designed to lead down to the Princeton Branch’s 1890 terminus, long since removed (at least in part because students complained about coal smoke from the steam engines). The line was electrified in 1936.

Other aspects of the Dinky’s history are equally rich. Starting in the late 19th century, the popularity of Princeton football led the Pennsylvania Railroad to double-track the line and add enough storage tracks to accommodate dozens of game-day specials—as many as 52 at once, according to one report. The literary-minded note that the rail line has earned mentions in works by F. Scott Fitzgerald (who dropped out of Princeton in 1917) and J.D. Salinger; famous riders have included Albert Einstein, the Princeton mathematician John Nash, and Brooke Shields.

Milepost 3 stands beside a long-abandoned portion of the railroad right of way.

Milepost 3 stands beside a long-abandoned portion of the railroad right of way.

But most of that was long ago. Now the line’s most notable landmark, other than the 1920 station, is the Mile 3 marker that still stands between Laughlin and Little Halls, although the rails have not reached that far since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House (after starting the trip to his first inauguration on the Dinky, by the way). It ought to make everyone who passes it think.

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