Beloved Princeton Branch might be on borrowed time

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, April 16, 2021

At Princeton Junction, N.J., two Penn Central MP54s, one still in PRR red, wait for their trip over the 2.7-mile branch to Princeton in 1971 The Northeast Corridor tracks are behind the photographer. Marty Bernard collection  
It was July 1968, and I was standing on a station platform, suitcase in hand, staring down a sleepy-looking piece of track that seemed to disappear into the woods. Catenary wire hung over the right of way. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn I was standing along the South Shore Line at Hudson Lake, Ind.

Far from it. In fact, just behind my back I could hear the roar of the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s electrified main line, alive with GG1s, long freights, and commuter trains. This could only be one place — Princeton Junction, N.J. — diversion point for one of the PRR’s (and by mid-1968, Penn Central’s) most curious appendages.

I was about to ride the Princeton Branch, at the time a mere 2.7 miles long, linking what is now Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor with the town of Princeton and its famous university. Affectionately known as either the PJ&B (“Princeton Junction & Back”) or simply “the Dinky,” the line has served generations of passengers since predecessor Camden & Amboy spiked it down in 1865.

Author John R. Wilmot wrote a definitive history in the June 1987 issue of Trains, cataloguing a surprisingly long list of things that make the branch distinctive: the small PRR steam locomotives that gave way to electrification in 1936; decades of football specials, back when Ivy League games led the sports pages; the bridges that over the years spanned the Delaware & Raritan Canal halfway down the line; the shenanigans that invariably happen when college students ride trains. What the PJ&B lacked in length it made up for in stories.  

The Dinky still runs today, but perhaps not for long. NJ Transit has announced it is conducting a study to determine the line’s future. Although keeping the current operation is listed as an option, more ominous are various schemes to replace today’s two-car NJT trainsets with rubber-tired vehicles — not a good sign. 

The "PJ&B" train whiles away the evening at the former PRR station at Princeton in the 1970s. MP54s and the old stone station are no longer part of the experience. Karl Zimmermann
My first encounter with the PJ&B was fortuitous because it quickly became a comforting friend. That summer of ’68, I was in Princeton to attend a music camp at Westminster Choir College, just north of the university campus. I was one nervous 17-year-old, far from my Michigan home and thrown into an intense whirl of high schoolers from all over the U.S. Ahead were two weeks of choir rehearsals and private lessons on the college’s grand pipe organ.

That’s where the Dinky came in. Several late evenings, I escaped the stress of Westminster by stealing away to a platform bench beneath the eaves of Princeton’s stolid stone PRR depot, content to watch the battered old Tuscan-red MP54s come and go. I felt at home in that place.

I’m not alone in admiring the Princeton Branch. Writer Karl Zimmermann, a 1965 Princeton graduate, was on intimate terms with the line right around the same time I was visiting.

“The Dinky was something special, but I always preferred its other moniker, the PJ&B, which I thought a droll play on the grandiose and often unrealized ambitions suggested by railroad names, especially in the early years,” recalls Zimmermann. “Of course, the Princeton Branch has a history of retrenchment long predating the most recent and contentious one. On a visit to campus in 2012, I discovered milepost 0, right in the heart of campus, near Blair Arch, among the most photographed Princeton buildings.”

Not surprisingly, given its university connection, the Princeton Branch could provide an education, at least in transportation. Consider the case of Henry Posner III, today chairman of Pittsburgh-based Railroad Development Corp., among his other industry leadership posts. In 1974, Posner was an ambitious Princeton freshman who worked out an arrangement with a travel agent to sell Amtrak tickets on a 50/50 commission split. 

Today "the Dinky' runs with a pair of NJ Transit Arrow III cars. A single car is more than sufficient for the traffic, but a second is provided in case of failure. Robert S. McGonigal
“What was interesting about this was the long list of clients, some of whom have become quite famous and, me being me, I have some of the original receipts, in some cases with signatures,” Posner reveals. “It was all hand-written ticketing, so I took it upon myself to issue interline tickets via the Dinky in conjunction with Amtrak. Therefore, if somebody was traveling for example from Washington to Princeton, the ticket would be Washington­–Princeton Junction on Amtrak and Penn Central from Princeton Junction to Princeton.

“I was never contacted by Amtrak to the effect that what I was doing was problematic. So perhaps I can take retroactive credit for pioneering interline pricing between public and private-sector passenger rail carriers. Of course, since then the web has taken this over in various forms.”

Posner said he was never questioned as to how he came up with the through price or how the revenue was allocated. “That means I either had a Zen-like knowledge of interline pricing, including division of revenue, or it was just easier to take my word for it on a division for Penn Central that was, at most, several dollars.” With that, the freshman got a lesson that would hold him in good stead throughout his freight career.  

The branch hasn’t lost its hold on the imaginations of a younger generation of Princetonians, either. Take Emily Whitaker, for instance, a 2015 graduate. She describes herself as an unabashed Dinky fan.

“I think it’s safe to estimate that I’ve ridden the Dinky at least 1,000 times,” says Whitaker. “What I love about it is that every time I step into that little train, no matter how mundane the circumstance, I’m flooded with memories of all the great feelings I’ve felt riding it — a sense of relief upon seeing our quiet, peaceful campus through the windows while coming back from a late night seeing a Broadway show, longing for home and family to come as soon as possible.”

Whitaker tapped into the same feeling I had back in ’68, the notion that a ride on the Dinky could be a peaceful, restorative interlude. 

A few years ago, I had a chance to get back to the Princeton Branch. I was disappointed to see that a sterile new NJT station has replaced the old chapel-like PRR depot, now an upscale seafood joint called Roots Ocean Prime. The move further shortened the branch’s mileage. And the pair of stainless-steel Arrow III cars that quietly pulled into the junction lacked the appeal of those Pennsy MP54s.

But a train is a train, always infinitely preferable to whatever sort of “rubber-tired solution” the bureaucrats conjure. I fear that the relentless tide of real-estate development on the edge of the Princeton campus will ultimately put the PJ&B out of business. For this occasional passenger — 53 years after he found solace on the Dinky — that would be a shame. 

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