The world as viewed from Princeton Junction

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, September 16, 2010

There is no town of Princeton Junction; don’t bother phoning the mayor. It’s three platforms and acres of parking lots in West Windsor Township, just across U.S. Highway 1 from Princeton, N.J. And it’s where I find myself one recent morning as the rush toward New York City winds down.
This is one of those rare mid mornings, not hot and not cold, with just enough clouds above to make the day pretty but not so many they crowd out the sun. I buy coffee and a muffin in the snack bar on the station’s lower level, find a bench on the south platform, and make myself comfortable. I realize I forgot to consult a timetable. Oh well, I’ll just see what presents itself.
For maybe 35 years I’ve been going by Princeton Junction. It’s in the middle of that fast, four-track Broad Way that begins at New Brunswick on the east and goes almost ruler-straight nearly 30 miles to Trenton, the state capital. It was through Princeton Junction that the Pennsylvania Railroad tested its Metroliners in the late 1960s. Three decades later, Amtrak came here for speed tests of its new Acelas. Passing this place on a train, I’d look up, never sure where I was until I spotted the Dinky resting at the foot of the 3-mile Princeton Branch or noticed a local landmark, the Chinese restaurant named Good Friends, just east of the north platform.
So on this day, I give myself up to Princeton Junction for an hour. What do I see? What do I learn?
The first thing I see is that this is one jumpin’ and jivin’ place to watch trains. I no sooner sit down than two headlights appear about three miles to the east, one of them on the express track (3) and the other on the local or westbound platform track (4). The headlight on the express track turns out to be the Acela from Penn Station. It slams past at what seems to be every one of the allowable 135 mph. By the time you can count to two it’s gone, leaving behind a brisk westerly breeze.

As I later figure out, Princeton Junction is a stop for all 100 New Jersey Transit weekday trains operating over Amtrak between Trenton and either Newark, N.J., or New York City. That’s in addition to 104 Amtrak trains on weekdays (only five of which stop). And NJT’s two-car Dinky makes 50 runs a day to the Princeton University campus and back. Very few of those 250 or so scheduled trains pass between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., so during daylight you can expect to see about 18 trains per hour (counting the Dinky), plus anything extra that either railroad throws into the stew. I’m sure some reader can name station platforms in North America west of Long Island that see more passenger trains than this, but I’m satisfied right where I am.

The second thing I notice is the diversity of the trains. I am surprised, actually. I get there expecting to see three things: NJT commuter trains, Acelas, and locomotive-pulled Northeast Regional trains. But I actually encounter more than a dozen flavors of passenger train in the next hour: For Jersey Transit, there are multiple-unit trains (the Dinky, for example), trains fronted by Bombardier’s 8000-hp electric locomotives, trains pulled by 7,000-hp Asea Brown Bovari electrics (the Swedish Meatballs), and trains with three different styles of trailing coaches, ranging from plain-jane Bombardier Comets delivered in the 1980s to higher-capacity bilevel cars fresh from the Bombardier factory floor. Going east, one of NJT’s GP40s roars down track 1 with deadheading cars from Trenton, its whistle blaring to alert people on the platform to step back. A while later, on the westbound express track, another diesel pulls two dead electric locomotives. As for Amtrak, besides Acelas, I see conventional Northeast Corridor trains fronted by both Asea Brown Boveri meatballs and Bombardier-Alstrom HHP (high horsepower) electrics, plus a Harrisburg-New York City train in push mode and the Southern Crescent with three Viewliner sleeping cars and a 1950s-era Budd diner.
And I see the people. Parking lots with space for more than 3,500 vehicles surround the station, and all but the most remote spots are occupied this morning. A crowd gathers for the 9:29 New York City train, this morning’s last express run. As the train arrives, an assistant conductor spots two people in motorized wheelchairs. He pulls a bridge plate from storage on the platform and lugs it to the long train’s first car, with wide center doors. The man rolls up and over the bridge easily, but I can see that the woman’s chair, with a smaller motor, will be a challenge. She backs up as far as she can and puts her controller into the company notch. Still, she stalls, and before I can move to help her, the assistant conductor comes to the rescue with a push. Victory! The 9:29 leaves on time.
As for what I learn, it’s that Amtrak and New Jersey Transit put on an impressive show in this little corner of the world. The trains run on time and look clean. I learn there are places in the countryside where a train is almost always in view, whether right in front of you or coming or going. I learn that people are fun to watch. And I relearn how enjoyable it can be just to sit still and watch the passing show.

Alas, Good Friends, the establishment where my daughter Liz went to drink with her sorority sisters, is no more. The sign has vanished. It’s now called Asian Bistro. Phooey on that. Every village on this earth has an eatery called Asian Bistro; Good Friends was Princeton Junction’s alone. I will miss its welcoming sign, and maybe a few of you will, too.--Fred W. Frailey

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