Earlier this year, NJ Transit reduced the time that Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (HBLR) tickets are valid from 90 to 60 minutes – but public officials and riders say they weren’t made aware of this change, and that other features of ridership are unclear.
The change was made, according to NJ Transit, to stop people from using one ticket for a trip and then using it again for a return trip in rapid succession.
However, 60 minutes is not always enough time for a person to validate a ticket and get to their destination, if the train arrives late.
Public officials say that NJ Transit never informed them of the change, no notices were posted at the stations, and none were published in the quarterly transit newsletter.
“No, we were not notified in advance of the change and have asked Transit to explain its impact on Jersey City commuters,” said city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill.
In addition, riders have found the system confusing in that they are required to first purchase a ticket at a machine, and then go to a different machine to validate it. Long-time riders are aware of that process, but for new users, there are few signs explaining that just buying the ticket isn’t enough; they must go elsewhere to validate it. The tickets are not often checked on the trains, but when they are, a person without a valid ticket may have to pay a $100 fine.
Change without warning
Several City Council members who represent a large number of light rail passengers said they were not informed of the recent time change.
“That is ridiculous and again anti-business,” said Freeholder Bill O’Dea, whose district represents the west side of Jersey City. “A traveler changing trains can’t stop and shop or even grab a cup of coffee for fear of a ticket expiring. The HBLR must be losing money.”
NJ Transit says the change is an attempt to curb theft of services. They say people use the ticket to travel to and from nearer locations on the same fare, and other passengers leave tickets with unexpired time at stations for other people to collect. Or they even hand them to passengers getting onto the trains, so the new passenger can avoid the $2.10 fare.
“The fare people pay is for one direction,” said Nancy Snyder, spokesperson for NJ Transit. “We’re trying to prevent people from using them for multiple trips.”
She said notification of the change was sent out in January that the ticket times would be implemented in mid-March.
But NJ Transit, some officials say, often isn’t communicative about changes in service.
In 2009, NJ Transit cut weekend service to Hoboken. That forced riders coming from northern Hudson County to go to Newport Mall first, then back track on a north-bound train. Passengers embarking in Hoboken at the Ninth or Second street stations have to go to Jersey City and ride back to the Hoboken terminal on weekends.
NJ Transit officials claim it is possible to get from one end of the light rail system to another under an hour, so the 60 minutes should be enough time. However, on a recent Thursday just after morning rush hour, when there was little crowding or other complications, a journey from Bayonne to North Bergen took 59 minutes. A separate trip from North Bergen south to West Side Avenue took over an hour, partly because of a 20 minute wait for a train in North Bergen.
Savvy travelers have learned to validate their tickets just before the train arrives. But this isn’t possible in North Bergen because passengers have to validate upstairs before they know what time the train will arrive down below.
Tickets differ from some other transit systems
The ticket system for the HBLR differs from other mass transit systems like PATH or New York City’s subway system. In those systems, people insert a pre-purchased card and enter an enclosed platform. An HBLR passenger must purchase a ticket, validate the ticket, and keep it throughout the trip.
Snyder said NJ Transit felt their officers would use discretion when checking tickets.
“We believe the officers will use good judgment when it comes to time,” she said.
The HBLR touch screen ticket machines are sometimes out of order, especially those exposed to rain and snow such as in Bayonne and at the Ninth Street Station in Hoboken. People forced to line up at the remaining machines often grow impatient with those unfamiliar with how the ticket machine works.
Even when operated correctly, the ticket-buying process can be time-consuming. A passenger touches the screen and gets a menu of what kind of ticket they want to purchase: bus, train, parking, ferry or combinations. Deciding on an HBLR ticket, they then must decide: single one-way fare, two-way fare, senior citizen discount, monthly pass, etc. Then they choose the payment method – cash, coins or credit cards.
The paper money process is often problematic. Sometimes credit cards do not work. Even coins can be a problem because the machine sometimes rejects them for no apparent reason.
When the machine finally prints out the ticket, it’s time to go to another slot and validate it. A rider must put the ticket into a slot that punches the date and time, starting the countdown – but if the ticket is wet, it sometimes won’t slip into the slot, or it takes a number of attempts.
Can only be done under optimal conditions
The HBLR operates four stations in Bayonne, 10 stations in Jersey City, three in Hoboken, two in Weehawken, one in West New York, and one in North Bergen.
From the southern end of the two lines, users can ride directly from Bayonne to Hoboken, or from West Side Avenue to North Bergen. But in order to go from Bayonne to North Bergen, or from West Side Avenue to Hoboken, one currently has to change trains.
A clock at each station tells how long it will take the next train to arrive. Late at night, sometimes it can take more than an hour for the next train to arrive. That means that a ticket may become invalid if purchased too early.
Another problem is that trains sometimes run on the wrong side of the tracks in Bayonne. So a passenger waiting on the northbound side might miss a train that comes on the south side, thus causing further delay.
If traveling between Bayonne and North Bergen, passengers must change trains at one of the Jersey City stations for a train from West Side Avenue. This can be a long wait in rush hour or even during times when students use the system from New Jersey City University – which has a campus on West Side Avenue – or Hudson Community College, which has a campus near the North Bergen end.
During rush hour, trains are sometimes so packed between Port Liberty and Exchange Place that bicycles and baby carriages make it impossible to stand. So some riders are forced to let trains pass and wait for the next train, which could be five minutes or twenty, each making time shrink on the ticket’s validity.
First time, worst time
At about 9:40 a.m. on a rainy Thursday in June, three people huddled in front of the ticket machine in front of the Hudson Bergen Light Rail station on Eighth Street in Bayonne. The three would-be riders – none of whom spoke English as a first language – struggled to make their way through the complicated ticket purchasing process, while a woman behind the wheel of a gray Volvo parked nearby shouted instructions.
The ticket machine stood in front of the station without shelter from the rain. So the three people dripped and grew more and more confused. After finally getting their tickets, they made their way up two flights of stairs to the train platform and entered the train.
They did not validate their tickets even though they passed three validating machines along the way. This is a not-uncommon error for newcomers to the rail line.
The only notice that tickets must be validated was on the fence near the front of the station.
The lack of decent signage is also true at the northernmost terminus of the rail line in North Bergen, where two young couples (who described themselves as “landlubber tourists”) tried to make sense of the ticket machine there.
“This is our first time on these trains,” said a young woman in a red shirt.
After struggling through the multiple steps of the ticket process, the four paused to study the transit map so they knew where to get off in order to catch the ferry to Manhattan. They were in such a hurry to catch the train that they missed the validating machine and didn’t notice the signs near the stairway saying tickets must be validated.
A transit worker on the platform below informed them.
“He was very nice about it,” one of the other four said, as they scrambled back up to validate their tickets.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.