Lackawanna Cut-Off Restoration Project
Lackawanna Cut-Off Restoration Project
Begun in 2011 and still underway as of 2020, the project's Phase 1 is meant to extend NJ Transit's commuter rail service from Port Morris Junction to Andover, 7.3 miles (11.7 km) away. Service from Andover to Hoboken Terminal and New York Penn Station is slated to start in late 2026. Service to the latter will require full dual mode electro-diesel locomotives because the North River Tunnels cannot accommodate diesel engines.
Built between 1908 and 1911 by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad (DL&W) to speed service between Hoboken, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York, the 28.45-mile (45.79 km) Lackawanna Cut-Off was the last main line built in New Jersey. The line was considered an engineering marvel—a "super-railroad", in the vernacular of the day—with deep cuts, tall fills, and two large viaducts that allowed a mostly straight route through the mountains of the state's northwest region. Although the DL&W was profitable during its corporate life, competition from trucks and other economic pressures after World War II forced it to merge with competitor Erie Railroad to form the Erie Lackawanna Railroad (EL) in 1960.
The EL initially shifted most freight traffic away from the Cut-Off, though it continued to run passenger trains over the line. The railroad's flagship passenger train, the Phoebe Snow, traveled via the Cut-Off until it was discontinued in November 1966, and the last regularly scheduled passenger train (the Lake Cities) ran over the line in early January 1970. In the early 1970s, freight traffic was revived on the line after the closure of a key junction with the Penn Central in Maybrook, New York. But the conveyance of EL into Conrail on April 1, 1976, gave Conrail excess east–west trackage, and service on the Cut-Off ended in January 1979. (Conrail officials later said they might not have abandoned the Scranton Route, including the Cut-Off, if the EL had not severed a section of the Boonton Branch near Paterson, New Jersey, in the early 1960s for the construction of Interstate 80.)
Early preservation efforts (1979–86)
Efforts to preserve the Cut-Off began almost immediately upon the route's closing. In November 1979, Amtrak operated an inspection train between Hoboken and Scranton to investigate intercity rail service between the two cities. Dubbed the "Pocono Mountain Special", the train left Hoboken and ran west on the Morristown Line on November 13, 1979, reaching Port Morris shortly after 9 a.m. With the main line severed at Port Morris Junction, the special train detoured through Port Morris Yard, ran over Port Morris Wye, and then rolled onto the Cut-Off. The train ran to Scranton, where it was met by a group of political dignitaries. It was the last passenger train in the twentieth century—and the only Amtrak train—to operate over the entire route. The idea of Hoboken–Scranton service faded as Amtrak faced funding shortfalls and the need for significant track and station repairs in order to run passenger service on the line.
The 133-mile (214 km) inspection trip marked the end of one era, and the beginning of another: a 30-plus-year effort to save and then reactivate the Cut-Off. In the beginning, finding an operator for the line was less pressing than preserving the track and right-of-way itself. Several attempts were made to purchase the line from Conrail, which was concerned that a competitor that might try to restore freight service on the route. The Sussex County Freeholder Board in New Jersey pursued such a purchase.
The Monroe County Railroad Authority in Pennsylvania also got involved, and nearly reached a deal to buy the 88-mile (142 km) section of track between Port Morris and Scranton for $6.5 million. The railroad authority would have borrowed $4.1 million from the federal government at 3.25 percent per annum and issued bonds to cover the rest of the purchase price plus additional unspecified costs to restore the line. The deal would have allowed Conrail to remove about 40 miles (64 km) of track with an option for Pennsylvania, through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), to purchase the second track to Moscow, Pennsylvania, for operations out of Scranton's Steamtown National Historic Site. The agreement stipulated that the railroad operator would repay the loan from operational revenue.
In spite of initial optimism, the deal began to fall apart, and on August 10, 1983 the U.S. Department of Transportation informed Monroe County officials that the federal loan guarantee had been revoked and would instead go to the financially ailing Detroit & Mackinac Railroad in Michigan. Monroe County officials continued to press their case, hoping that Congress would provide financial support; the railroad authority invited 16 potential operators to submit proposals, and seven did so on August 26, 1983. Meanwhile, the federal regulations surrounding the abandonment of railroad lines changed; instead of a lengthy regulatory process that had discouraged railroads from abandoning unwanted routes, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) would be allowed to approve the abandonment of any track if it were not in service and had no originating or terminating shipments for two years, and was not required to serve any other track. This allowed Conrail to abandon the Cut-Off almost immediately. Atlantic City gambling interests also opposed restoring rail service over the Cut-Off, fearing renewed passenger service would provide a "Gambler's Express" to not-as-yet-built casinos in the Poconos that might compete with the nascent casinos of the Jersey Shore. A New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) priority list of rail projects at the time listed the Cut-Off as Number 26 in a list of unfunded capital projects.
The Monroe County Railroad Authority continued to fight Conrail, with support from PennDOT and the somewhat bizarre threat to use a privately owned World War II tank to block any Conrail rail-removal train. Conrail eventually relented and agreed not to sever the line between Slateford and Scranton.
With all regulatory and political hurdles removed in New Jersey, however, Conrail began lifting track on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River Viaduct on June 8, 1984. Even as this was taking place, Morris County Transportation Department director Frank Reilly made last-ditch attempts to delay track removal in New Jersey. In addition, the dismantling was hampered by saboteurs who replaced railroad spikes removed by the crew. These efforts proved to be in vain as the last mainline trackage was removed from the Cut-Off at Port Morris on October 5, 1984. Wooden ties and rock ballast were left in place, which was unusual since Conrail's standard abandonment practice involved removing all components (rails, wooden ties, signals, poles, rock ballast) when dismantling a railroad.
With track removal complete, the 27 miles (43 km) of right-of-way west of County Road 602 (Brooklyn-Stanhope Road) in Hopatcong, New Jersey, was sold to Jerry Turco, a developer based in Kearny, New Jersey. Turco said that he originally had no intention of purchasing the Cut-Off, but rather had learned of its availability from Conrail after he inquired about a 1,000-foot (300 m) section of the Lehigh & Hudson River Railway (L&HR) in Andover, an abandoned line that Conrail also owned. Turco said he wanted to acquire the short section so that he could expand a nursing home operation that abutted the roadbed. Conrail refused to sell the isolated Andover parcel, but offered to sell it if Turco would acquire all of the L&HR right-of-way from Sparta Township to Belvidere, a total of 32 miles (51 km). Turco said that it was during this time that Conrail offered the Cut-Off, which crosses the L&HR on the Pequest Fill near Tranquility, New Jersey, to create a package deal.
Turco eventually accepted the deal to purchase both rail lines, acquiring nearly 60 miles (97 km) of right-of-way for roughly $2 million. Shortly thereafter, Conrail sold the remaining 1 1⁄2-mile (2.4 km) parcel east of Sussex County Road 602 to developer Burton Goldmeier of Hopatcong, who reportedly wanted to use that section of the Cut-Off as an access road to a proposed housing development. (In 1988, Conrail removed the tracks from the L&HR.)
Later preservation and restoration efforts (1986–2008)
Public efforts to save the Cut-Off gained momentum in 1985, after Turco announced plans to move fill material from the Pequest Fill and other large Cut-Off fills for the Westway Project in New York City, and then dump garbage and construction materials into the large cuts. (The Westway Project, as originally proposed, would have required large amounts of fill material, but was abandoned in September 1985.) As such, it was never entirely clear how serious Turco was about his proposed Rebar Landfill or if this was simply a ploy to stir up public opposition and force the New Jersey state government to step in and acquire the Cut-Off by condemnation. Either way, the controversial proposal helped galvanize support for preserving the Cut-Off via a $25 million state bond issue for acquiring abandoned railroad rights-of-way that was placed on the ballot in New Jersey in November 1989.
Voters overwhelmingly approved the bond issue and NJDOT instituted eminent domain proceedings against the corporations that Turco and Goldmeier had established in New Jersey for the Cut-Off.
For liability purposes, Turco had established separate corporations for the parcels of right-of-way in each municipality that his section of the Cut-Off ran through: Knowlton, Blairstown and Frelinghuysen townships in Warren County; Green, Byram, and Andover townships and Stanhope and Andover boroughs in Sussex County. In addition, separate corporations had been set up for the Paulinskill Viaduct and the Delaware River Viaduct, as well as for the 1.4 miles (2.3 km) of right-way in Pennsylvania (which was later acquired by Pennsylvania's Monroe County Railroad Authority). In addition to these corporations, Turco created holding companies to oversee these other corporations: Sussex & Warren Holding Company, Inc. and OLC, Inc., (OLC, Old Lackawanna Cut-Off). (On the other hand, Goldmeier's 1 1⁄2-mile (2.4 km) section of right-of-way, which passed through short sections of Roxbury Township (Port Morris and Landing) in Morris County and Hopatcong Borough and Byram Township in Sussex County, was held as one parcel.)
By 2001, New Jersey and Pennsylvania had acquired their respective portions of the Cut-Off for a total of $21 million.
In July 2006, the final environmental review was submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for review and approval. The following February, the Lackawanna County and Monroe County Railroad Authorities were merged to form the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Rail Authority. One of the objectives of the new rail authority was to help expedite the effort to restore passenger service on the Pennsylvania side of the Cut-Off project.
In December 2008, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer sent a letter to the new Amtrak president, Joseph Boardman, expressing his support for Amtrak service between Scranton and Binghamton, New York. In April 2009, U.S. Senators Arlen Specter and Bob Casey, Jr. sent a joint letter to President Barack Obama, seeking support for Amtrak service between the two cities. They also cited an Amtrak feasibility study on the subject.
Passenger service restoration (2008–present)
Phase 1 (Port Morris Jct. – Andover)
In May 2008, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) approved funding for Phase 1—also known as the Lackawanna Cut-Off MOS Trackbed Restoration Project, or Minimal Operating Segment, MOS—of the New Jersey Transit proposal to rebuild the first 7.3 miles (11.7 km) of the Cut-Off between Port Morris Junction and Andover. The approval made the project eligible for Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding for engineering and design work. By 2009, the environmental assessment for the remainder of the project to Scranton was completed, with a "Finding of No Significant Impact" (FONSI) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Andover Extension of the Lackawanna Cut-Off is a $61.6-million project funded by FTA and the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund (NJTTF). To date, the project has been partially funded with a federal earmark grant of $18.1 million, with the balance to be funded using a combination of FTA and NJTTF funds. The project would reopen one track on the once-abandoned line with a speed limit potentially as high as 70 mph (110 km/h) for trains made up of existing NJ Transit diesel locomotives and coaches. Eight eastbound and eight westbound trains to and from Hoboken Terminal would run on weekdays from about 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Additionally, non-revenue trains (deadhead moves) would run in each direction to move equipment to and from Port Morris Yard. No weekend service is planned. The annual cost of operations is estimated at $2.1 million. Among the components of Phase 1 would be the construction of a station on Roseville Road in Andover, which would initially be built with 55 parking spaces, and a 200-foot (67 m) high-level platform. Located about 1.1 miles (1.8 km) from U.S. Route 206 and about 0.9 miles (1.4 km) from Sussex County Route 517, the station site is the area's only land parcel of sufficient size that is at grade with the Cut-Off and near a major highway. No station has existed on the Cut-Off at Andover previously. Initial ridership projections are for a total of 80 weekday riders, rising to 130 average weekday riders by 2030. Rehabilitation work would be required for the Roseville Tunnel, which historically has seen ice buildup within and drainage problems and rockslides just west of the tunnel bore.
Brush removal and general preparation to restore trackage between Port Morris and Andover began in early 2011 after being delayed by a disagreement between the NJ-DEP and NJ Transit over the proposed location for Andover Station. Separately, a small area of wetlands was found near County Route 605 in Stanhope where a stream passes along the north side of the right-of-way. Federal regulations governing projects that receive federal funding forbid tree and brush removal from April 1 to October 31 due to the mating season of the endangered Indiana bat.
The laying of track began from Port Morris in September 2011. By December 2011, about 1 mile (1.6 km) of track had been installed west of Port Morris Junction, at which time a Norfolk Southern train delivered the remaining continuously welded rail to the Cut-Off at Port Morris, which will be used to ultimately reach Andover.
As of 2020, about 4.25 miles (6.84 km) of rail, in three unconnected sections (described in the table below), has been laid between Port Morris and Lake Lackawanna. Most of the right-of-way between Port Morris Junction and the lake has been cleared of trees and debris. NJ Transit is storing retired locomotives on a short section of the Cut-Off near Port Morris Junction.
On March 2, 2020, a study sponsored by the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority found that the capital costs for reactivating the railroad from Andover to Scranton would be about $288.93 million. The figure, which included the cost of reinstalling about 21 miles of tracks, upgrading two major bridges, and other related work, is roughly half the 2006 estimate of $551 million, largely because it excludes building eight new stations, two maintenance facilities, and other upgrades included in the earlier study. The 2020 study, which cost about $1 million, was funded by local, state, and federal grants assembled by the office of U.S. Representative Matt Cartwright.
Environmental permits for work on and near Roseville Tunnel have been approved, and work for that part of the project could proceed at any time.
Environmental permits were issued for the non-Roseville parts of the project in April 2015, and NJ Transit acquired 3.53 acres of wetlands mitigation credits to compensate for the loss of wetlands in building Andover Station. No further permits are required, although NJDEP officials, citing computer models, determined that a theoretical 100-year flood required the replacement of a 219-foot (67 m) section of underground pipe that fed water from a wetlands area into Andover Junction Brook about 500 feet (150 m) upstream from Andover Station. The pipe crossed land owned by the private Hudson Farm (which is owned by IAT Reinsurance Ltd.), which had initially refused to allow the work. This stalled Phase 1. However, on August 9, 2017, it was announced that a deal had been reached to move the culvert away from the property, and that the plan had been ratified by the New Jersey Transit Board of Directors. On April 9, 2018, the Andover Township Committee announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with Hudson Farm to replace the original culvert. On June 25, 2018, the Andover Township Committee signed a resolution with Hudson Farm, compensating it $115,000.
Subsequently, NJ Transit has indicated that work on Andover Station will be completed in tandem with Roseville Tunnel. The qualifying of bidders for work on the tunnel is expected to continue through much of 2020.
|Section||Milepost||to Milepost||Track installed?||Remaining work (estimated completion date)||Photo|
|1. Port Morris Junction||45.8||--||Yes*||Install prefabricated #12 switch at junction to replace temporary switch; install Automatic Train Control and signal system on Cut-Off; lay more track into Port Morris Yard (PMY) from Morristown Line (2021). [*Note – Currently, a temporary connection at the junction, within Port Morris Yard limits, is installed.]|
|1a. Port Morris Wye Track||PMY||46.4||No||Complete grading of cleared wye trackbed; more roadbed work within Port Morris Yard; lay track and reinstall signals to connect yard and mainline. (2021).|
|2. Port Morris Junction to Route 602||45.8||47.0||Yes||Connect wye track to mainline (2021); align track, superelevate curve (2021).|
|3. Route 602 grade crossing||47.0||47.0||No||Raise utility wires that cross the railroad right-of-way; adjust height of roadway and/or Cut-Off roadbed; install tracks across roadway with quad gates (2021). This will be a "quiet zone": trains will not sound their horns when approaching.|
|4. Curve at and west of Route 602 grade crossing||47.0||47.1||No*||Minor right-of-way clearing; lay ballast and track [*Note – temporary track was installed on wooden ties with no ballast and later removed] (2021).|
|5. Tangent track west of Route 602 grade crossing (continues to start of 2nd curve west of Port Morris)||47.1||47.6||Yes||Add ballast; align track (2021).|
|6. 2nd curve west of Port Morris (includes new and old Route 605 overhead bridges)||47.6||48.0||No||Clear right-of-way; lay ballast and track; remediate adjacent stream (2021).|
|7. Section east of Lake Lackawanna (includes tangent track and 3rd and 4th curves west of Port Morris)||48.0||50.0||Yes||Track ends at Lake Lackawanna. Add ballast; align track and superelevate curves (2021).|
|8. Lake Lackawanna to Roseville Tunnel (tangent track)||50.0||51.6||No||Clear right-of-way and re-lay track; rehabilitate Roseville Road underpass just east of tunnel, C-18 (2021).|
|9. Roseville Tunnel (tangent track)||51.6||51.8||No||Lower tunnel floor; waterproof tunnel ceiling with membrane liner; deepen drainage ditches; install lighting in tunnel; perform clearing and rockslide abatement for 1700 feet (600 m) west and 200 feet (70 m) east of tunnel; install radio system in tunnel (2021).|
|10. Roseville Tunnel to Andover Station (on 5th curve west of Port Morris)||51.8||52.9||No||Clear right-of-way; improve drainage immediately west of tunnel; scale back rock wall and place rockslide protection west of tunnel; replace Roseville Road overhead bridge, C-17 (2021).|
|11. Andover Station||52.9||53.1||No||Replace culvert 500 feet (150 m) upstream from station on private land (2021); clear station area of trees and regrade; build parking lot and connect to nearby Roseville Road; build station building and platform; west of the station, install about 1,000 feet (300 m) of track and a switch to a siding of about the same length; install end-of-track devices; install signs at station and directional signs at nearby roads (2021).|
Beyond Phase 1 (Port Morris Jct. to Andover), there are no defined phases or schedules for completion. It is expected, however, that when the line is extended west of Andover that this would constitute Phase 2 and that, depending on available funding, service would be either directly, or incrementally (in further phases), extended to Scranton, 88 miles (142 km) west of Port Morris. In 2007, the estimated cost for the full build-out to Scranton was $516 million: this would include track, stations, signals and bridgework on the Cut-Off; additional stations and signals in Pennsylvania; and additional locomotives and passenger cars that would be dedicated to this service. The annual operating cost for the full build-out is projected to be $26 million. Cost estimates for building and operating any intermediate phases, if applicable, have not yet been determined. In October 2015, a study to update the 2007 data was requested by the FTA as a prerequisite for project funding west of Andover. U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright led the effort to obtain funding for such a study, the results of which are expected to be announced by early 2020.
The full build-out to Scranton would include:
- In New Jersey:
- Rebuild the remainder of the Cut-Off (21 miles, 33 km) as a single-track railroad with a passing siding about 4 miles (6.5 km) east of Blairstown.
- Repair the Delaware River Viaduct.
- Repair the Paulins Kill Viaduct.
- Reopen Blairstown Station, with 230 parking spaces.
- Build a maintenance-of-way facility at the former Greendell station site.
- In Pennsylvania:
- Replace the highway bridge at Slateford Jct. (Slateford Road) that was removed in 1990.
- Build a station near the Delaware Water Gap Visitors' Center in Smithfield Township with a 900-parking space garage.
- Build a station in East Stroudsburg with 228 parking spaces.
- Build a station in Analomink with 250 parking spaces.
- Build a Pocono Mountain station near the former Mount Pocono station with 1,000 parking spaces.
- Reopen the historic station building at Tobyhanna with 102 parking spaces.
- Build a station in Scranton west of the former DL&W station with 30 parking spaces, and build an overnight storage and maintenance yard for trainsets, as well as a facility for train crews.
- Upgrade the tracks in Pennsylvania.
- Install a signal system compatible with NJ Transit standards.
All stations would have high-level platforms and would comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Service would be scheduled to Hoboken and New York City. By 2030, it is estimated that the service could transport 6,000 passengers a day to jobs in northern New Jersey and New York City.
Stations and landmarks (Port Morris–Scranton)
|45.8||Roxbury Township||Port Morris Junction||Junction between Lackawanna Cut-Off and Montclair-Boonton Line to Hoboken Terminal and Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan (via Midtown Direct service). Nearest station: Lake Hopatcong, milepost 45.5. NJT's Port Morris railyard is also here. (Morris Canal passed under the Cut-Off just west of yard tower until it was filled in by the mid-1920s).|
|51.6||Byram Township||Roseville Tunnel||1,040-foot (320 m) double-track tunnel.|
|53||Andover||Andover||Planned NJT station.|
|57.6||Green Township||Greendell||Proposed maintenance-of-way facility on Cut-Off. Station and tower closed in 1938.|
|60.7||Frelinghuysen Township||Johnsonburg||DL&W station closed 1940; partially rebuilt in early 1990s; demolished in 2007.|
|64.8||Blairstown Township||Blairstown||Proposed NJT station using existing station building, which is now privately owned. The only regularly scheduled stop for DL&W/EL passenger trains on the Cut-Off.|
|71.6||Knowlton Township||Paulinskill Viaduct||Also called Hainesburg Viaduct.|
|73||Stateline (NJ/PA)(Delaware River)||Delaware River Viaduct||I-80 passes under viaduct on New Jersey side of the river.|
|74.3||Slateford||Slateford Junction||Junction between Lackawanna Cut-Off and Old Road. Interlocking tower.|
|77.2||Delaware Water Gap||Delaware Water Gap||Proposed station about 1⁄2 mile (800 m) west of station vacated in 1967.|
|81.6||East Stroudsburg||East Stroudsburg||Proposed station, south of old station site.|
|86.8||Analomink||Analomink||Proposed station. Former station stop at nearby Henryville eliminated.|
|100.3||Mount Pocono||Pocono Mountain||Proposed station north of former station in Coolbaugh Township near PA 611.|
|107.6||Tobyhanna||Tobyhanna||Proposed station using a building closed in January 1958.|
|133.1||Scranton||Scranton||Proposed station southwest of old station and DL&W regional headquarters building, now a Radisson Hotel. Former station stops at Gouldsboro and Moscow, between Tobyhanna and Scranton, are not proposed as station stops for this service at present.|
(* Miles from Hoboken.)
- North Jersey Rail Commuter Association, advocacy organization
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