Where the Only Station Stop Is Princeton

By Lawrence Biemiller

Princeton, N.J.

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Blair Hall's staircase and arch were built to serve as the gateway from the old Dinky station to the Princeton campus.

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The Dinky now begins its run at the new station, on the edge of the campus. It dates to 1920.

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One of the line's two grade crossings is at Faculty Road.

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The route crosses the Delaware & Raritan Canal on a swing bridge, now permanently closed.

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Princeton Junction, 2.7 miles from Princeton, is the end of the line. The trip takes all of four minutes.

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Milepost 3 has stood alone in the middle of the Princeton campus since the 1920 relocation of the Princeton station shortened the line. (Photographs by Lawrence Biemiller)

Like so many train trips now, this one begins with the bleating of a cellphone. "Hi," says a young woman in the next row back. "Oh, just sitting on the Dinky waiting to leave. I don't think I got CNN either -- did I tell you this?" As she and her caller discuss high-profile summer internships in New York, the one-car train begins to move.

It accelerates smoothly along the lower end of the Princeton University campus and flashes past the Faculty Road grade crossing. "Mom, can I call you right back? I'm on another call," the young woman is saying now. Moments later the car sprints across the old Delaware & Raritan Canal, and then above six lanes of traffic on U.S. Route 1. It races past the parking lots of sprawling suburban office buildings. "Really? Oh my God!" the young woman exclaims, drawing two long syllables out of God.

Which are all she has time for, because by now the car is gliding around a tight curve and pulling into the station at Princeton Junction -- all of 2.7 miles from where it started. Scheduled at four minutes from end to end, the run is by all accounts the shortest scheduled railroad passenger trip in the United States. "Gotta go," the young woman chirps, snapping the phone shut and hurrying down the aisle.

Known to New Jersey Transit as the Princeton Branch but to everyone else as the Dinky, the shuttle is a lifeline for undergraduates, faculty members, university employees, and visiting speakers, as well as for local commuters on their way to jobs in Manhattan or Philadelphia. Its lone electric-powered car seats 117 and makes 41 weekday round trips between 5:11 a.m. and 1:04 a.m. New Jersey Transit officials say it carries 1,860 riders a day. The one-way adult fare is $1.80.

At Princeton Junction, on Amtrak's busy Northeast Corridor, the Dinky connects with trains operated both by Amtrak and by New Jersey Transit -- which in turn connects to trains of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as Septa. Broadway, Capitol Hill, Harvard Square, the Newark airport -- the trip starts with a walk to the stone station on the edge of the campus. As riders settle into the Dinky's high-backed seats, they glance casually around to see who else in the car they know.

The current Dinky is a refurbished Arrow III multiple-unit car, so called because a string of them can be operated from a single cab. But the Princeton Branch only rates a second car during the busiest season of the year, from right before Thanksgiving through Christmas -- and even then New Jersey Transit doesn't always have extra rolling stock available. Built in the late 1970s, the Arrow III has a top speed of about 80, although the speed limit on the Princeton Branch is 60. The car's interior is almost defiantly dowdy, with linoleum floors, three-and-two commuter seating, fake wood-grain paneling on the walls, and distinctive round-ended windows.

Princeton is by no means the only higher-education institution with handy train service -- the Claremont Colleges, in Claremont, Calif., are served by sleek Metrolink commuter trains that pull into a Spanish-Baroque station constructed by the old Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. Septa's R3 line pauses in Swarthmore, Pa., at the base of a beautiful tree-lined walk leading up to Swarthmore College's main building, Parrish Hall. Amtrak serves any number of college towns. But the Princeton Branch is in a class by itself -- a line that exists exclusively to serve the university and the neighborhoods right around it.

According to a detailed history of the line by John R. Wilmot that appeared in the June 1987 edition of Trains magazine, the Dinky dates to 1865. That was when the route of what was to become the Pennsylvania Railroad was shifted from its original location alongside the canal. The new line was farther east -- too far to reach from Princeton on foot. So a 3.2-mile branch was constructed, along with a fine swing bridge over the canal and a wooden station on the edge of the campus. A high-wheeled wood-burning locomotive and a single flat-roofed coach handled a passenger schedule that listed six round trips daily. The line also carried freight, both for the university and for local businesses.

A new station was constructed in 1873, and another in 1890. Meanwhile university buildings were going up ever closer to the Dinky's tracks. Indeed, Blair Hall's notable archway and its long flight of stairs were constructed to serve as the entrance to the university from the station. But students in nearby dorms complained about soot from locomotives that were almost right under their windows, and in 1920 the current station went up some distance away, shortening the branch by several tenths of a mile. Surprisingly, the old Milepost 3 survives even though more than 80 years have passed since the tracks it measured were torn up. It stands between Laughlin and Little Halls.

Big-time railroading came to the Princeton Branch in the early 1900s, thanks to the popularity of Princeton football. In the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, eager fans filled dozens of special trains heading for the university every game day, and the Pennsylvania Railroad began expanding its facilities. Three yards with more than 30 sidings were built, where the university's tennis courts and athletic fields are now, to hold specials from New York, Boston, and Washington. In 1905, the branch was double-tracked and a new swing bridge was constructed. The line was electrified in 1936.

Generations of students called the shuttle the "PJ&B," for "Princeton Junction and back," but in recent decades the name "Dinky" has been in favor. Over the years the line has had its share of both mishaps and memorable moments. In 1876, three students who had missed the last train back from Princeton Junction appropriated a handcar but couldn't stop it when they reached the swing bridge, which had been left open for the night. They jumped to safety, but the handcar sank into the water. The trio confessed at a reunion decades later.

Students have twice climbed on top of the Dinky at night at the Princeton Station and suffered horrific electric shocks when they touched the pantograph, the arm that reaches up to the overhead electric wire. The student involved in the second incident, Bruce J. Miller, subsequently sued New Jersey Transit, the university, and three student clubs at which he had been drinking before climbing onto the car; the case was settled in 1995 for $5.7-million. The Dinky is now kept at Princeton Junction when not in use.

In 1903, the line played host to the Liberty Bell, which made a brief visit while en route from Philadelphia to Boston. Woodrow Wilson, a former Princeton president, walked to the Princeton station with a crowd behind him as he began his trip to Washington for his inauguration in March of 1913. Albert Einstein, who was on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, was a sometime rider.

The train crews know the Dinky's current celebrities. "Turn around," a conductor whispers at Princeton Junction. "Know who that is? John Nash. A Beautiful Mind." Mr. Nash, a Princeton mathematics professor who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics, is a regular commuter from Princeton Junction to the campus.

"Brooke Shields used to ride with her bodyguard" when she was a Princeton undergraduate, the conductor says. Then he declines to give his name, even though it is embroidered on his uniform jacket.

For the most part, of course, the Dinky's runs are routine -- Princeton Junction and back, Princeton Junction and back, Princeton Junction and back. The line has three grade crossings -- one is just for pedestrians -- and at each the motorman sounds the air horn: two long blasts, one short, and another long. There are several curves and a steep grade into Princeton, but no switches to worry about anymore -- the yards and sidings have long since gone the way of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the line consists of a single uninterrupted track. The Dinky ran without incident during last winter's blizzard, a motorman wearing a Villanova baseball cap says as he waits for the signal to start another trip. "Ice is a big thing," he volunteers, "if ice forms on the wire and you're not making contact."

"We don't have a lot of problems," says the conductor, although he complains at some length about the university's unwillingness to open the long-shuttered station, which it has owned since 1984, so that passengers can use the restrooms. "We get that all the time -- you have a restroom? No. 1 university in the country, and we can't get a restroom."

He checks his watch. "Hey, Art, we gotta get outta here," he says.

"I know," says the operator. "I'm waiting for you." The door slides shut, there's a hiss of air as the brakes release, and the Dinky starts another run to Princeton.

Copyright © 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published May 16, 2003.