Study Background

The Washington Secondary/Morristown Line Corridor extends from Phillipsburg to Morristown and provides rail freight access to businesses in Warren and Morris Counties. The project area involves the segment of the Washington Secondary located to the north of the central business district in Phillipsburg, Warren County.

Economic redevelopment initiatives and previous studies have recognized the need to support existing rail freight customers and to explore attracting new customers along the Washington Secondary corridor. The national standard for freight rail access is defined by the dimensions (Plate "F" which is 17 feet high and 10.5 feet wide) and weight of a railcar (286,000 pounds or 286K loaded railcar). The Washington Secondary corridor cannot currently support this standard. The primary obstacle is a vertical constraint under the South Main Street Bridge.

This project is studying ways to provide freight transportation infrastructure that meets current industry standards in order to promote economic development and optimize freight movement particularly with the existing vertical clearance limitations of the South Main Street Bridge over the Washington Secondary/Morristown Line in Phillipsburg.

Existing Conditions

The project area is located in the Town of Phillipsburg, Warren County, New Jersey. Established near the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers, and at the hub of several historic transportation modes including rail, river, and canal, Phillipsburg enjoyed substantial growth and development during the period between its founding in 1861 and the development of the federal highway network. The development pattern of Phillipsburg reflects its history, and unfortunately, also creates the transportation challenge this study aims to address.

Phillipsburg Project Area Map

As described in a preceding study, the Morris-Warren County Rail Corridor Study, the Washington Secondary/Morristown Line Corridor, which is the subject of this study, includes approximately 52 route-miles extending from Phillipsburg to Morristown and serves as the primary rail corridor for freight service to Warren and Morris County. The line provides rail freight access to four branch lines that serve businesses in Morris and Passaic Counties.

The project area involves the segment of the Washington Secondary located to the north of the central business district of Phillipsburg. The Washington Secondary previously served numerous industrial customers within the project area, including heavy industrial manufacturing facilities. Today, there are two active customers between Phillipsburg and Washington Township, but 21 in total along the 52-mile route. Economic redevelopment initiatives have identified the existing vacant industrial uses and warehousing facilities along the Washington Secondary as an economic opportunity. At the same time, regional economic development initiatives have identified the need to support existing customers by maintaining industry-standard freight rail service. Within the project area, the obstacle to providing that service is in the form of vertical constraints.

Vertical Constraints
The Norfolk Southern owned Washington Secondary Line currently has vertical constraints as a result of various overhead structures. The most obvious and critical of these is the low clearance of the South Main Street Bridge in Phillipsburg, NJ. This is an under grade bridge that carries South Main Street over the Washington Secondary, as illustrated above.

The vertical clearance of the bridge currently allows for only Plate C cars (15’-6” height) instead of the industry standard Plate F cars (17’ height) thereby severely limiting the size and loading of rail cars that can be used to serve customers along the rest of the line. The height translates to rail car capacity, both in terms of total volume of goods and size. Volume presents an economy of scale circumstance. A Plate C car can carry approximately 95 tons. A Plate F car can carry approximately 100 tons, which reduces the per-unit cost of the freight good. Plate F cars can also carry larger items, such as pre-assembled lumber structures and structural elements, an important product for existing customers, who, to remain competitive must keep pace with advancements in building material technology.

Though Plate C cars remain available, the supply is limited and comes at a premium cost to the customer. These limitations, combined with the higher costs of transporting fewer goods per car, place both the railroad and existing businesses at a competitive disadvantage and limit opportunities to attract new businesses to locate in this area.

Stormwater Management
The curvature to the west of where the Washington Secondary branches off the Lehigh Line at the Philipsburg interlocking suffers from poor drainage, likely the result of the historic nature of the South Main Street Bridge. The bridge was constructed prior to the development of comprehensive stormwater management rules. Poor drainage along the Washington Secondary in this area generates reliability and maintenance issues by creating a source of uncertainty in the provision of service and additional costs associated with maintaining the tracks in a substandard setting.

Other Considerations
The South Main Street Bridge is located in the central business district of Phillipsburg. There are multiple active commercial and residential uses fronting on Main Street both north and south of the subject bridge. Consequently, any change to the roadway geometry of South Main Street and its intersecting streets and driveways could affect access to existing businesses, homes, and community facilities and cultural resources such as the Railroad Heritage Museum (Museum). The operators of the Museum also report existing stormwater drainage and pedestrian safety issues affecting access to their parking lot and sidewalks.

The historic nature of the adjacent uses and their importance in Phillipsburg’s local identity and long-term plans is also a constraint that will shape the eventual alternatives proposed to address the clearance issue. The operators of the Railroad Heritage Museum have identified the historic foundation of the building and its stonework façade as susceptible to damage. Additionally, the Railroad Heritage Museum, in cooperation with the Town, recently restored a control tower along the Lehigh Line and includes the area between the Washington Secondary and the Lehigh Line in the historic walking tour of Phillipsburg. Additional historic preservation activities, which include an expanded railroad historic heritage district, are part of Phillipsburg’s long-term downtown revitalization initiative. Clearance improvements must not preclude or substantially complicate the implementation of this local goal.

Upgrading key rail corridors to accommodate 286K Plate F railcars is fully consistent with the goals and priorities set forth in the NJTPA’s current Regional Transportation Plan, NJDOT’s Freight Rail Strategic Plan, as well as the additional plans listed below which support investments in the rail infrastructure and eliminating overhead height restrictions throughout the NJTPA region as well as New Jersey. Improvements to the rail service within the corridor would create opportunities for growing the existing rail served businesses and attracting new developments which would, as a result, increase the number of jobs as well as economic vitality of the region.

Estimated Project Schedule

  • This three year effort began in December 2016
  • Completed Purpose & Need Statement, August 2018
  • Public Information Center #1, October 2018
  • Selection of Preliminary Preferred Alternative, January 2019
  • Public Information Center #2, April 2019
  • Final Concept Development Report, June 2019