Save Cornwells Heights
Friday, September 9, 2005
There are believed to be at least 1,000 New York City daily commuters who use Trenton’s train station as their home base. According to an August, 2001 New York Times article, more than 600 commuters buy monthly passes to New York City from Philadelphia’s 30th Street station. Cornwells Heights, located in near-suburban Philadelphia, 11 minutes past Trenton on Amtrak, appears to currently generate 40 to 50 monthly pass sales for the NYC commute. The question immediately comes to mind, “Why is Cornwells Heights ridership, sandwiched between two very high volume stations, not also a high-volume station?”
The answer is, “We’re invisible!” We’re not on the maps; we’re not on the standard Northeast Corridor schedules (distributed by New Jersey Transit). The name of the station itself is an enigma, and almost no one in the Philadelphia area has any idea where “Cornwells Heights” is, let alone that it has Amtrak service. It disappeared from all modern maps in 1979 when the postal consolidation of Bensalem Township took place. It’s in a vibrant, growing Philadelphia suburb of 60,000 people named Bensalem. Most of the residents of Bensalem also have no idea where Cornwells Heights is!
One of the guys I’ve been commuting with for years recounted how he drove on I-95 right past the Cornwells Heights exit for an entire year of commuting to New York through Trenton before he discovered that Cornwells Heights existed and had Amtrak service. He lived within about two miles of the station the whole time, and had no idea at all that it was there.
His story is much more the norm than the exception. Interview almost any Cornwells Heights rider and you will get a story about how difficult it was to discover the station’s existence, and often how they started out using Trenton (8,000 extra miles per year of driving for most) and then stumbled across Cornwell Heights through serendipity. There is literally not one shred of evidence visible at the station or on its approaches (like on the multi-million-dollar Cornwells Height Park-and-Ride exit bridge on I-95) that Amtrak service exists at Cornwells Heights. You literally have to dig hard to find it. Most of the area realtors can’t even tell you where the station is, and have no idea that excellent New York City commuting operates there.
I myself almost rejected a job offer in Manhattan when I thought my choices were Trenton (1 ride) or Croydon (2 rides; SEPTA and then Trenton). It was only through my current company’s perseverance to help find me a better commuting option that they located a commuter who had “heard of” a station somewhere in the Philadelphia area called “Cornwells Heights.” As it turned out, it was three miles and seven minutes from my house. I had lived in Bensalem for three years and had never even heard of it.
Cornwells Heights has the potential, I strongly believe, to grow to a ridership of 400 within five years, if properly promoted. And the full 800 parking spaces we have in reserve, we can most likely bring into use with New York commuters within ten years. I’m actually concerned that we’ll have to start building garages like Trenton someday after we’re discovered. We need to change the name to “Bucks Bensalem” so that people can find it. This station should become an economic magnet for growth and development in Northeast Philadelphia and Lower Bucks.
Last night I discovered that Amtrak has pulled the 5:56 a.m. train to New York off its schedule. As you may recall, they have been making promises to restore it to Cornwells Heights service ever since the Acela debacle took it away last April, and it had showed up on the online schedules for months now, indicating it would be back in service on October 31st. Well, as of today, Amtrak’s schedules no longer show it coming back. (Loss of that train is believed to have caused loss of 20% to 30% of Cornwells Heights ridership since April.) The good news, so to speak, is that the current Cornwells Heights trains are still showing on the online schedules for the next year.
As a second piece of bad news, though, I got it on hearsay this morning when I met the 6:55 train that 30 jobs are being cut by Amtrak in central Philadelphia as they are trying to roll back train operations there.
It has long been rumored that President Bush appointed David Gunn to head Amtrak so that he could shut it down. It looks like he’s doing his job well.
1) Amtrak: To provide the trains but forget to send schedules to the station, or even advise the station in any way of periodic schedule changes.
2) SEPTA: To run the station without even knowing or caring or being able to advise passengers as to when Amtrak’s trains will stop there.
3) PennDOT: To provide a free 1,600-space Park-and-Ride on the Northeast Corridor and name it for an obscure historical town that is not on any modern map.
4) New Jersey Transit: To distribute all the publicly available schedules and maps in Penn Station, none of which shows that Cornwells Heights even exists.
The relatively low Amtrak ridership at Cornwells Heights is not due to any inherent defect in the quality of the commute or the station’s neighborhood. It’s every bit as good as or better than Trenton’s commute! The problem is that nobody involved realized that the station is practically invisible. New Yorkers can’t find it, and everything they read at Penn Station says that Trenton is the end of the line for any possibility of New York commuting. In the Philadelphia area, there has been zero promotional effort to let anyone in Lower Bucks or Northeast Philadelphia know that they can take New York City jobs.
Fix the horrendous invisibility/promotion problem, and ridership will grow rapidly. Now, after eight years of service, is not the time for Amtrak to cut and run just because they never tried to figure out why the station wasn’t generating hundreds of monthly passes. Just fix it!
Anyone who wants to communicate with me directly, regarding the issues raised and discussed on this website, is welcomed and encouraged to do so by writing to me, Rick Booth, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington’s Amtrak Bureaucracy Says
to Bucks County’s Cornwells Heights Station…
“We promote our service. We don’t advertise Union Station in Washington, D.C., and people use that.”
My response to Amtrak’s cavalier statement of the day is…
Begging to differ, how does Amtrak consider itself to be “promoting its service” by not sending a single promotional supply – like schedules – to the Cornwells Heights station for the past two years? The station manager there doesn’t even know when your trains will stop, and the word “Amtrak” cannot be found anywhere at that station on either side of the tracks!
Further begging to differ, how does Amtrak consider itself to be “promoting its service” by placing its only Northeast Corridor schedules in New York’s Penn Station that list Cornwells Heights as a stop… in the Acela waiting area and in the exclusive Club Acela? Every publicly available Northeast Corridor train schedule in New York City’s Penn Station, aside from the ones in the Acela lockdown zones, says the Northeast Corridor stops at Trenton – because you have let New Jersey Transit print all the Northeast Corridor schedules for us ordinary Manhattan commuters, and Cornwells Heights is not in New Jersey!
And finally, how is it that the only map I can find at Penn Station showing commuting routes out of New York City shows a black, meandering, stationless rail line connecting Trenton to Philadelphia? Could it have something to do with the fact that it is distributed by New Jersey Transit?
Not to belabor the point, Amtrak, but we’re absolutely, positively not in New Jersey. We’re not even on the one map that shows the Northeast Corridor crossing the Delaware into Pennsylvania from New Jersey.
Now seriously, Amtrak, how did you think New York urbanites were ever going to discover the pleasures of suburbia and those 800 free empty parking spaces that were specifically built for them at your station, sitting there completely unused since 1997, 62 minutes from the heart of Manhattan aboard your very own trains? There’s a rat race for Northeast Corridor parking and access all the way from Princeton Junction down to Trenton. None of them know that if they would just relax for about 11 more minutes on their Amtrak train instead of running off at Trenton to get to their cars in the two seven-story parking garages there, they would discover Northeast Corridor Commuting Heaven at Cornwells Heights. I am literally wheels-down sitting in my own home, petting the dog and raiding the fridge, before most of the Trenton commuters have reached the Trenton city limits (which virtually all of them do, especially considering that two thirds of them drove in there from Bucks County, Pennsylvania!).
Begging your pardon, Amtrak, but does your Union Station in Washington, D.C. run up against these sorts of problems, too?
Right now, I’m pretty busy saving the best New York City commuting location south of Princeton Junction from extinction. Once I’m able to get over the hump with saving Cornwells Heights, I’d be glad to help out you guys down there in Washington, too!
-- Rick Booth, 4-year veteran Pennsylvania-to-New York City Amtrak commuter
P.S. Today, I’m putting my money where my mouth is: $50 to the first person to find another Northeast Corridor Amtrak station that can’t even give away free parking to, say, 500 or more commuters. (I’m trying to be sporting here. We have 800, but I don’t want to set the bar too high.) $10 to every single person who is first to put me in touch with a station manager at a stop serviced by Amtrak trains, where they haven’t received any Amtrak schedules for two or more years. (This is not limited to the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak lists over 800 stations around the country on their website. Surely a few more of them have gotten lost in the shuffle. I doubt that I’m going to be out much more than a few hundred dollars, but you never know.)
P.P.S. This site is not just about Cornwells Heights. It’s about bringing Amtrak back on track in general. If they treat their finest hidden gem this badly, I can only imagine the nonsense that goes on around the rest of the country. I’m sure Amtrak wastes tons of money needlessly (considering the lost revenue of covertly running a station on the Northeast Corridor for eight years), and they really do need to be reformed and saved from themselves, but they may need continued public support and a change in management in order to realize the dream. Amtrak runs wonderful trains, which is just the thing we need right now, with gas prices going through the roof. I am energetically pro-Amtrak-service. I am energetically anti-Amtrak-service-resource-management-stupidity. I’ll be glad to help them out as best I can, when I go to Washington.