The Scoot
©2024, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

I’d been on rides before, but this one was a little different. We were traveling, or perhaps bouncing would be a better term, over Newark Bay, heading westbound from Bayonne to Elizabeth. This was over water, but by train, on trackage of what was once called “The Big Little Railroad”—the Central Railroad of New Jersey, or the Jersey Central or just the CNJ.

This is the story of an early Saturday afternoon in the late seventies which began at the former CNJ station known as Elizabethport. Rebuilt in 1938, it was to the east of the central district of the City of Elizabeth. “E’Port” was used by residents of the area and workers whose factories, like the massive Singer Sewing Machine complex, were nearby. But it was also, perhaps more importantly, a transfer station, with an all-way junction between the east to west main line of the CNJ, the Elizabethport and Perth Amboy line to the south, which led to the Jersey Shore, and the Newark Branch to the north. At one time there were six through tracks with high level platforms serving most of them.

For a station of its size it really didn’t have that much parking for automobiles, nor did it need much, as most of the people who boarded or detrained at this station walked to it. We had a selection of spaces to choose from when we pulled into the lot located at street level—in fact, there were just a few other cars, not all of which looked road-worthy. A friend of ours who came with my father and me remarked that he hoped our Dodge Coronet would still be there when we got back. (It was, and a few years later I would use it to learn how to drive.)

We climbed a set of stairs that had seen better days and found ourselves alone on the only platform at E’Port still in use. The concrete which had absorbed millions of footsteps was beginning to crumble significantly; maintenance would not ever be performed on it again given how few people used it at this time. In disrepair and obvious disuse was what later I determined was the top of the brick enclosure for an elevator—probably for baggage, not passengers. Also missing were commercial posters. These were ubiquitous in most train stations, and in the Greater New York area, often advertised Broadway shows. Although there were plenty of frames in which these could be placed, the only one I saw was a public service message featuring Smokey Bear. He wasn’t going to be able to warn many people that Only They Could Prevent Forest Fires. In fact, Smokey Bear would have been pretty lonely hanging out at E’Port starting on May 1, 1967, a decade before we set foot on the largely unused platform in the nearly abandoned station.

Yes, the backstory to how we ended up all alone on a station platform begins years before the events of this one afternoon. The key event was something called The Aldene Plan.

To say that “railroads weren’t what they used to be” was an understatement in the Northeast, starting in the late 1950s. First, their revenues were dropping, as industries left the area and the mix of commodities needed changed dramatically, particularly the end of the dominance of coal as a heating material. Second, their expenses were going nowhere but up, and that included both the increasing burden of providing passenger service, mostly commuter trains, and the ever-forward march of property taxes. Something had to give, and it was usually solvency. The CNJ was among those that succumbed, entering a bankruptcy in 1967 from which they would never emerge. By the time of this story, the railroad property and operations of the Jersey Central and other bankrupt lines had been taken over by the Consolidated Rail Corporation, or just Conrail.

Even before then, the Jersey Central was hemorrhaging money. Losses from passenger service could be tolerated when their freight business was robust, and coal flowed from mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania to the New York Metropolitan Area. By the early 1960s, the red ink was already apparent, and the CNJ made it clear that if the State of New Jersey still wanted commuter service, then the State of New Jersey had better pitch in.

By 1967, a strategy was in place: the Aldene Plan.

Prior to the plan’s implementation, the Jersey Central’s trains largely terminated their inbound commuter runs and began their outbound commuter runs at their Jersey City Terminal, also known as the Communipaw Terminal, coming right through Elizabethport as part of this route. The CNJ's was the farthest south of all of the passenger train stations along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, and it was also within close sight of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. (And thus the origin of the Jersey Central Lines “Liberty” herald.) Many immigrants who made it through the process at Ellis Island continued their journey from Communipaw Station, and parts of the film Funny Girl were filmed there. But it was a huge financial albatross around the Jersey Central’s neck.

So the State Department of Transportation created a “Railroad Transportation Division” within the highway department to create and implement the Aldene Plan. Its linchpin was a small amount of new railroad construction, which connected the Jersey Central’s main line in the Aldene section of Roselle Park to the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which bridged over the Jersey Central near that point. The new track was a relatively steep ramp between the two lines, which was alright since only passenger trains, not long, heavy freights, would ever use this new trackage. From this point east of the CNJ’s Cranford Station, inbound commuter trains would leave the CNJ trackage, run uphill to the Lehigh Valley’s trackage, and then proceed on the Lehigh Valley to where it connected via a second ramp to the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, at a point called Hunter in the City of Newark. CNJ trains travelled on that ramp to reach the Pennsy, just as the Lehigh Valley’s own passenger trains like the Maple Leaf (discontinued in 1961) had done. It was then just a short trip up the Pennsylvania’s tracks to reach Newark Penn Station, where the westernmost platform would be used to minimize crossing tracks even though it was technically “against the flow of traffic” entering the station from the south. A study from 1959 conducted by the Pennsylvania Railroad’s New York Division illustrates that the concept had been studied for a while before being implemented. The Pennsy and the CNJ had already been collaborating for years through their joint operation and ownership of the New York and Long Branch Railroad, the rail route to much of the northern Jersey Shore.

With this change, the Jersey Central main line east of Aldene, through Elizabeth and Bayonne, and into Jersey City and Communipaw Terminal, would be closed to passenger traffic. But that wasn’t all; the CNJ also had its service on the New York and Long Branch moved to the Pennsylvania’s trackage direct to Newark Penn Station, ending the routing to the Jersey Central’s main line at Elizabethport and thence to either Jersey City or its own station at Newark just a few blocks from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Penn Station.

The Aldene Plan took effect on May 1, 1967. The citizens along the Elizabethport and Perth Amboy Branch of the CNJ had no say in the matter but probably didn’t care much one way or the other, since their access to service had slowly diminished to nothing starting after World War II. Besides, residents along that route had bus service into the city and they had the New Jersey Turnpike starting in 1951.

But there was one group of passengers who were not happy about being left out in the cold, and must have somehow let the State know this in no uncertain terms. Those were the people who lived or worked along that part of the Jersey Central between Cranford and Jersey City. There were still a non-trivial number of people who depended on that rail service to get to work at in the still robust manufacturing corridor along and near the trackage, which under the Aldene Plan would have gone from multiple trains per day to zero.

So also starting on May 1, 1967 was a service that was officially called the Bayonne to Cranford Shuttle, but was quickly given the nickname “The Scoot.” The train, well, shuttled, back and forth along the otherwise unserviced part of the CNJ. Its endpoints were Cranford and the East 33rd Street Station in Bayonne, some five miles out of Communipaw Terminal. At Cranford, connection could be made to the rerouted Jersey Central mainline trains, although that made very little sense considering how circuitous that arrangement was.

At first, what would be considered to be a more conventional passenger train was used: one of the Jersey Central’s locomotives and a couple of passenger cars. Later, this was changed to a pair of Rail Diesel Cars or RDCs. These were self-propelled cars, built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia between 1949 and 1962, that could be run singly or in combinations. They were seen as an cost-saving way to provide passenger service still required by stubborn government agencies. RDCs were purchased by a number of railroads including the Jersey Central.

By the time we took our trip to Elizabethport to ride the Scoot, it was more of a curiosity than a necessity and might have been used more by rail buffs and CNJ employees than by actual commuters. It wasn’t surprising that we were the only people on the platform that Saturday awaiting its arrival from the west. A single Rail Diesel Car would have been more than enough to handle the patrons this Saturday, but there were still two making up the train. Perhaps because one wasn’t enough to actuate the signal system along the way. Yes, trains have red and green lights too, as well as yellow—no “amber” here—and white lights, collectively called signals. There is a large infrastructure that supports this including detection devices that communicate that a train has passed a certain point along the right of way.

The RDCs arrived and shuddered to a stop. We clambered onboard at the only door that was opened for us, at the front end of the rear car. The conductor, all dressed up in a proper uniform, gave a welcome, and my dad paid him the fare for all three of us. I don’t recall how much it was for the trip over to Bayonne. We joined a small contingent of passengers who had boarded at Cranford or Elizabeth.

A few moments after we were seated, the RDCs jerked to a start and accelerated to track speed. The Elizabethport Shops of the CNJ were on the left and the expansive Singer Sewing Machine plant was on the right. Then it was out over the open water of Newark Bay on a long trestle. Even though the window through I was looking was scratched and dirty, I could still see small waves lapping against the trestle pilings. We weren’t far above the waterline, just enough to keep higher tides off the trackage. Trains aren’t like motor vehicles in that they can’t handle steep grades—and for trains, two percent is a really steep grade—so the aim is to keep the right of way as close to possible to level.

A couple of minutes after leaving the west shoreline of Newark Bay, we clattered over the imposing twin lift bridge that opened vertically to allow ships passage into and out of the bay. This bridge, which allowed 135 feet of vertical clearance when raised, was built in 1926 to replace a bascule bridge which had been installed in 1904, which itself had replaced a swing span which opened in 1887. At one point the entire crossing was the longest four track railroad bridge in the world. When we rode the Scoot, it was the only train left operating on the bridge; there were no more freight trains at all going between E’Port and Bayonne via this route. While all four tracks were still in place, only the southernmost two tracks were in use. That had been true since a ship hit the north lift bridge in May 1966, taking it out of service. The Jersey Central didn’t have the funds to repair it, and with traffic well down from its peak, there was no need to do so anyway. So the north span was raised and permanently taken out of service. There had been no effort to remove the now rusty rails.

Once through the lift bridge, we crossed a much shorter trestle to reach the eastern shore of Newark Bay. From there it was a brief run to West Eighth Street station in Bayonne. On weekends, the Scoot didn’t run all the way to East 33rd Street so this was the terminus for the eastbound train. The few passengers deboarded the RDC and made their way to wherever they were going. I snapped a few pictures with my knockoff Instamatic camera—not a Kodak, for sure, but it did use their 126 film cartridge. My father did the same with his much more sophisticated 35 millimeter film camera. A few minutes later we joined the same conductor for the return trip. My father told him we wanted to ride all the way to Cranford, then we’d double back to E’Port.

Again, only one of the two Rail Diesel Cars was opened, but it was the same one we rode to Bayonne in. This time it was the front car, since one of the selling points of RDCs was that it didn’t need to be turned around to go in the opposite direction from whence it came. It was only the engineer who needed to change ends as there were controls at both ends. This principle is in common use with passenger service today, which is why we sometimes see a locomotive at the “wrong end” of a train pushing it forward.

As the cars slowly pulled away from the station, we realized that we were the only paying passengers aboard. Considering how lightly used the Scoot had become, especially on weekends, this probably wasn’t unusual, but it was a big surprise to me: our own private train!

And that was followed by a bigger surprise: the conductor asked if we’d like to come up front. Not to the front of the passenger section, but into the control section, where the engineer was actually operating the train. Obviously, the only answer to give there was “yes”!

The three of us were led into the small compartment at the very front of the RDC. To either side were entry doors. To the right was the place where the engineer sat. Directly in front was another door with a window that was perfect for looking out of. I had done this before, most often on the PATH trains that sped under the Hudson River, and sometimes on the New York Subway. That was if I could get to the front car and if there wasn’t already someone occupying the coveted space. The engineer greeted us and asked where we were from. I, who was usually quite talkative, was glued to the window in front of me as we headed back out over Newark Bay. It was a lot cleaner and much less scratched than the windows in the passenger section of the RDC.

We were at a sufficient speed heading back to the lift bridge that the ties to which the rails and guardrails were spiked were just a blur. Once we reached the bridge, I wanted to look in all directions at once to take in the entirety of the complex steel structure, and directly through the rails at the water of the bay below me. After just a few seconds, it was back to the long trestle for the remainder of the trip across the bay. I was reminded of the concept of “going out to sea,” although since the longest over water voyage I had ever taken to that point was on the Staten Island Ferry, I didn’t really understand that feeling at all.

Although it seemed like longer, it was only a couple of minutes until we returned to dry land on the west side of Newark Bay. The four track main line curved a bit in front of me into Elizabethport Station. There was no one waiting to board there, and we weren’t leaving. So there was only a brief obligatory stop before heading farther west.

Next, I witnessed our clattering over the diamond crossing of the route that went from Newark to Perth Amboy—which would soon be given the unattractive but accurate name “Chemical Coast Line.” We passed underneath the twelve lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike, the superhighway which had been responsible for some of the Jersey Central’s decline. For most of the next mile, we had the CNJ’s Elizabethport Freight Yard on our immediate right, not as busy as it once was, but still keeping switching crews busy shuffling freight cars to be moved to industries in the area and making up trains for departure to elsewhere on the system.

After crossing over Division Street and then Spring Street, the latter much better known as Routes 1 and 9, we jogged slightly to the left and pulled into the CNJ's Elizabeth Station. This was a landmark, with a clock tower topped with weathered green copper and other materials, and a weathervane with a representation of a steam locomotive. The Jersey Central’s red and white herald adorned the station at the time as well, an outline of the head, crown, arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty. The station was just to the west of the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, renamed to the Northeast Corridor of Amtrak. The four tracks of the Jersey Central just barely squeezed underneath the Pennsy’s right of way. In fact, one of the tracks was lowered a bit so that “piggyback” trains consisting of highway trailers on flat cars could clear under the bridge. A few people got on at Elizabeth so we no longer had a private car, but we did stay with the engineer.

After Elizabeth, what was largely visible from the front window of the RDC were the back sides of buildings on both sides of the tracks. It may have seemed to the casual observer that the right of way needed to be threaded through the area, but as in much of the United States, the opposite was true: the businesses and the towns around them followed the railroad. It wasn’t coincidental that the main streets of countless numbers of population centers were right next to the tracks.

Some businesses still had spurs off the main line to receive freight cars, but based on the condition of those spurs they looked like they didn’t receive or make shipments via rail very often, or at all. This was also part of the Jersey Central’s downfall: not only was more business going to trucks, but also the number of businesses remaining along the line was dropping.

We didn’t stop at Elmora Avenue-- perhaps "no service on weekends." We did stop at Roselle/Roselle Park, the station so named because it was directly atop the border of the two towns. Like the rest of the service east of Cranford, this station had been downgraded. A new station had been opened a few blocks north, on that short stretch of the Lehigh Valley’s main line on which the Jersey Central’s trains ran following the implementation of the Aldene Plan. No one got on or off at Roselle/Roselle Park, perhaps to confirm that the stop was not seeing the patronage that it once was.

As we pulled out, the engineer advised that we needed to clear out before Cranford since he couldn’t let us be seen in the front compartment as we reached the final stop. We thanked him profusely for our special ride up front. I sat down just in time in the passenger section to see the ramp coming down from the Lehigh Valley trackage to the Jersey Central’s line, at the location known as Aldene. There it was, the simple but critical connection that made the entire Aldene Plan possible, and permanently changed the logistics of commuting for thousands of New Jersey residents.

Next, the RDCs rolled underneath the Garden State Parkway, another catalyst for the decline in passenger train service, particularly “down the shore.”

And finally, less than a mile after that, The Scoot eased into Cranford, taking the southernmost track and coming to a stop along an elevated concrete platform. There was a layover of enough time for us to detrain and snap a few more photos.

Then, with a different crew, it was time to board once again and complete the round trip with the run from Cranford back to Elizabethport. As it was when we’d traveled from E’Port to Bayonne, we were in the back, and the run back to Elizabethport was over in just a few minutes. All in all, it was a nice ride.

We alighted from The Scoot at the desolate platform at E’Port, and watched the RDCs rumble away. We descended the deteriorating stairs once again, returning to street level and the car for our return home, with no one else in sight, at a place that was once bustling with activity each day and especially at rush hours.

Not long after our trip, it was no longer possible to take a train between Cranford and Bayonne at all. August 6, 1978 was the final day of operation for The Scoot. Less than two years later, the central lift spans of the Newark Bay Bridge, having been declared a hazard to navigation, were dismantled, permanently severing the once-mighty four track mainline of the Jersey Central. The approaches to the bridge were removed starting in 1987. By the start of the 21st Century, you had to know where the bridge was in order to see any remains of it at all. Most of the huge complex that was Elizabethport gave way to other uses including an intermodal terminal and a factory outlet mall. The E’Port freight yard west of the station remains, but trackage west of it through Elizabeth to Aldene was pulled up. The CNJ’s Elizabeth Station was kept and repurposed, but there is no trace of Roselle/Roselle Park or Elmora Avenue stations. One part of the Scoot’s route survives, though, as does a section of the that portion along the south and east side of Bayonne starting at West Eighth Street has become one end of the Hudson/Bergen Light Rail. It actually stretches a fair bit north of where the Bayonne Shuttle terminated as well, through Jersey City and Hoboken and smaller municipalities... and beyond, if planners and public works optimists have their way. I've been on it. It’s a nice ride.