Notice: Restore the branch from Orange to West Orange as a tramway

The old West Orange station along the Orange Branch.

At the height of the railroad era, West Orange had two train stations, a cable car, and four streetcar lines. Today a roadside marker is all that’s left.

You might be surprised to learn that part of the Orange Branch of the Erie Railroad – whose terminus was at St. Mark’s Church – not only still exists, but operates as a light rail. When the Newark Metro extended its line to Grove Street in Bloomfield, it did so alongside the old Orange branch. At the time there was speculation that the line would continue further west to Orange, or even to West Orange, but these people were dismissed as the league of hot stoves.

However, with a proposed major redevelopment project in downtown West Orange, which could even include a movie studio, it may be time to think again about restoring the Orange Branch, not as a passenger line, but as an extension of the Newark subway. Just imagine hopping on a light rail near Main Street and going to see a game at the Prudential Center or a show at NJPAC without having to find parking. How about taking a train to see the cherry blossoms in Branch Brook Park or touring the galleries during the Newark Arts Festival? Or imagine a production assistant living in downtown Newark and commuting to West Orange on the subway to Whoopi’s new studio?

Orange Branch West Orange Train Map
An extension project for the Orange branch in West Orange.

Feasibility studies are already planned for a northern extension of the city’s subway to Paterson. Why not consider extending it west to West Orange as well? Other locations in the United States are seeing ambitious light rail expansions. Seattle plans to invest $54 billion in expanding its rail network, adding 64 miles of new track and 37 new stations. In Philadelphia, there are three different plans to expand SEPTA. One is restore service to Middletown Township and adding a new stop in King of Prussia, four miles from Norristown. In another plan, West Chester Borough Council has formed a Railway Restoration Committee to further restore SEPTA service at a cost of $16.4 million. The last would entirely build new line along Roosevelt Boulevard.

The distance from the last Newark subway stop at Grove Street station to the Thomas Edison Museum is only about two miles. The advantage of light rail is that the cars can run on the roads, serving as a placeholder for later investment in removing level crossings. Even better, the right-of-way still exists somewhat clear, meaning there are no major structures built where a potential rail could go. The course is mainly composed of parking lots.

We are living in a second golden age of rail transport. Companies like Amtrak and NJ Transit restore the retired lines. Foreign countries, such as Spain and Germany, are making train travel free to encourage commuters to ditch cars. The $12.3 billion Gateway Tunnel project would build two new rail tunnels between New Jersey and New York to accommodate more trains. The 2.5 miles North Bridge Portal will double rail traffic between Newark and Manhattan. Governor Phil Murphy also plans to invest nearly $200 million in Newark Penn Station. This is the best chance for West Orange to finally get back on the grid. It may also be the last.

Jose P. Rogers