Opinion: Restore the Orange Branch to West Orange as a Light Rail

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West Orange Train Station
The former station in West Orange along the Orange Branch.

At the height of the railroad age, West Orange had two train stations, a cable car, and four trolley lines. Today, a roadside marker is all that remains.


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 is functioning as a light rail. When the Newark Subway extended its line to Grove Street in Bloomfield, it did so along a part of the former Orange Branch. At the time, there was some speculation about continuing to line further west to Orange, or even to West Orange, but those people were dismissed as a hot stove league.

However, with a major redevelopment project proposed in downtown West Orange, which could even include a movie studio, perhaps it’s time to give another thought to restoring the Orange Branch, not as a passenger line, but as an extension of the Newark Subway. Just imagine boarding a light rail near Main Street and going to see a game at Prudential Center or a show at NJPAC without the hassle of finding parking. How about taking a train to see the cherry blossoms at Branch Brook Park or go gallery hopping during the Newark Arts Festival? Or picture 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
A proposed extension of the Orange Branch to West Orange.

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

The distance between the final stop on the Newark Subway at Grove Street station and the Thomas Edison museum is only about two miles. The great thing about light rail is that the cars can travel on roads, serving as a placeholder for later investment in removing grade crossings. Best of all, the right of way still exists somewhat unobstructed — meaning there are no major structures built where a potential rail could go. The route is comprised of mostly parking lots.

We’re living in a second golden age of rail travel. Companies like Amtrak and NJTransit are restoring retired lines. Countries abroad, like Spain and Germany, are making rail travel free to encourage commuters to ditch automobiles. The $12.3 billion Gateway Tunnel project would build two new rail tunnels between New Jersey and New York to allow for more trains. The 2.5-mile Portal North Bridge will double rail traffic between Newark and Manhattan. Governor Phil Murphy is also considering investing 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.

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