Past the white stacks of concrete caravans called Spellman Hall, past its triangular bluffs and through its white canyon path, past Pablo Picasso’s cubist totem pole, with the Alamo-shaped Wawa convenience store waiting just yonder, among the packs of small squirrels scurrying and pine trees splaying, lies foursquarely The Princeton Dinky. Affectionately named after something tiny and insignificant though formally designated the Princeton [Twig] Branch, this historical rail station has, over the years, outgrown both its names and, perhaps, so officials believe, its own utility.
Having emerged from one of the first throes of post-bellum industrialization, the Dinky stands among the oldest of rail lines in the United States. Over its long lifetime of service, the Dinky has shuttled countless travelers between Princeton University and Princeton Junction, and consequently between Princeton and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, this Wednesday, the Dinky very well could have celebrated its last birthday as it turned a commendable 145-years-old. The maintenance efforts to keep the Dinky running and up to date have proved taxing. In the last six months, the small rail line has broken down twice. In this less than prosperous economic climate, its owner, NJ Transit, has had to raise fees and reduce hours of operation. There is now talk, among the local municipalities, the University, NJ Transit, and the State Department of Transportation of tearing away its tracks in order to pave the way for a new and purportedly better, more efficient Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The prospective blueprint foresees a two-lane expressway paved over the existing Dinky rail line dedicated to the proposed bus service alongside a walkway and bikeway. The motivation behind this $600 million project is ostensibly the creation of a more reliable and easily maintained public transportation system for Princeton locals, one that would be more flexible and capable of reaching more prospective passengers. Such revamping of the McCarter Theater neighborhood would also resolve the longstanding, controversial debate over whether to move the Dinky 500 ft southward to make room for the proposed Princeton University arts neighborhood. If this plan follows through, the Dinky would be the first rail line to be replaced by a BRT in history.
But, as readers (and riders) must know or have guessed, the Dinky’s arterial role in the Princeton community in the last century and a half has garnered it a legacy much bigger than its pet name would suggest, which legacy now proves to be a problem for proponents of the installment of a new BRT line. Though it remains the shortest regularly operated commuter route in the nation, the Dinky’s noteworthy past stretches on for miles and miles. (That is a lot of track to uproot before the BRT!) As usual, the inertia of history is always becoming the inertia of the present. Both J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald have immortalized the rail station in their writings. In _This Side of Paradise_, Amory Blain awaits a weekend date by the Dinky tracks, just as Franny Glass awaits her then boyfriend Lane Coutell in _Franny and Zooey_. But the Dinky’s legacy does not only lie embedded in such literary trysts; thousands of Princetonians who have come and gone, and come and go are in love with the train. Recently, a Dinky admirer Anita Garoniak fired up the Save the Princeton Dinky campaign, involving buttons, fliers, t-shirts, and a Facebook group now boasting, upon last checking, a staggering 5,661 members. In recent town meetings, residents voiced loudly their fondness for the Dinky, “a unique asset” to their community.
The Dinky certainly is unique. It is a living fossil, not of a species, but of a way we once were, and, evidently, still are. In spite of its old age, the small train still howls with vigor. The Dinky’s horn is audible from as far as the most southern point of Forbes [Grange] College. Indeed, many a night I catch sound of that horn’s diminished bellowing and, for just a second, feel as if the clock had ticked back many years to a simpler time, a time filled with horses and settlers and men without hats sifting the rivers for gold in suspenders. (I know we are not at all near California, and that living in the time of gold fever is not desirable, but sometimes it is cool to think so.)
In many ways, history aside, I doubt whether a modern BRT system could offer more than the old Dinky. The proposed shuttle bus line is scheduled to pass through Alexander Road, which often becomes congested.
Despite allowing the transportation service to reach more people, each trip along this extended route could potentially become quite lengthy. The Dinky, presently being a single Budd Arrow III self-propelled electric coach car, would also seem to have a smaller carbon footprint than a whole fleet of large, awkward buses lumbering through Princeton every day. Let us lastly not forget that bus seats are rigid and cramped, but the Dinky’s leather seats are actually quite commodious.
It is hard to predict that such a small auxiliary rail line like the Dinky should persist so powerfully in the hearts and imaginations of so many of its passengers. But then again, maybe this is not all too surprising, considering the things that have happened and continue to happen on the Dinky: (for the first time) a traveler sets eyes on Princeton, a traveler leaves Princeton, strangers shake hands, friends shake hands, lovers rendezvous, a daily commute, a horseback train robbery, going back home.