With a mere 2.7 miles of track, the Dinky is the shortest regularly scheduled passenger route in the USA. The two-car train has 117 seats and carries some 1860 riders a day. The Dinky has served Princeton University since 1865, when the train was a wood-burning locomotive and one coach car that transported both passengers and freight. Blair Arch and the long staircase cascading into the courtyard were built to serve as Princeton’s entrance from the station. Students living in surrounding dorms complained about the soot, however, and the station was moved to its current location in 1920. The only standing relic of these high-climbing days is Milepost 3, which rests between Laughlin and Little Halls. The branch became electric in 1936.
Of all the institutions on campus, only the Dinky can claim responsibility for transporting the rich and/or famous to and from their destinations. Albert Einstein rode the Dinky, as did Brooke Shields, Bill Bradley, Paul Robeson, and Thomas Mann. The Liberty Bell traveled on the Dinky in 1903, stopping to see Princeton briefly before heading to Boston. Dinky riders can still catch a glimpse of the beautiful mind of John F. Nash, Jr. One Dinky engineer told the New York Times two years ago that Nash often asks them to hold the train while he smokes a cigarette, which he consumes in about 30 seconds.
The Dinky also has its share of literary fame, particularly in depictions of young Princeton lads picking up girl-school dates as they arrive. Lane Coutel meets his not too “categorically cashmere sweater and flannel skirt” date Franny at the Dinky station in J.D. Salinger’s short story “Franny.” And no article about a Princeton institution would be complete without a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, This Side of Paradise, which features a scene where Amory Blaine awaits his date at the Dinky station.
One long-time Dinky rider has even written a poem about the two-car train. The April 2002 edition of the PAW featured Hugh O’Bleary’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Dinky,” a send-up of Wallace Steven’s classic “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” O’Bleary writes of the Dinky, “As one train that will never inspire a country song. / Oh, that honky-tonk angel brought me nothin’ but pain / She punched my ticket on that Dinky train…”
Several Princetonians over the years have used the Dinky as the site of practical jokes. In the 1960’s George R. Bunn Jr. and his friends, wearing hats and bandannas, sat in the woods beside the tracks with rented horses and a .38 pistol loaded with blanks. As the Dinky chugged by at 6:14, Bunn and his three companions galloped in front of the train, which screeched to a stop. The mischievous—and less-than-sober—boys boarded the train and Bunn fired his gun. In the midst of the commotion, Bunn and his friends grabbed four girls on the train, told them about the prank, and galloped off into the woods.
But some jokes do not end so well. In 1990 a student named Bruce Miller, having just come from drinking on Prospect Avenue, climbed on top of the Dinky and received a near-fatal shock. The overhead equipment electrocuted his body such that he lost his legs and one arm. For the damage, Mr. Miller sued Princeton, New Jersey Transit, and several eating clubs, to be settled for $5.7 million in 1995.
While some Dinky personnel are sociable, others duck the media–even the Nassau Weekly. In pursuit of an interview with a Dinky operator, I was flat-out turned away by two conductors and two engineers. One engineer asked snidely, “Why don’t you do a piece on why no one over at Princeton has cured cancer yet? That’s a real story for you.” A weekday conductor said he does not do interviews. One conductor and engineer team agreed that they “didn’t want to risk their jobs” by saying anything to reporters because they’re really “not allowed” to speak to anyone about what they do. But one personable, friendly conductor agreed to give the Nassau Weekly an exclusive interview as I rode in the front car up and back from Princeton Junction three times.
Tom Ginex, from Whiting, NJ, has spent seven years with New Jersey Transit. Few would suspect that this tall, thirty-five-year-old ticket-taker would be a rescue diver on the Jersey shore and surrounding lakes. “These bodies of water are not as polluted as one might think,” he said.
While he enjoys scuba diving, salt water, and anything to do with the ocean, being a paramedic rescue diver was an extremely demanding job, and “mostly for single people,” he said. He has a wife and three children, ages 4, 3, and 6 months.
His friend at Amtrak told him about conductor job openings, and Ginex decided to go for it, weekdays on the Northeast Corridor and weekends on the Dinky.
“This was fundamentally and career-wise a good retirement job,” he said.
On a typical weekend shift he sees over 500 passengers on the Dinky. The toughest thing about the job, he said, is trying to make everyone happy.
“Every now and then, no matter how hard you try to please them, you can’t. People woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”
While people complain about the Dinky leaving just as they arrive at the station, Ginex said that the train must operate on schedule to get everyone to their destinations on time.
“Can’t hold up the train because we have to look out for the greater good of everyone on the train,” he explained.
He characterized Princeton students as “energetic,” and said he enjoys meeting them.
“I feel like I go through the classes with students,” he said. He sees freshmen become seniors and graduate, and then see new freshman faces arrive in the fall.
He also enjoys watching young children on board the Dinky. Sometimes children associate the Dinky with Thomas the Train, he said.
“I lead a dull boring life, but the enjoyment is that a lot of kids come out,” he said.
On the New Jersey Transit website, a counter measures the growing cost of the fact that U.S. Congress did not pass a new version of federal highway and transit funding bill TEA-21. New Jersey taxpayers lose more money every second, the site asserts, and the counter is already over $410 million.
Ginex said he does not know anything about this or its implications of this action for cut-backs from New Jersey Transit. The biggest talk around town, he said, is about security issues.
New Jersey Transit personnel are extremely sensitive to bomb threats, since no one can be sure how legitimate they are. In the wake of terrorism safety is crucial, Ginex said, and for that reason he and the engineer told me not to publish anything about the actual mechanisms of the Dinky.
“We’re the first line of defense,” Ginex said.
Like any mechanical object, the Dinky is subject to a lot of problems, and when something does go wrong, buses substitute the train service.
Nonetheless, the Dinky provides essential transport to and from Princeton, and as far as Ginex knows, there are no plans to discontinue its usage. He plans to continue working this staple of Princeton life for as long as possible.
“I plan on being here until I physically can’t do it anymore, or until I retire,” he said. “I have no plans of going anywhere.”