DEP has issues with MOM rail line

Commuter train running through battlefield seen as potential problem


AMay 19, 2008, letter from an official with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks and Forestry, could put a serious crimp in plans for a passenger train alignment that would run through Manalapan parallel to Monmouth County Route 522.

The letter from Jeanne A. Mroczko, acting director of the DEP’s Division of Park and Forestry, to David Koenig, principal historic preservation specialist for NJ Transit, lists a series of concerns the division has about the impact of a passenger train line on Monmouth Battlefield State Park.

The state park is a national historic landmark that marks the site of the Battle of Monmouth, which was fought on June 28, 1778, between British and American forces during the American Revolution. The battle is memorable for producing the legend of Molly Pitcher. Parts of the battlefield lie along both sides of Route 522 where the county road runs between Wemrock Road in Freehold Township and Tennent Road in Manalapan.

For more than five years, NJ Transit has been conducting a study of three potential passenger railroad routes through central New Jersey.

One of the routes is the Monmouth, Ocean, Middlesex (MOM) line that would run on an existing freight line from Ocean County through western Monmouth County (Freehold, Manalapan, Englishtown) and into Middlesex County, where it would connect with the Northeast Corridor line in the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick.

Monmouth and Ocean County officials, as well as officials in municipalities along that route, have supported the MOM line.

Middlesex County officials and officials in the Middlesex County municipalities of Monroe Township, Jamesburg and South Brunswick have been adamantly opposed to the MOM line for years.

The other two possible central New Jersey passenger rail lines that are being studied would run from Ocean County to Red Bank, connecting with the North Jersey Coast Line; and from Ocean County to Aberdeen-Matawan, also connecting with the North Jersey Coast Line.

Officials in Marlboro have opposed the Aberdeen-Matawan route which would bring commuter trains through their community.

In her May 19 letter to NJ Transit, Mroczko cites a number of issues relating to the battlefield in Manalapan that could prove problematical for supporters of the MOM alternative to overcome. Those issues are:

• The existing railroad is incompatible with the development of the national landmark (Monmouth Battlefield State Park) into a first-rank battlefield park. The railroad cut and adjacent Route 522 create a 130- to 350-foot-wide interpretive “dead zone” through the center of the heaviest fighting. This combat took place along the hedged fence separating the Rhea and Parsonage farms. Here – where the hill has been dramatically altered by the railroad cut – a skirmish took place about 8 a.m., the heaviest fighting of the battle occurred just before 1 p.m., and more fighting took place about 5 p.m.

• In the center of the battlefield, pedestrians can only cross the railroad right of way at the Parsonage Farm lane. This underpass is 1,125 feet west of the hedged fence. To see the north end of the hedged fence – where much of the heavy fighting took place – visitors hiking from the south to the north side of the park would have to make a 2,000- foot detour.

• The railroad embankment across Spotswood Middle Brook blocks the views from Combs’ Hill to the north side of the battlefield. Trains on the embankment are visible from the Visitors Center (at the state park). Thus the Area of Effects/Area of Potential Effects for the existing railroad and the MOM improvements is from the Visitors Center to the north end of the Sutfin fields. This is a distance of over 6,000 feet.

• The location of the proposed Manalapan train station (off Route 522) would bring traffic from U.S. Route 9 more than 2 miles across the national landmark on Route 522. This traffic would be visible, audible and dangerous to park visitors. Thus the Area of Potential Effects for MOM extends from U.S. Route 9 to Tennent-Main Street and north on Tennent-Main Street to Tennent’s Meeting House – a militia encampment and a Continental Army field hospital.

• The Manalapan train station would increase traffic on Wemrock Road, increasing danger to park visitors.

• High-speed, modern commuter rail traffic on the railroad would be visible, audible and dangerous to park visitors and staff. It would complicate hiking, farming and maintaining the Battlefield State Park.

• Increased railroad use will complicate construction of a battlefield tour road and battlefield hiking paths. Current hiking paths have at-grade crossings of the tracks at the old road to the Battleground Railroad Station site and along the land to the Rhea Homestead.

In response to Mroczko’s letter, Monmouth County spokesman William Heine said, “Monmouth County supports the MOM line and feels the Monmouth Junction line should be the preferred alternative. Route 522 and the railroad line are already there.

“The railroad line itself is historic. Built between 1851 and 1853, parallel to a stagecoach route, the train was used during the Civil War for troop transport. Later, as the Freehold-Jamesburg Agricultural Railroad, it was used to move farm products west from Monmouth County. In fact, during the 1960s, when the state began acquiring land for the park, the freight train was being used for passenger service to the county seat.

“The park master plan prepared by the Friends of Monmouth Battlefield calls for passenger rail service to the park with a stop for the Visitor’s Center. Unlike existing roads, parking lots and park buildings, the railroad line does not intrude on the views, as it in a low, wooded area.

“The Monmouth Junction line would reduce automobile traffic during re-enactments, and its connection with Amtrak in Metropark makes it accessible to the entire East Coast. Pedestrian crossings could be added, eliminating any need for hikers to detour around the tracks.

“Having rail service in the area would reduce the number of automobiles on Route 522 and Wemrock Road, because the area would be accessible by passenger rail. The train is already there. Bike paths and tour roads are not. Building these access points would do more to intrude on the historic landmark than an existing railroad line,” Heine said.

The May 19 letter from Mroczko to NJ Transit is not the first time that supporters of the MOM line have been notified that the presence of the battlefield – and the plan to run trains through a national historic landmark – could be an issue in the final determination of a central New Jersey passenger rail line.

In June 2005, Kristen Stevens, an archeologist and grant manager with the American Battlefield Protection Program, part of the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, wrote to the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders and stated her concerns about the MOM passenger rail line.

Stevens wrote, “We feel that running over 40 commuter trains across the park and building two new passenger stations would cause irreparable harm to the historic landscape and damage a national historic landmark … The setting and feeling of the landscape require a constant vigilance and care to maintain a setting of historic character where our past can be interpreted and treasured today by everyone on the battlefield.”

In a written response to Stevens, then-Monmouth County Freeholder Director Thomas J. Powers said the county freeholders treasure such sites, but said commuter rail service would not damage the integrity of the battlefield.

Powers wrote that since the railroad tracks already exist, and would not need to be expanded, no new bisection of the park would be necessary.

He said that not only did the rails bisect the park when the original line was developed in the 1960s, when the line provided regular passenger service, but historic maps indicate that the road existed during the Battle of Monmouth itself.


owers wrote that only one train station

would be constructed at the site, not two as Stevens had suggested, and said it would be surrounded by existing industrial buildings, not exceeding them in height, and would be screened from the park by surrounding woods.

“It would, in fact, be in the vicinity of the former Tennent Station and would provide a wonderful opportunity for historic interpretation of the important agricultural rail line, and the rich history of the Tennent settlement area,” Powers wrote. “It is our intention that the railroad and the park continue to coexist.”

In his response to Stevens, Powers referenced two traffic studies that pointed to the “unchecked” growth of heavy traffic in the area.

“This poses a more significant impact on the character of the park than the existing rail line, and additional train service would help to alleviate some of the future car trips,” Powers said.

Powers is no longer serving on the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders.