As NJ Transit returns to a normal rail and light train schedule on Monday for the first time since March, the level of concern for personal health aboard trains and buses varies widely with overcrowding a worry.

Trains will have added capacity to allow for social distancing and cross-honoring between buses and trains. Cash will again be accepted on trains with the $5 surcharge, which had been suspended, back in effect. Cash will not be accepted on buses until protective barriers are installed near the drivers.

Train service will resume at the Jersey Avenue station on Monday. North Jersey Coast Line riders could have delays of up to 30 minutes in both directions because of track work near Long Branch until July 31.

Ridership dropped by more than 90% during the spring as executive orders issued by Gov. Phil Murphy and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo closed almost all but essential workplaces. Ridership has increased in recent weeks but working from home is still encouraged.

NJ Transit laid out a plan called the "Ride to Recovery" that depends on a shared responsibility among riders, employers and the agency to ensure a safe return to commuting, which breaks down into six parts: service, cleanliness, distancing, communication, protective equipment and public safety, and screening and testing.

The agency says given the volume of customers in close contact for any mass transit, wearing masks — as required by Murphy's orders — will be essential.

It says it is keeping up its stepped-up cleaning regimen by disinfecting its fleet of buses, trains and light rail every 24 hours and enhanced cleaning at stations, ticket vending machines, handrails and door handles, the agency said.

For all its precautions what is the comfort level of riders?

Michael Close, of North Brunswick, said he had COVID-19 and is "very worried" about riding the Northeast Corridor again. He will be driving himself to his company's showroom for dinnerware and table top items in Manhattan when he needs to meet clients.

"Due to the significant overcrowding I feel like we've had for at least the last two or three years, I just feel that any type of social distancing or personal space respect is just going to be hard for them to do. You're always jammed in there, usually standing room only on the way in and definitely on the way out and depending on what the situation is at Penn (New York), it's even worse," Close said.

Close is also concerned about the usual overcrowding at New York Penn Station.

"Normally when you're stuck at Penn, it's a hot box and it's over 100 degrees... And then to layer on having to wear a mask on top of it, which we all have to do, and to be jammed in there like we are, honestly I just don't know how they're going to be able to do it in a safe manner," Close said.

Murphy has cited close quarters with a lack of circulation and being sedentary for long periods of time as the reason for holding up indoor restaurant dining and the full reopening of gyms.

Another commuter said he is thinking about his return to the Northeast Corridor into New York but is concerned about having to wear a mask for the entire trip, especially on days when the air conditioner is not working properly.

"Imagine being stuck in a Transit train without proper airflow for a few hours due to an issue without the ability to take your mask off, or God forbid start an argument with another passenger who cares deeply about wearing a mask," said Gabriel, who asked that his last name not be used.

Alex Rivera is back on the bus from Hudson County into New York after being furloughed and has had a good experience on the three buses he uses.

"The riders try to respect each other's space but you can see on the faces of other passengers they’re growing tired of standing when the bus is half full. The two seaters are only occupied by one passenger, so the buses are being used at — tops — half capacity," Rivera said.

Megan West, who switches between New York Waterway ferries and NJ Transit, was not impressed with what she saw onboard the trains during her recent commutes.

"NJ Transit was bad. Really dirty, old trains that were crowded," she said.

She was not impressed with NJ Transit's cleaning and sanitizing efforts and took pictures of grimy, wet floors and seats with holes on the North Jersey Coast Line.

A floor inside a North Jersey Coast Line train (Megan West)
A wet floor inside a North Jersey Coast Line train (Megan West)

Other public transportation systems serving New Jersey have already increased service.

The frequency of PATH service was increased to every 4-5 minutes on the Newark-World Trade Center and Journal Square-33rd Street lines and 6-7 minutes on the Hoboken-33rd Street and Hoboken-WTC lines.

PATCO service from South Jersey into Philadelphia is operating every 10 minutes during the morning and afternoon commutes and 15 minutes during the midday. The Ashland, Westmont stations in New Jersey and the City Hall and 12/13th & Locust Street stations in Philadelphia remain closed.

SEPTA will be using its SEPTA Key for fare payment starting Monday, July 13, to replace cash and paper tickets. Riders will tap a kiosk to open their ride as they enter a station and close their ride as they exit.

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