With a Federal cooling-off period set to expire, NJ Transit rail unions will be free to strike in March, and, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media here, NJT insiders say that the unions are likely planning a "soft strike" for the weekend of March 12-13. The 17 unions representing rail workers announced on February 10 that their members had authorized a strike, unanimously. The "soft" strike would apparently be with plenty of advance notice, allow commuters to return home on Friday, and might extend to the Monday morning rush hour on March 14. Legally, the unions are free to strike at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, March 13. At that point the workers would expect to be ordered back to work by the White House; however, other reports insist that a strike at that point could only be ended by an agreement or by Congressional action, viewed as unlikely. The unions have been working without a contract for five years; an unnamed former NJT official is quoted as saying "NJT has been planning for a strike for at least four months." NJT also has the option of locking out the unions after the cooling-off period expires. The two sides met on Wednesday, Feb. 3, but no agreement resulted, although an NJT spokeswoman said that "Negotiations were substantive." The two sides remain far apart; the unions propose to follow the recommendations of a presidential emergency board, which recommended wage increases of 2.5% per year, albeit with increases in worker contributions to health care. NJT's offer is for 0.6% increase per year. The effect on NJT bus services is unclear. The NJT bus unions are not part of the dispute, having previously settled their contract negotiations, but drivers may refuse to cross picket lines, expected to be set up by the rail unions at critical points, including the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. The last strike by the rail unions, in March of 1983, lasted 34 days.
What would riders do int he event of a strike? NJT is much bigger than it was at the time of the last strike, in 1983. However, there are some new possibilities, principally the growth in trans-Hudson ferry services over the last decades. Many of these boats operate with plenty of spare capacity, even in rush hours. The problem is getting people from their homes to the ferry terminals; buses would have to be organized from remote park-and-ride facilities. Larry Higgs reported on this as well; see his complete story here.
If New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has his way, 16 miles along the east side of the East River will have a streetcar line linking Queens and Brooklyn. The proposed line, dubbed the "Brooklyn-Queens Connector," would cost an estimated $2.5 billion, and would extend from Astoria in Queens to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, providing transit connectivity to a rapidly-growing area not well served by the city's subway system, built many decades ago. The Mayor was set to propose the new line in his State of the City speech, scheduled for February 4, according to reporting by Michael M. Grynbaum in the New York Times (Feb. 4). The proposal would add the city to an increasing list of cities that have embraced surface rail transit systems, including Newark and the Hudson County waterfront in nearby New Jersey, but previous attempts to build streetcar systems in New York City, notably in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and along 42 Street in Manhattan, have not moved forward. The proposal is a departure from the Mayor's previous stance on transportation, not seen as mass-transit oriented. The plan can expect spirited discussion in neighborhoods it will traverse, and support from real estate developers along the line.
A Times editorial (Feb. 5) provided a mixed review of the plan, wondering if better bus service might not be a cheaper solution, and concluding that implementing the plan "will have to survive the inevitable criticism of urbanites who think they know better ways than a trolley car to get around New York."
Read the complete story here.
On Tuesday, January 26, all NJT services were finally operating with a semblance of normalcy, roughly 75 hours after systemwide services were suspended at the close of service Friday night, Jan. 22, in anticipation of the big blizzard that struck the area on Saturday, Jan. 23. Most NJT services returned on Monday, but the Gladstone Branch rail service remained suspended until Tuesday morning. Elsewhere in the New York area, the Long Island Rail Road also returned to full service on Tuesday; a number of branches of the LIRR were unable to operate on Monday, although the major LIRR lines did return to service. By Tuesday, the only major service in the area not yet operating was the PATH rapid transit system, which remained suspended between Jersey City and Newark; by noon Tuesday, PATH had announced plans for full sevice in the evening rush hour. NJ Transit had "led the way" in suspending service, announcing early that no trains or buses would run after the close of service on Friday night. Other railroads in the New York area tried to keep running but eventually shut down during the storm; underground services on the New York subways continued. On Sunday morning, NJ Governor Chris Christie told media that the state had weathered the storm "remarkably well," and said that bus and light rail service would return by noon Sunday, with the regular rail system also "shooting for" service at noon. NJT's own website was silent on its plans until later in the morning, eventually announcing that rail service would start to return at noon, "beginning with the light rail" system.Trains did start to run on several lines, including Morris & Essex service between New York and Dover; the weekend service from Hoboken to Bay Street Montclair; on the Main/Bergen/Pascack lines; and on the Northeast Corridor to and from Trenton. But other lines lagged, and eventually NJT conceded that there would be no service Sunday on the Gladstone Branch, the Raritan Valley Line, or the North Jersey Coast Line. Finally, on Monday morning, all trains were said to be coming back, with the notable exception of the Gladstone Branch, where substitute bus service was to be offered; private bus operators along the Gladstone were to be cross-honoring NJT rail passes. On other suburban rail lines, Metro-North had the best service, with all lines returning to normal during the afternoon on Sunday. Long Island Rail Road was able to restore many of its lines on Sunday, but no trains were running on several branches; as of Monday service on the Port Washington, Hempstead, West Hempstead, and Long Beach lines remained suspended, as was Montauk service east of Speonk; there was also no service to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn. Media reported a rocky start to LIRR service on Monday, and said that service started at 7 a.m. instead of 5 a.m., with many trains packed and riders worrying about the evening return ride. By Monday morning, all NYC Transit subway lines appeared to be operating; a number of above-surface lines had been suspended on Sunday, as was the Staten Island Railway, which was also back on Monday, albeit with delays.
In a move that may set a precedent for future winter storms, NJ Transit shut down of its rail, bus, and light rail services early Saturday morning in anticipation of Winter Storm Jonas.
According to their website, NJ Transit rail service should “resume when conditions permit and when mandatory federal inspections can be completed.” As of 12 PM no timeline for this has been released. However in past years NJ Transit had indicated that “it takes at least 12 hours to restore rail service once it has been suspended,” pegging reopening at 2 PM at the earliest.
Shutting down has some obvious benefits. It reduces the chances of a train being stranded if the storm causes some part of the railroad’s infrastructure to fail. Downed trees can knock down the overhead wires that power trains on NJ Transit lines. Power failures may shut off the signal system, forcing trains to limp along at heavily restricted speeds. Downed trees can block the railroad. And the condition of the roads can make it unsafe for train crew members to drive to their sign-on points as they normally would (though having crews come in prior to the storm and sleep at major terminals such as Hoboken can mitigate this last risk).
However there are also some major problems. As noted above, heavy inspections are required to resume service after it has been shut down. And the absence of rail service eliminates what is often the safest travel available during extreme winter weather.
NJ Transit customers, along with riders on Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road, are experiencing increased congestion at New York's Penn Station as thousands of riders jam concourses as they seek to board trains, colliding enroute with thousands who have arrived and are seeking to leave the station. While politicians trumpet long-term plans that might redesign the station, there may be steps that can be quickly taken to alleviate the congestion. Five steps suggested by Lackawanna Coalition Chairman David Alan, and reported by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (on nj.com, Jan. 21), include the following steps:
One step would be to announce track locations at least ten minutes before departure time; the Long Island Rail Road does this better, and when NJT does not announce track numbers until a few minutes before departure, the result is a virtual stampede of riders afraid they will miss their train. A second step could be to make sure escalators are operating, and in the appropriate direction; all too often, a crowd tries to board or leave their train only to find that escalators are running the wrong way, or are stopped. To expedite train movements, NJT should be able to clear trains from tracks faster, which the Long Island Rail Road is better at than NJT. To allow people to move faster on platforms, the station should be improved by removing obstacles on platforms, which impede riders‘ ability to board trains and leave the station on arrival; one way to do this could be to replace some escalators with stairways. Finally, Alan said, NJT should bring back off-peak fare discounts, which would encourage riders to travel in less-crowded periods. Fare incentives could also be used to encourage riders to use less-crowded gateways, such as Hoboken.
Read Larry Higgs' online story of LC Chairman Alan's ideas here.
In presentations on January 20 to US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, Amtrak officials presented the most detailed view of its "Gateway" proposals to rebuild and improve rail infrastructure in the New York metropolitan area, and the total estimated costs added up to $23.9 billion. According to reporting by Emma G. Fitzsimmons in the New York Times (Jan. 21), major elements of the project include building new tunnels under the Hudson, estimated to cost $7.7 billion, and expansion of Penn Station in Manhattan, estimated at $5.9 billion. Foxx and Amtrak officials toured the area in a special observation rail car so Foxx could view the deteriorating tunnel structure. Secretary Foxx praised New York Gov. Cuomo's recent support for infrastructure improvements, but cautioned that officials must remain "laser-focused on fixing what is broken under the Hudson River." Amtrak said that work to replace the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River could start as early as next year, while the expansion of Penn Station might not start until 2024 and be completed by 2030. As for the tunnels themselves, no start date for work was discussed, but the tunnel project might take 10 years to finish. Read the complete story here.
NJ Transit trains recorded more mechanical failures than other commuter railroads in 2014, according to reporting by Elise Young for Bloomberg News (Jan. 19), citing the National Transit Database. NJT had 214 “major mechanical failures” in the year, an increase of 19 percent over 2013. NJ Transit is one of the nation’s largest commuter operators, so the number of failures in itself might not be a fair indicator – the average for 24 railroads nationwide is just 52 failures, and Massachusetts’ MBTA had an even greater 219 breakdowns. But another metric, the average distance for equipment between breakdowns, also is getting worse; in the year ended June 30, this stood at 83,815 miles, reported as the most for NJT in at least four years. The article mentioned the continued diversion of equipment funding to cover operating expenses as a possible cause, and said that New Jersey residents have one of the country’s longest average commutes, as well as paying more for service even as delays and breakdowns increase. The article also noted the lack of an agreement on funding transportation needs after June 30. Read the Bloomberg News story here.
A second 60-day cooling off period began on January 11 after a Presidential emergency board rejected NJ Transit's proposal for a new contract for its rail workers, instead siding with the rail unions; the board recommended an 18-percent total wage increase over 78 months, while the transit agency had proposed 10.5 percent. After the 60 days, the unions would be free to strike, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media. The last NJT rail strike, in 1983, lasted 34 days. NJT estimated the total cost of the pact at $183 million, and said it would have to be funded through fare increases. NJT called the proposed settlement "unaffordable."
Read the article by Larry Higgs here.
Urging everyone to "think big," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced an innovative plan to rebuild Manhattan's Penn Station, noting that the station serves more passengers than the three New York airports combined, but that "it is dark, it is ugly; frankly, it's a miserable experience and it's a terrible impression of New York." Along the way, the name of the complex would change from "Pennsylvania" -- named for the Pennsylvania Railroad that built the original station -- to the "Empire Station Complex," a reference to New York State's moniker, the Empire State. Cuomo's plan would rely on private capital for the redevelopment and would grant the developers rights to the retail space in the rebuilt station. It would also require terminating the current redevelopment arrangements for the Post Office in the block west of Penn Station, currently held by two powerful New York real estate companies, Related Companies and Vornado Realty; that part of the project has been stalled since the companies haven't found a major tenant to occupy the redeveloped space. The two companies would be paid $30 million to relinquish their rights to the project, which is to create a "Moynihan Station" to be used by Amtrak for its passengers as well as for commercial purposes. A key element of Cuomo's plans is the removal of the 5600-seat theater which lies beneath Madison Square Garden; this would free up space for a grand entryway along the Eighth Avenue side of the block, and a "train hall" complete with skylight. Rail passengers using today's Penn complex are relegated to a crowded, confusing warren of passageways in the basement below Madison Square Garden and the theater. Reporting on Cuomo's announcement by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (published in the Star-Ledger, Jan. 7) can be found here; reporting in the New York Times (Jan 7) by Charles V. Bagli and Emma G. Fitzsimmons can be found here.
The Federal program that allows commuters to set aside pre-tax dollars for commuting expenses has expanded, with transit users' benefits increasing; previously, car commuters had much higher limits than transit users. In 2016, transit users can arrange to have their employers deduct up to $255 a month from their paychecks, and they won't pay income taxes on the deducted sum, which can be used for commutation tickets and parking costs. A summary of the increased benefits is in an article by Larry Higgs in the Star-Ledger (Jan. 5). Previously, transit users were limited to a $130 deduction, while drivers could deduct up to $250. The new law also made it theoretically possible for some workers to retroactively claim an increased tax deduction for 2015, up to the new total of $250 a month, but it doesn't seem simple: it apparently only applies to commuters who had post-tax money withheld for commutation purposes in 2015; such funds could then be converted to pre-tax funds, with employers having to calculate the new taxable gross pay. For commuters to New York State, recent changes to New York law also offer commuter benefits: some employers are now required to offer the pre-tax deduction benefit, whereas previously they may not have offered it. A variety of methods can be used by commuters to access their pre-tax dollars, including vouchers, fare cards, smart cards, direct payments to the transit provider, or debit cards.
The Lackawanna Coalition has named new governing officers for the year 2016.
Our new Vice-Chair is Stephen E. Thorpe, a resident of Winfield, in Union County. Steve is currently Chair of the Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC) at NJ Transit. He has also served as Chair of the Union County Transportation Advisory Board. Steve was previously Technical Director of the Coalition, and his primary technical interest is the field of railroad operations. He has been instrumental in promoting the campaign to extend "Quiet Commute Cars" to trains that operate outside peak-commuting hours.
Our new Treasurer is Brad Payeur, a resident of Gilette. Brad is a world-traveler, who has ridden trains and rail transit in more than 50 countries. He brings knowledge of "best practices" on a global level to the Coalition.
Former Treasurer Jesse Scott Gribin is the new Technical Director. He lives in Roebling (on the River Line light rail, south of Trenton), and his primary interest is in railroad equipment. He plans to help us push for NJ Transit to buy new equipment that will provide efficient and reliable service to our primary lines of concern: the Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton and Gladstone Lines, as well as elsewhere on the NJT system.
I will remain as Chair, and Donald Winship will continue as Communications Director. During his time in that post, Don has upgraded this web site and has established a presence for the Coalition on social media.
Wherever you live, we welcome you. Our members represent most of NJT's rail lines. There are still plenty of opportunities to help us to improve our transit, including space on our committees and task forces. We welcome your participation and, yes, that means YOU!
DAVID PETER ALAN