Two months after the fatal Sept. 29 crash at Hoboken in which an incoming train inexplicably increased its speed and crashed through its end-of-track bumper block, another inbound train derailed as it was entering the terminal on Sunday, Dec. 4, as reported by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media on Dec. 7 (and published in the Star-Ledger on Dec. 8). This train was apparently moving within speed limits, which had been reduced from 10 mph to 5 mph following the September crash, and crew actions were apparently not at fault in this case, according to an NJT spokesperson. No injuries were reported on the train, which had left Waldwick at 11:35 a.m. Mechanical factors are being investigated, which raises the possibility that neglected maintenance may have been a factor. Mechanical problems are increasingly blamed for delays on the NJT rail system, which have become an almost daily occurrence for commuters. The rate of mechanical failures on the NJT system has been reported as higher than that on other commuter rail networks.
When the Republican Party solidified its control over the federal government by taking the White House and retaining both houses of Congress in last month's elections, you could hear the moans from transit advocates: the Republicans have never been noted for attention to transit, other than trying to reduce government subsidies for it. But could president-elect Donald Trump be an exception? Maybe so, says Paul Mulshine in an opinion column (Dec. 8) in the Star-Ledger. Mulshine points out that whatever the general orientation of the GOP, Trump is a New Yorker at heart and so understands the need for transit infrastructure; he's publicly announced his support for fixing the nation's crumbling underpinnings; and he has prided himself on the ability to "get things done," particularly in the construction field. Mulshine points out how long it can take to get things done, given a cumbersome environmental review process, and goes back to the failed "ARC" project, saying that an originally good project was "picked apart by bureaucrats piece by piece and eventually we were building a 'tunnel to Macy's Basement' that couldn't be shared with Amtrak." Mulshine finishes up his column with extensive quoting of Lackawanna Coalition Chair David Peter Allan, noting the Coalition's support of service on the Lackawanna Cutoff (to Pennsylvania) which had to go through a "long, costly environmental review." Mulshine quotes Alan as saying, "I don't see why we can't have a streamlined environmental review procedure to bring back passenger rail service to lines that once had it;" Mulshine then says "I don't either."
Everybody seems to agree that the aging Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan cannot cope with the demands that increasing ridership imposes on it, but what is to be done? Options include building a new terminal, likely some distance closer to the Hudson River than the present edifice, or even terminating buses in New Jersey and forwarding passengers into the Apple by rail -- assuming new rail tunnels would even make that possible. The problem is in the lap of the Port Authority, a bistate agency in which the governors of New York and New Jersey share responsibility for its actions and appointing its leaders. The sharp divide within the Port Authority during the now-famous "Bridgegate" crisis in 2013 is emblematic, as employees loyal to N.J. Gov. Christie closed lanes in an apparent political act, while Port Authority employees loyal to N.Y. Gov. Cuomo tried to get them reopened. The Port Authority, with its vast revenues derived from various sources including ever-increasing tolls on cross-Hudson bridges and tunnels, remains a source of considerable power for both states. In the case of the bus terminal, cost estimates range from $3.5 to $13.5 billion for the project, but the Authority's ten-year capital plan, drawn up in 2014, did not include any funding at all. Now, attempts to include the bus terminal in the formal plan have run into a stalemate: New Jersey advocates, notably the Authority's Chairman, John Degnan (a Christie appointee) have demanded that at least $3.5 billion be included in the budget for a new terminal. New York advocates, apparently at the instigation of N.Y. Gov. Cuomo, have insisted that $2 billion is as far as they will go. And Gov. Cuomo has at least once directed his appointees to make sure that nothing gets done at the agency's monthly board meeting, and seemed poised to do it again, apparently to make sure that a lot of money does not get earmarked for what New York sees as a project largely benefiting only New Jersey. A full report appeared by Patric McGeehan in the New York Times (Dec. 7).
Engineer Thomas Gallagher, who was at the controls of the NJ Transit train that crashed at Hoboken on Sept. 29, recently was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, according to his lawyer, Jack Arseneault. Mr. Gallagher has said he has no memory of the crash, in which his train unaccountably accelerated to more than twice the allowed speed within the station; brakes were applied only seconds before the train impacted the bumper block at the end of the track, crashed through it, and came to rest in a pedestrian area, killing a bystander. More than 100 were injured, mostly on the train. The new development was reported by Emma G. Fitzsimmons in the New York Times (Nov. 17). According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep apnea can cause daytime sleepiness. Mr. Gallagher's recollection is that he did everything he was supposed to do, "and the next thing he knew he was on the floor," according to Arseneault. NJ Transit, which cleared Gallagher for service after a physical exam in July, said it was not authorized to discuss employees' medical information, but that it had a sleep apnea screening program. The disorder had been implicated in a crash on Metro-North Railroad in 2014. Lawyer Arsenault said that Gallagher is an "extremely heavy man" with a large neck circumference, adding "I believe common sense indicates that a man like that could be subject to suffering from adult sleep apnea."
NJ Transit's executive director, Steven Santoro, finally got to testify before Trenton legislators on Friday, Nov. 4, after incurring their ire by not showing up at an October session. According to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media, Santoro's testimony covered a range of topics including safety, federal audits of the railroad's procedures and record, and progress on installation of Positive Train Control (Santoro said a six-mile test section will be in place on the Morris & Essex lines in April); Santoro said NJT is on schedule to complete PTC installation by the December, 2018 federal deadline. But most of interest to NJT's customers is Santoro's disclosure that NJT will not ask for a fare increase before mid-2018. On the question of safety, Santoro admitted that accidents on NJT exceed in number those of other systems, but cautioned that NJT may using criteria that include more incidents as accidents than other systems do. He pointed out that only six percent of the "accidents" exceed the damage threshold of $100,000 above which they must be reported to the Federal Railroad Administration, and also that NJT's rate of accidents per million passenger miles is actually lower than the average for all commuter railroads.
In reporting by Emma G. Fitzsimmons in the New York Times (Nov. 5), some details of safety violations uncovered by a federal audit were disclosed in Santoro's testimony. These included workers' use of personal cell phones while on duty; failure to properly test brakes; and failure to blow horns at crossings. Santoro called the findings unacceptable and vowed to crack down on employees who violate rules, citing increased inspections and penalties for violators. The Times article also reported that Santoro apologized multiple times for missing the previous legislative hearing, citing that he had only been on the job a few days and wanted to learn more about NJT's state of affairs before coming to Trenton.
In an editorial (Nov. 2), the Star-Ledger has attacked NJ Transit, the state of New Jersey, and the Governor over NJT's lack of maintenance, conflicting statements, and NJT's new executive director's failure to appear at recent legislative hearings on the transit agency. Citing National Transit Database data, the newspaper said that NJT posted more mechanical failures than any other commuter rail operator in 2015; by comparison, NJT had five times the failures of the other regional operators, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, terming these statistics as "another red-letter day for Team Christie." The Star-Ledger said NJT's "reputation is bruised, its integrity compromised," and cited NJT's Executive Director Steven Santoro's failure to appear at recent hearings in Trenton; Santoro claimed his presence was required at a meeting with federal officials that day, but the Feds later said that their meeting could easily have been moved. The Star-Ledger said "the folks from Gov. Christie's patronage pit didn't show." Santoro is now scheduled to appear in Trenton this Friday, Nov. 4; the Star-Ledger advised him to "pack a lunch," and to expect a lot of questions, including explaining Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer's claim that NJT has adequate funding -- in the face of plenty of evidence that it does not; on progress or lack thereof on implementation of Positive Train Control and critical infrastructure projects such as the Portal Bridge replacement; NJT's "horrendous maintenance record;" and the "high rate of drug and alcohol related incidents involving NJT personnel." The editorial also advised Santoro to expect questions on his failure to appear at the previous hearing, and mused that Santoro's absence was on direct orders from Gov. Christie, quoting Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg: "The new director either received inappropriate advice or inappropriate orders."
New Jersey's U.S. senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, have urged the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate safety concerns at NJ Transit, and whether adequate funding is a factor, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (nj.com) and printed in the Star-Ledger (Oct. 20). The senators cited a high accident rate at NJT, and a recent Federal Railroad Administration investigation of NJT. Higgs' article cited a recent investigation of NJT by the New York Times, which revealed that over seven years NJT paid $465,000 in fines to cover 76 "major safety violations." This was more in fines than the other two New York area transit operators, Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road, paid combined.
NJ Transit has announced that all Hoboken tracks will be back in service for the morning commute on Monday, Oct. 17, except Tracks 5 and 6, where the Sept. 29 crash occurred. A regular full service will be offered), restoring missing trains from the Morristown, Gladstone, Montclair-Boonton, Main, and Pascack Valley Lines. As reconstruction work continues, service from tracks 1-4 will be accessed via the PATH entrance concourse; tracks 7 and above will be accessed via the main terminal waiting room.
The Hoboken ticket office, which was close to the crash site and has been closed, reopened on Saturday, Oct. 14.
NJT has posted the weekday schedules in effect as of October 17 here, in PDF form. For most lines, the schedules restore the pre-Sept. 29 schedules in effect May 15, 2016. However, new schedules have been issued for the North Jersey Coast Line and the Pascack Valley Line. For the NJCL, it appears there are minor changes in timing for a few trains, and information about day-before-Thanksgiving getaway trains has been added. On the PVL, all trains seem to be operating, but riders should obtain the new PDF in case there are timing changes. (An early version of the PDF omitted evening peak Metro-North express train 1069; this was an error and the PDF has been reissued with the train restored.) Note that midday weekday busing remains in effect for the PVL north of New Bridge Landing, and for the Raritan Valley Line west of Raritan.
According to a preliminary report released on October 13 by the National Transportation Safety Board, the brakes on the NJ Transit train that crashed at the Hoboken terminal on September 29 were operating properly, apparently eliminating one possible cause of the wreck, which injured many passengers and killed a bystander in the station. Previously, the investigators reported that the train engineer had no memory of the wreck; "black box" data revealed that the train had been operating within speed limits as it entered the station, but then the throttle was advanced and the train accelerated until just before impact, when the throttle was shut off and emergency brakes applied, too late to avoid the crash. Further tests may be required, as some of the electronics that control the brakes were destroyed in the crash.
Reporting by National Public Radio is here.
According to reporting here by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (nj.com), the NJ Transit Board announced on October 13 the appointment of a new Executive Director. It's an internal appointment: Stephen Santoro, currently Deputy Executive Director for Capital Projects and Programming. Santoro, a 16-year NJT veteran, had held the capital planning job for nine years, overseeing major NJT projects including Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. The appointment would fill a vacancy left by the departure of Veronique Hakim, who left in December, 2015 to head the New York City transit system. About six months ago, a former Amtrak executive, William Crosbie, backed out of taking the job after first apparently having accepted the position. Temporarily, the executive director job had been filled by NJT veteran Dennis Martin, whose regular job is to head the agency's bus division.
Santoro was immediately given marching orders by his boss, Acting Commissioner of Transportation Richard Hammer, who asked for reports on the status of the implementation of Postive Train Control (PTC), and also on the status of storm-resiliency-improvement projects. Some feel that PTC might have prevented the fatal train crash in September at NJT's Hoboken terminal.
Gov. Christie and state legislators have cut the state's subsidy to NJ Transit, but somehow NJT has "made do" in a "shell game," according to reporting by Mike Vilensky, Andrew Tangel, and Ted Mann, with contributions by Kate King, in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 8-9). NJT managers have appealed for more money for years, but the Christie administration's response has been to cut, cut, cut the state's subsidy, from $285 million in 2012 to $33 million in 2016. How has NJT kept the system running? By financial legerdemain, such as diverting money from other state resources such as the NJ Turnpike Authority and the state's clean energy fund. And fares were raised twice on Christie's watch, most recently 9% last year. Critics say these are short term solutions that cannot work in the long term, and reflect a "weak commitment by Mr. Christie to the transit system." The critics include Assembly transportation committee head John Wisniewski, who characterized the budget transfers as "temporary, one-shot fixes . . . those sources will dry up . . . when you don't have enough operational money, safety suffers." Analysts blame the decreasing transit funding on competing budget demands and Gov. Christie's commitment not to raise taxes. According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Janna Chernetz, "they have had to resort to cannibalistic funding practices in order to keep the lights on and the wheels turning," noting that over six billion dollars have been diverted from capital funds to subsidize operating expenses. The NJT Board was scheduled to discuss the budget at its July meeting, but that meeting was cancelled and the board hasn't met since. People familiar with the board's thinking, the article says, blame the failure to meet in part on fear of confronting what look like a set of unappetizing options: service cuts, layoffs, or another fare hike.
A parallel story was reported in the New York Times (Oct. 14).