Last summer, NJ Transit commuters found their daily ride upended by major schedule changes that had many traveling via Hoboken instead of New York, using the PATH and unfamiliar ferry lines. Media dubbed it the "Summer from Hell." This year's schedule changes, also in support of Amtrak repairs at Penn Station, were minor by comparison, or so it seemed when they were announced. But this summer bids fair to be a real "summer from hell," for quite a different reason: multiple train cancellations, seemingly at random, have made it impossible for riders to predict when they will get to work, or when they will get home. According to a New York Times article by Patrick McGeehan (Aug. 3), there were 330 trains that did not run in a six-week period; if all these cancellations were on weekdays, that would be about 11 trains a day. But that statistic does not seem to comport with recent experience: media reported that no less than 30 trains did not run on Friday, August 3, the day the Times article appeared; and on Monday morning, Aug. 6, at least 15 trains failed to run in the morning rush period alone.  In the Times survey, an additional 64 trains started out but didn't finish their run.

When trains don't run on heavily-traveled lines in peak periods, often it means a wait of only 15 minutes or so for the next train.  But that doesn't tell the whole story, as missing trains lead to overcrowding on following trains; and often, a local train making all stops will be cancelled but replaced by an express making all the skipped stations, leading to a much longer trip for the usual passengers on the express. On lines having less frequent service, a cancellation can result in a wait of an hour or more for the next train. Often, NJT is unable to announce cancellations until minutes before the schedule start of a run, denying riders the ability to stay at home or the office a bit longer; instead, they line up at station platforms or in concourses at New York, anxiously awaiting whatever train NJT is able to field.

What's causing this mess?  Some of the problems are due to mechanical breakdowns, "trespasser" strikes, or other unforeseen circumstances.  But the majority of the cancellations are due to a shortage of train operating crews, particularly locomotive engineers. Complex federal hours-of-service laws, designed to insure safe operation, strictly limit the time a train service employee is allowed to be on duty, and sudden changes in employees' work schedules, for example to fill in for another worker who can't work that day, can further restrict the hours an individual can work on a given day. If a train engineer runs out of allowed work time, the federal rules are strict: he or she must stop the train and await a replacement.  In practice, NJT tells engineers to stop their train at the last station where passengers can be comfortably accommodated.  In the worst case, the train might not run at all.

The shortage of operating personnel is not unique to NJ Transit, but it has been made worse by years of budget cuts and reductions in state funding for the railroad. This had led to lower salaries compared to other railroads.  Trained personnel, particularly the engineers, are marketable quantities, and have been "jumping ship" to earn higher salaries at other railroads in the area, particularly at the Metro-North Railroad that provides commuter service in New York and Connecticut. It takes a long time to train new engineers, and many do not complete the course. And for those who do, higher-paying jobs elsewhere still beckon. So the rapid turnaround promised at NJT by Gov. Murphy, who managed to increase the agency's operating subsidy, may take years before its fruition.