Photo of NJT locomotive

It's official: NJ Transit admits that they have left their customers down. Executive Director Kevin Corbett, speaking at a meeting of the agency's board of directors in Newark on August 8, said, "Over the past week or so, we have not been able to dependably offer the level of service that we hoped for." The developments were reported in the New York Times by Patrick McGeehan (Aug. 9). But admitting the problems is cold comfort to riders; there was worse to come, as Corbett continued, "Although I hate to say it, these are issues that won't be solved overnight." Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti took a tack familiar to observers of governments both state and national: blame the predecessor administration, in this case that of former Gov. Chris Christie. "We jumped into a firestorm in January. There's stuff coming at us from multiple directions, and we're doing the best we can to address all of it."

On Thursday, Aug. 9, Gov. Murphy returned from a vacation at his villa in Italy; his absence during the NJT crisis had drawn some fire. As reported by Larry Higgs for nj.com (and printed in the Star-Ledger, Aug. 10), Murphy admitted he'd underestimated the problems at NJT and promised to put NJT commuters "on a pedestal." He blamed some of the recent train cancellations on train crew members who are having "unexcused absences." "The overwhelming majority of engineers are doing everything we want them to. A small population spoils it for the broader population," Murphy said. Union officials, however, say the problem is that NJT policy allows only five sick days a year, and if workers are sick more than that, their absences are recorded as unexcused. Murphy said one key to manage the ongoing crisis is better communications, especially as trains are cancelled at the last moment. Observers have noted that NJT sometimes alerts riders through one channel, such as its smartphone app, but might not broadcast the information elsewhere, such as via its website. "We are taking on a war-room like mentality, especially through December 31," Murphy said.  Murphy also responded to criticisms about NJT's performance from Republican legislators, asking where were they in past years in the Christie administration when NJT funding was greatly reduced.

The main source of unreliable service is the shortage of locomotive engineers to run the trains. The railroad has been losing engineers to other railroads offering higher pay, and to retirement, at a rate faster than it can replace them.  According to Corbett, there is a shortage of 50 engineers available for service, and recruitment and training of new engineers can take many months. There are currently 335 engineers on the payroll.  Reduction of service on the Raritan Valley and Atlantic City lines (see below) may help provide more engineers, but Lackawanna Coaliltion Chair David Peter Alan said he feared that the "temporarily" discontinued trains might never come back, saying, "Tell us when the service will come back. We are concerned that we will lose those trains permanently." Alan was quoted by Curtis Tate in the North Jersey Record and other Gannett papers (Aug. 9). NJT's press releases, however, state that the reductions will be restored by "early in 2019."  Lately, NJT has complained that the rate of "unexcused absences" among engineers has increased, leading to unexpected cancellations of trains. Corbett said that nine new engineers will enter service this month, following a training period of 20 months. NJT pays engineers about 20% lower than comparable railroads, and about 15 engineers have left for jobs at local commuter railroads such as Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, and for jobs at Amtrak and farther afield, including the new Brightline intercity rail line in Florida. Engineers tend to retire as soon as they are eligible, and can then leave for greener pastures. James P. Brown, general chairman of the engineers' union, said "You have to close the exit door or it won't stop."

How bad are things? "Our transit has never been worse," said Lackawanna Coalition chair David Peter Alan,  quoted in Curtis Tate's North Jersey Record article. Executive Director Corbett, who a  year ago was not working for NJT but instead was commuting from Morristown into Manhattan, said that the situation a year ago, during the so-called "Summer from Hell," was much worse than the current problems. "It was a zoo," Corbett said.

What could NJT have done to avoid the crisis of the last few weeks? Former Long Island Rail Road planning director and Lackawanna Coalition member  Joseph Clift, also quoted in the Tate article, said the answer was to have foreseen the problems in advance and planned a reduced schedule. "My view is if you cut service twice, you didn't know what you were doing the first time," Clift said. Commuters might disagree, preferring trains that run most of the time to trains that don't run at all. But NJT's management might well take Clift's advice and cut back the schedules until enough engineers are available: it would end the daily barrage of criticism that NJT currently endures.