Photo of NJT locomotive

In a mad dash to a December 31 deadline, NJ Transit managed to comply with a Congressionally-mandated deadline to install Positive Train Control equipment on its trains and tracks. PTC is intended to reduce the possibility of train accidents due to collisions or excessive speed, and was mandated by Congress in 2008 with a 2015 deadline, after a distracted engineer in California ran a red signal and plowed head-on into an oncoming freight, killing himself and 24 passengers. The 2016 deadline was extended two years, and now many railroads, including NJT, have gotten a further two-year extension, by completing enough of the installation to qualify for the extra two years. But to qualify for the extension, NJT had to go to some extraordinary lengths. What does this mean for commuters? You'll be seeing some strange animals roaming the rails on NJT. NJT's explanation: "We're pursuing creative, out-of-the-box solutions and expending every available resource to maximize service delivery," said NJT spokesperson Jim Smith, in what sounds like some kind of canned double-speak.

Probably the most disconcerting weird train you're going to encounter will be one in which there is an empty coach at the front, followed by the locomotive that's powering the train. It's not an ordinary coach up front; it's a "cab car," one with operating controls for the engineer.  But not just any cab car, it's one that's got PTC equipment installed. Behind it will be an ordinary locomotive -- but in this case, it's one that hasn't got it's PTC upgrade yet. So the leading coach allows the train to meet PTC requirements, without a locomotive that does.  Passengers won't be allowed into that leading car; NJT says that would pose safety and operational issues, like not being able to exit to the next car in an emergency. Before you run up the platform to grab a seat at the front of the train, make sure that there's no engine behind that front car.

Another strange development is in the locomotives themselves. Most engines you'll see on NJT are painted to proudly display NJT's own logo and color scheme; a few, as most commuters on diesel-powered lines know, display the colors of Metro-North Railroad: M-N contracts with NJT to operate its lines to Port Jervis and Spring Valley, N.Y., and provides some of the equipment for that service. Both locomotives and cars tend to roam across NJT's lines. But now there's a new wrinkle, and it will affect trains on NJT's electrified lines: electric engines (railroaders call them "motors") with the paint scheme of SEPTA, which is the commuter railroad serving the Philadelphia area. SEPTA has been way ahead of NJT in PTC compliance, and equipped its aging AEM-7 model engines with PTC even though they were scheduled for retirement in 2018. (NJT had similar engines but retired them several years ago). SEPTA no longer needs them, and NJT has arranged to lease seven of them for $250 a day each, for the next six months.  So if you see one headed your way, don't think you've somehow been transported to the Philly suburbs.

The latest developments in NJT's quest to comply with PTC were reported by Curtis Tate for the Gannett newspapers.