The complexities of commuting in New Jersey can be daunting, according to an article by Christopher Maag in the North Jersey Record and other Gannett papers (Sept. 10).  The most significant problem facing commuters into Manhattan remains the construction on the I-495 connector to the Lincoln Tunnel, which will delay cars and buses and likely force commuters onto NJ Transit trains, further overloading the fragile rail service. But you may not have thought of all the possibilities to aid your journey, writes Maag after a week of riding NJT trains and buses. Maag says he was looking for surprises, and found some.

You may have more options than you think, Maag says, and it's not easy to find out about all of them. Take park and ride lots; Maag says "amazingly, NJ Transit maintains no central website informing commuters about its park and ride lots." One thing NJT does do, is plaster its buses with ads for the Vice Lombardi Park & Ride lot. Maag says to try it, it's half empty, and a round-trip bus ticket and all-day parking costs just $9.75. You do have to juggle four pieces of paper: receipt, parking pass, and two bus tickets to the Port Authority and back, and the Lombardi service area was once characterized as the most dangerous in the country.  Bus riders into Manhattan should consider avoiding the midtown Port Authority Bus Terminal and opt instead for one of the seven NJT bus routes that use the George Washington Bridge to the newly-reburbished bus terminal uptown. Riders say the reburbishment project was a horror, but now things are just fine at the terminal.

For rail riders, the continuing uncertainty about whether their train will actually run is now accompanied by fears that riders and drivers displaced from the Lincoln Tunnel will swarm onto their trains. As the road project proceeds, it will become clearer how serious this effect will be.

Underlying all these problems, Maag writes, is the entire NJT transportation system, which he characterizes as "irrational." He points to the fact that trains from North Jersey go to Hoboken instead of Manhattan, where most riders want to go. NJT's bus map, he says, "looks like a plate of spaghetti." (If you can find a map of the whole system, that is. We've never seen one, which makes it hard to figure out which buses go to where you're headed.) Somehow, most commuters eventually figure out a coping mechanism, adjusting their departure times or switching between trains and buses from day to day. Or, as Brendan Myers of New City, N.Y. does: find a really long book to read.

On Tuesday, September 4, the day after Labor Day, railroads using New York's Penn Station adjusted their schedules, after a summer of repair work on the station and its connecting tracks.  For Amtrak, owner of Penn Station, it was back to normal, with the railroad's trains returning to their normal routes after a summer in which trains from the north were diverted to Grand Central Terminal or cancelled completely. But for NJ Transit, problems seemed to increase, instead of a return to normalcy, according to reporting by Patrick McGeehan for the New York Times (Sept. 3). As the holiday weekend approached, on August 31 Amtrak officials showed off the work the station owner had accomplished: fixing two of the tracks and their platform in Penn Station itself, and rebuilding the bridge that carries Amtrak trains from northern Manhattan into the Bronx and beyond. In contrast, NJ Transit continued to experience train cancellations, and on September 4 instituted modified schedules that eliminate through service from its Raritan Valley Line into Penn Station, and at the same time eliminating all service on its Atlantic City line in western New Jersey, a move widely believed to be needed to free up trains and crews to work on services to New York. While Amtrak was proclaiming its trains as running 95% on time, NJT cancelled about 15 trains in the August 31 morning rush. NJT officials say they expect fewer cancellations in the fall, with the reassigned Atlantic City crews and with nine new locomotive engineers joining the force after completing a years-long program.  But even running a full schedule may not solve all the problems for New Jersey commuters, as car and bus traffic may be snarled by lane closures on the Lincoln Tunnel approaches, scheduled to remain in effect for several years, necessitated by crumbling infrastructure. Many of those commuters may find their way to the rail network, further taxing an already overloaded system.

On Thursday, August 16th, the Senate and Assembly Transportation Committees held a hearing concerning New Jersey Transit and the difficulties that its riders currently face. 

NJT Executive Director Keven S. Corbett and Transportation Commissioner Diane Guiterrez-Scachetti, whose job also includes the post of Chair of the NJ Transit Board of Directors, were the primary presenters.  Legislators spent more than two hours questioning them, but allowed them to leave before representatives from labor and from the advocacy community, including me, were scheduled to make our statements.

This is the statement that I filed as part of the record of the hearing, on behalf of the Coalition.  It was originally submitted with a number of documents as Exhibits, which are now reproduced here.

 

LACKAWANNA COALITION STATEMENT FOR LEGISLATIVE HEARING 8-16-18

 

I am David Peter Alan. I live and practice law in South Orange. I appear today as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, which began on the Morris & Essex Line and advocates for better service on NJ Transit on behalf of the riders and their communities, and has done so since 1979.

 

I have been riding on the Morris & Essex rail line and other local transit since long before then, and I can tell you that in my experience, our transit has never been less reliable. For the first time, we never know whether or not a particular train will run, because so many of them are annulled or canceled, often without any advance notice. For commuters, this means waiting for an overcrowded train to the office, getting there late, and risking the consequences on the job that result from arriving late. For those of us who depend on transit for all of our mobility, the damage is much worse. On week-ends, these annulments have forced us to endure gaps of two, three or even four hours between trains; long enough to frustrate our plans for the entire day. This interferes with our lives to a degree that is absolutely intolerable.

 

The Murphy administration, including incumbent management, has blamed the former Christie administration and its anti-transit policies for the difficulties that its riders face. I do not dispute that, but the Murphy administration has been in office for seven months and has continued or exacerbated the failed Christie policies in the areas of employee relations, capital projects management, rail service planning and customer communications.

 

Even before Gov. Murphy took office, his transition chief ordered the forced resignations of some NJ Transit managers and secretaries; an order that was never rescinded. Employee morale plummeted. Executive Director Kevin Corbett blamed the current engineer shortage on engineers “playing hooky”; an assertion that certainly does not help the agency attract dedicated employees.

 

The requirement for Positive Train Control (PTC) first came from Congress ten years ago. Even with a strict deadline coming at the end of this year, incumbent management has been so slow to install the new system that they are cutting service to make equipment available. That is why they are eliminating the Atlantic City Rail Line and cutting service on the Raritan Valley Line after Labor Day without public hearings; a move that we believe violates N.J.S.A. §27:25-8(d), which does not distinguish between temporary and permanent service eliminations in requiring notice and hearings.

 

Management missed an opportunity to alleviate the situation this summer, when they could have consolidated peak-period trains because ridership is lighter in the summer, thereby accommodating commuters on fewer trains while making more equipment available for conversion. This would have reduced the number of engineers needed, which would have substantially reduced or eliminated the current rash of train annulments. The opportunity they missed could cost riders dearly this fall.

 

Management has also kept their customers in the dark until trains are almost due at the station; hours after they are actually annulled. This disrupts our lives, whether we commute or, especially, if we depend on transit. We saw advance notice of a few annulments earlier this week, but much more improvement is needed.

 

This management has demonstrated a disrespect for its riders, its employees, and the law. In addition to the issues I have mentioned, they placed two major items onto Board agendas without giving us notice or the opportunity to be heard, in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. §10:4-9(a). At the Board meeting last Wednesday, my colleague, Joe Clift, asked which Board members came on transit. None raised their hands. I asked the same questions ten years ago, with the same result.

 

Our under-performing transit is not a partisan issue. NJ Transit's problems are systemic, and the fault lies with both parties, including the current administration, and you legislators. The NJ Transit Board was and still is a rubber stamp, which went for more than twelve years, including most of the Christie administration, agreeing unanimously with management on every issue. In 38 years, the Board only voted against management twice, in 1995 and 1996. If this is proper governance, I can't imagine what is not.

 

We riders do not have a single seat on that Board. My own Assemblyman, John McKeon asked me for language for non-political appointment of rider-representatives. I submitted it to him, and I never heard from him again. Neither of the current bills, A-1241 or S-630, do anything to reform NJ Transit; they only add more political patronage to an ineffective Board. They will do nothing to advance the cause of better transit for the riders, so we oppose them. If you are willing to change those bills and allow us to have genuine representatives, including persons like me who depend on transit for all of our mobility, it would be a huge step in the right direction. As an example, I have submitted my own credentials. I understand that there are two seats open, and Gov. Murphy can appoint two transit-dependent rider-representatives now, if he so chooses. A transit board with no riders, and especially no transit-dependent persons, makes as much sense as a highway Board without a single motorist.

 

We can't say much about specific solutions to NJ Transit's current woes, because we are not told enough to assist in making decisions about solving them. That would require seats at the table, which you continue to deny us in the new proposed legislation. If you're not at the table, you're on the menu, and we transit riders are sick and tired of being on the menu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As part of our continuing effort to keep you informed about events that concern our rail service and transit generally, we will post our statements from time to time, along with other documents that we believe you should see.

We received significant media coverage after I made a statement at the meeting of the NJ Transit Board on August 8th.  Here is the statement as I submitted it for the record.

Since that meeting, riders on the Atlantic City Rail Line and their advocates have kept up the pressure on NJ Transit to announce a definite date for the return of the trains to their line.  In response, at a public meeting held in Atlantic City on August 20th, NJT Executive Director Kevin Corbett said that the line would be back in service by January 1, 2019.  We look forward to the trains coming back, and we hope it happens by then. 

At this writing, there is no similar "date certain" for the return of one-seat-ride service to and from Penn Station, New York on the Raritan Valley Line.  We call for the restoration and expansion of that service as quickly as possible.

 

LACKAWANNA COALITION STATEMENT FOR NJT BOARD MEETING 8-8-18

The changes in our right to address this Board, which begin today, include a significant reduction in the amount of time available to us. Instead of the two five-minute opportunities to comment that we had before, we are now allowed only a single five-minute statement. We could say that for giving up this opportunity to be heard, we will no longer be forced to wait through the entire executive session; a feature that discouraged the sort of expression that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is designed to protect. The current start time has shortened our wait by sixty minutes, which is a step in the right direction. We must insist on another change, which is an assurance from you, Commissioner, that if an executive session is still ongoing at 10:00, it will recess until the public portion of the meeting is concluded, so we will no longer suffer the inconvenience of being forced to wait through an entire executive session before we are permitted to exercise our right to speak.

 

Concerning today's agenda, I addressed the budget issues last month. I have submitted a copy of my statement as an exhibit, and I incorporate those remarks by reference as part of today's record.

 

There are other issues that must be dealt with immediately. I have been riding the Morris & Essex Line and other lines now operated by NJ Transit for more than sixty years and have advocated for your riders for more than 33 years, and our transit has never been worse. I have been informed that the entire Morris & Essex Line schedule ran last Saturday. That used to be commonplace. Now it is rare. There have been so many annulments lately that we can no longer count on the transit specified in the schedules, which we consider the contract between NJ Transit and us, the riders. I said that to Paul Mulshine in my personal capacity, and I stand by it factually today. This epidemic of annulments inconveniences commuters, who might not get to their jobs on time and must endure overcrowded trains. For those of us who depend on transit, the situation is even worse. On week-ends, we have been forced to endure gaps between trains of two, three, and even four hours.

 

You motorists who decide how much mobility we are permitted to have are not affected by any of this. But when you reduce the amount of mobility that you dole out to us who depend on transit, as if we are welfare recipients whose benefits you can reduce at will, you interfere with our lives. This is absolutely unacceptable.

 

The impending suspensions of of the Atlantic City Rail Line and the New York trains on the Raritan Valley Line are very troubling, because those discontinuances may be unlawful, and because we do not see how this level of inconvenience to your riders will be very helpful in alleviating the shortage of engineers. Advocates from South Jersey helped get Atlantic City rail service restored in 1990. Now you plan to eliminate all of it without a hearing, which might violate N.J.S.A. §27:25-8(d), a provision that does not distinguish between temporary and permanent elimination. Through a campaign that we support, the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition has fought for years to get direct service to New York, and you now plan to eliminate it, also without a hearing. This leads to the conclusion that, if advocates pushed for a service enhancement, it will forever be vulnerable. We do not see how this inconvenience to the affected riders will help alleviate the engineer shortage, either. Cutting back all Raritan trains to Newark might free up one engineer at a time. Killing Atlantic City service can only make as many engineers available as are qualified to operate on the Newark or Hoboken Divisions, which are a long distance from South Jersey. We don't know how many there are. In other words, the affected riders could be forced to pay very dearly for only a small benefit. We strongly urge you not to eliminate these services.

 

We are also deeply concerned that nobody of appropriate authority at NJ Transit has specified a date certain on which you expect full service on the affected lines to be restored, if you do eliminate them. If these cuts are truly for a limited time only, you can tell us exactly when those services will come back. We remember the express train from Hoboken to Gladstone that was eliminated in 2001, purportedly temporarily to accommodate track work in the Bergen Hill Tunnels. That train never came back, as Amtrak service between New Orleans and Jacksonville was “suspended” for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and never came back, either.

 

We are concerned that we will lose those trains permanently, and we are also concerned that we cannot count on any particular scheduled train actually running. We want to work with you on solving this mobility crisis, but that is possible only if you are forthright with us, your riders, when you think of cutting our transit.

 

DAVID PETER ALAN, Chair

 

 

New Jersey's governor, Phillip Murphy, was elected last November on a platform that promised to fix NJ Transit's problems. But seven months into Murphy's administration, things seem to be worse than ever, and Murphy's blaming of the predecessor Christie administration is wearing thin. Just after taking office, Murphy ordered an audit of the agency, saying it would be finished in about 100 days.  That date has long passed, and no audit report is in sight. The situation was reported by Patrick McGeehan for the New York Times (published in print edition on August 21). Republicans criticized Murphy's blaming of his predecessor; Assemblywoman Nancy F. Munoz (R-Summit) said, "I think he over-promised. It's very convenient to blame everything on Chris Christie, (but) this does now belong to this administration." Munoz was part of a panel of legislators who heard testimony about the state of affairs at NJT. Murphy's transportation commissioner, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, pleaded for understanding, saying that she had had only 213 days to cope with "almost a decade of neglect." NJT's executive director, Kevin Corbett, appointed by Gov. Murphy, admitted what his boss also conceded: "If anything, I underestimated the state of affairs."

A major problem for NJT's rail operations has been a shortage of engineers, and the governor proposed a solution: relax the statutory requirement that "mission-essential" employees be New Jersey residents.  Echoing what commuters have been saying, Murphy agreed that cancellation of trains, mostly attributed to the engineer shortage, was a major problem. The engineer shortage, he said, was "a crisis in itself, one that has left countless thousands of commuters stranded by canceled trains."

David Peter Alan, Lackawanna Coalition chair, testified at the hearing, giving the commuters' perspective. He allowed that it was fair to blame the Christie administration, but "the Murphy administration has been in office for seven months and has continued or exacerbated many of the policies of the Christie administration." Alan said that NJT remains a "very secretive, opaque agency" and that Mr. Murphy had not delivered on a promise to appoint commuters to its board of directors. "There's an old saying that if you're not at the table, you're on the menu, and we transit riders are sick and tired of being on the menu," Alan said.

Criticism of Murphy's approach also came from Martin Robins, a former NJT executive and director emeritus of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.  Robins said that Murphy's ordering a full audit may have been a mistake, as drastic actions that are needed are being delayed, awaiting the results of the audit. "Much of this is a problem of having new people on the scene and not comprehending the amount of dysfunction around them. It would have taken a dramatic, almost military takeover of the agency, a willingness to throw people out of their jobs and start anew," Robins said. He said that he thought that the Murphy administration lacked the confidence to take such drastic action immediately. If commuter discontent continues to build, it may be that the governor may be forced to stop pleaded for more time and undertake reforms quickly.

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.

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.

NJ Transit announced on August 3 that continued installation of Positive Train Control systems will require cutbacks on Raritan Valley Line and Atlantic City Line service beginning September 4. A complete shutdown of Atlantic City service will take place; the Raritan Valley service change will eliminate through, one-seat service to New York Penn Station. The Raritan changes, originally announced for September 4, were later pushed back to Monday, September 10. The cutbacks are said to be temporary, with service to be restored early in 2019. Atlantic City customers will be provided with reduced-cost alternative service to Philadelphia, the northern destination of the rail line. Rail tickets to Philadelphia will be discounted 25% and honored on bus route 554, as well as at certain stations on the PATCO transit system; bus 554 will have additional service, and there will also be a shuttle bus between Cherry Hill and Pennsauken rail stations and Camden; rail tickets will also be honored on the River Line light rail between Pennsauken and Camden.  On the Raritan line, through service to New York is only offered on weekdays during off-peak periods; otherwise, passengers must transfer at Newark Penn Station. The one-seat service was achieved only after a long campaign by Raritan Valley transit advocates. The through trains will be replaced by trains terminating at Newark, with passengers riding connecting trains from New York; NJT says that the existing level of service will be preserved.

The changes are on the NJ Transit website, but the information is not easy to find. On the front page there is (as of this writing) an animated display that, occasionally, displays a notice "New Info for Atlantic City and Raritan Valley Rail Lines."  Click on this, which leads to a long page which explains the need for PTC. Scroll down to the bottom and you should find an icon "New for Atlantic City Rail and Raritan Valley Lines." Click on this and the new information will appear. Even more detailed information can be discovered by clicking on "News" at the bottom of the NJT front page, then on "2018 News Releases," and finally on the Aug. 3 release entitled "NJ Transit Continues to Advance Positive Train Control Program."

An article by Larry Higgs for nj.com, published in the Star-Ledger (Aug. 4) also describes the changes.

Although the official reason for the "temporary" cutbacks is for PTC installation, there has been speculation that the shortage of train operating personnel, particularly locomotive engineers, may have been a factor in NJT's announcement.

Transit riders often congratulate themselves on helping to save the environment, noting that mass transit uses less fuel and contributes less pollution to the environment. True or not, the point is often used as a selling point by transit advocates. But if you live near a rail line, a bus depot, or rail yard, your environment may not be all you hoped for. Such a situation has come to light in the borough of Raritan, where NJ Transit stores most of its Raritan Valley Line trains and locomotives during off-hours. Fumes and noise from idling locomotives have been driving residents batty, according to reporting by Mike Deak in the Central Jersey Courier News (June 29). Borough Councilman Don Tozzi visited the neighborhood and said the noise was so bad "your teeth were vibrating," and a resident said "ear plugs don't really help. The whole house vibrates. You can't sleep, you can't think." The houses are a few hundred feet from the rail yard. The problem was studied about a decade ago by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and at that time NJT announced that they would not idle diesels unless the outdoor temperature dropped below zero degrees, when it would become necessary in order to prevent the engines from freezing up. But about two months ago the noise began again, and is especially bad between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., when all the trains are in the yard. An aggrieved resident said, "It came right out of the blue; there's no rhyme or reason.  A former councilman who lives in the area said, "the quality of my life is gone."  NJT said it's aware of the complaints and is working with the borough, but Mayor Charles McMullin said that NJT believes it is in compliance with the decade-old rules. He thinks the issue is really effective management at NJT.

Most of the nation's railroads are legally required to implement an advanced safety system called Positive Train Control (PTC) by December 31, 2018. NJ Transit is no exception, but the railroad has been widely cited as being far behind schedule in its implementation program; a number of other railroads, including Amtrak and Pennsylvania's SEPTA commuter system, have completed their PTC installation programs, or nearly so. The system is said to be able to prevent many rail accidents by taking control of a train if the engineer fails to observe signals or track speed limits. In theory, if PTC is not in place by year's end, NJT might be forced to shut down. Extensions are possible, but only if the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is satisfied that a railroad is making acceptable progress toward implementing PTC, and has a plan in place to complete its PTC program. As reported by Curtis Tate for North Jersey Record, on June 26 NJT received FRA approval for a plan that would allow NJT another two years to complete installation. NJT spokesman Jim Smith said that NJT had made substantial progress since a March 31 report that showed little progress during the first quarter of 2018. To implement PTC, NJT needs to install equipment on more than 400 locomotives; 67 had been equipped so far. 66 of more than 100 radio towers are now in place, and 793 of more than 1000 employees have received PTC training. Smith said that NJT is confident that it will receive the two-year extension it is requesting.

There are 31 escalators at NJ Transit's Secaucus Junction transfer station.  If commuters are lucky, the one they need is operating.  But are they safe? The state requires that escalators be enclosed with fire-resistant materials, but it turns out that none of the 31 at Secaucus have this protection. In fact, a fire in November, 2014 closed four of the escalators for about a year, and other malfunctions have occurred regularly.  The situation was reported by Curtis Tate in the North Jersey Record, which obtained escalator inspection records through an Open Public Records Act demand. No fines have been assessed against NJT for the violations; potential fines could amount to $800,000 a year.  The state said they haven't pursued fines because NJT is working on a reasonable solution. The National Fire Protection Association says that fire protection on escalators is essential, as escalators can easily allow a fire to spread between floors. An old wooden escalator on the London subway system caught fire in 1987 and resulted in the deaths of 31 subway users and severe burns in many other travelers.