According to reporting (Dec. 18) by Curtis Tate for the Gannett papers (USA Today North Jersey Network), NJ Transit hired or promoted ten employees connected to the administration of outgoing Gov. Chris Christie, even while experienced staff were leaving; in many cases, the Christie protégées enjoyed salary increases of as much as $70,000 over their previous jobs, and a minimum of $13,000.  In some cases, the new hires made more than the NJT employees they replaced.  All but one ended up making at least $100,000 at NJT; the median salary for all state workers in 2016 was about $73,000. NJT, for its part, denies that Christie exerted influence over the hires, or that career NJT employees were passed over in favor of the Christie administration hires.

One of the questionable hires is Jacqueline Halldow, NJT's chief of staff.  She should be qualified for the job: she held the same position until leaving for work in Trenton for Christie.  In the move to Trenton, her salary increased from the $132,00 she earned at NJT to $140,000.  But on her return to NJT, only 14 months later, her new salary jumped to $156,000.

Amy Herbold received the biggest salary increase in her move to NJT in 2016, where she became deputy executive director at a salary of $190,000, a $70,000 jump over her previous job as a Christie aide.  At NJT she replaced Neil Yellin, who was fired by NJT; Yellin, 66, has filed an age discrimination suit against NJT, charging that Herbold had nowhere near the experience and qualifications that Yellin has. Yellin's salary at NJT was about $10,000 less than Herbold's. Herbold subsequently resigned from NJT in November.

Other Christie veterans also enjoyed lucrative positions at NJT, and enjoyed frequent promotions and salary increases. Eric Daleo, who once worked in the law firm that represented Gov. Christie in the "Bridgegate" affair, then became a state employee as a representative of the state police, earning $110,000. He then somehow found employment at NJT for $132,000, but then was promoted to assistant executive director of capital programs and planning, at a cool $175,000.  Another veteran of the law firm, Megan Strickland, also found success at NJT and is now chief of capital compliance, budget, and administration, earning $141,000.

Further reporting by Larry Higgs for nj.com (Star-Ledger, Dec. 19) included facts from the northjersey.com article. Higgs' article quoted former NJT compliance officer Todd Barretta as saying that NJT has a "culture of (employees) going along with what political appointees want or (they) get out."

 

The Lackawanna Coalition has expressed its objections to a proposal by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to extend the Port Authority-Trans Hudson (PATH) line from Newark Penn Station to the monorail that serves Newark Airport.    In a statement submitted at an information session in downtown Newark, the Coalition objected to the project on several grounds.

The project will not improve the convenience of airport access for our primary constituents; those who use NJ Transit's Morris & Essex, Montclair-Boonton and Gladstone lines.  The journey to an airport terminal usually requires four segments: train to Broad Street Station, light rail or bus to Penn Station, NJ Transit train to the Airport station and the monorail to the airport terminal.  The proposed PATH extension would preserve the four-seat ride by substituting a PATH segment for an NJ Transit segment from Penn Station.  The Coalition disputed the cost-effectiveness of spending money for a plan that does not eliminate the inconvenience of having to make three transfers.

The Coalition also questioned the wisdom of spending the projected cost of $1.7 billion for a line that duplicates current NJ Transit service, when other projects that would improve mobility between New Jersey and New York City need to be built, and capital funding is needed to build them.  These projects include new tunnels into Penn Station, whether or not other components of the proposed Gateway Project are also built, and an upgraded and expanded Port Authority Bus Terminal.

We also disputed the Port Authority's claim that the project would benefit the surrounding neighborhood, citing its emphasis on a parking deck that was part of a local development plan.

The Coalition called for a study of airport access, which would consider alternatives to the proposed PATH extension.  These include shuttle trains between Newark Penn Station and the Airport station when there is room for them on the railroad, and shuttle buses between Penn Station and the airport terminals themselves.  A shuttle bus system, which would use buses specifically designed for airport customers, could also eliminate the need to spend capital dollars to replace the current airport monorail, which is nearing the end of its useful life.

Our statement concluded: We object to the current plan.  It is inconvenient for our constituents, it does not actually provide access to the airport terminals, and it wastes money that can be better spent for other projects, which are needed more urgently."

The scoping document for the project can be found on the Port Authority's web site, www.panynj.gov.  Anyone who wishes to comment on the proposed project can do so through the site at  www.panynj.gov/PATHextension or via e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  The comment period closes on Wednesday, December 20th.

 

New Jersey Governor-elect Phil Murphy, after meeting with the state's two U.S. senators, called the Gateway project for new rail tunnels under the Hudson as their "top of the list" priority, according to reporting by James Nash (Dec. 12) for the North Jersey Record and other Gannett papers. Murphy says he plans to meet with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to enlist his support for the project, estimated to cost $27 billion. "It's a game changer for New Jersey and it's a game changer for New York," Murphy told reporters.  Senators Booker and Menendez, who also attended the press conference, had their own comments on rail transit, Menendez reminding reporters that outgoing Gov. Chris Christie seven years ago forfeited $3 billion in funding for an earlier proposed tunnel project, saying that the project would cost New Jersey taxpayers billions in cost overruns; Booker said he plans to push for more Federal security at rail stations.  The press conference on Monday, Dec. 11, was overshadowed by a terrorist bombing attack that morning in Manhattan.

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) has released a report proposing many ideas for managing the New York area's transportation needs; the ideas were reported in the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 30, by Paul Berger) and in the New York Times (Dec. 1, by Winnie Hu).

Most eye-catching of the proposals was that NYC Transit should end its long-standing practice of running subway trains all night long; few urban rapid transit systems in the world follow this practice, which makes system maintenance much more difficult.  NYC Transit has in recent years been practicing a selective closure of lines overnight, called "Fastrack;" the RPA proposes a regular overnight shutdown systemwide, beginning late Sunday nights and continuing through Thursday morning; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday overnight service would apparently not be affected, under the proposal. But Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joseph J. Lhota quickly called the overnight shutdown idea "inappropriate" and "a bit draconian." Follow-up news stories found many riders who found overnight subways indispensable to their life and cited a city plagued with insomnia.

The RPA's plans have been published infrequently, sometimes decades apart, but have been influential in the actual evolution of the area's transportation network.  An early proposal, for example, recommended moving the then-unbuilt George Washington Bridge from 57 Street to 178 Street, which became the actual location. Reports also credited the RPA with the recent completion of the Second Avenue Subway fragment now in service on Manhattan's Upper East Side, although the plans for that line date back to the 1930s or so.

The Wall Street Journal article says there are dozens of proposals in the RPA's report, and listed a few. One recommendation is an overhaul of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to improve its governance and operations. The report also calls for "transforming" New York's Penn Station into a through-running facility, with trains continuing deep into neighboring states -- New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, presumably -- instead of "forcing passengers to transfer."  And in a sure-to-be-controversial idea, at least among transit bureaucrats, the report recommends the combination of NJ Transit, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad into a single "trans-regional express network," which the RPA dubbed "T-REX," apparently creating a new, instant dinosaur of an operation. The Times article said the RPA wants to create a new "subway reconstruction and public benefit corporation," and that it should have a dedicated source of funding.  That, at least, MTA Chairman Lhota found he could endorse. For bus commuters, the RPA endorsed a proposal to build a second midtown terminal for buses, at the Javits Convention Center.

In the RPA's detailed proposal, not generally covered in the media, there are many possible additions to the area's transit network.  These include ideas for new commuter rail services via former commuter lines to Paterson and West Nyack, NY; extension of the Newark Light Rail line to Paterson; and even connection of NJT in Hoboken to the Long Island Rail Road in Brooklyn via new tunnels crossing through Manhattan. In south Jersey, the RPA envisions commuter rail through Freehold to Lakewood.  Entirely new light rail lines might be built from Staten Island through Brooklyn and Queens to the Bronx, and on Long Island light rail might replace LIRR lines and create a through service from Valley Stream through Hempstead, Garden City, and Mineola to Oyster Bay.

As for the subways, in addition to the overnight closures, the report says the system should be "modernized within 15 years" and build eight new lines to serve underserved areas including the southeast Bronx, Manhattan's Lower East Side, and central and northeast Queens. The overnight closures, which would continue even after major repairs are complete, could be replaced by bus services.  The report noted that London and Paris systems, similar in age and capacity, shut down for several hours each night; the overnight shutdown of commuter services in Japan spawned the development of "capsule hotels," tiny spaces in which commuters who missed the last train could avoid an unaffordable taxi ride home. The Journal reported that late-night riders were not impressed by the idea of a shutdown, quoting one rider: "A bus is not a great option."  Specific ideas for improving the subway experience were detailed in the Times article, including larger entrances, enlarged mezzanine levels at stations, improved light and ventilation, better access for disability-challenged users, and removal of clutter from station platforms -- including newsstands.

 

 

Often, when storms or other emergencies threaten, NJ Transit announces vague plans to cope with it, such as saying "trains will operate on a modified Saturday schedule."  But just what is  that modified schedule?  Often, riders were left wondering when their next train might, or might not, arrive. A number of other transit systems have clarified this by formalizing schedules that will be used in such situations, and announcing them in advance.  Now NJT is going to do the same thing, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for NJ Advance Media (nj.com). NJT will publish in advance several "levels" of reduced service, and then announce at the time of the event which level will be observed during the emergency.  The schedules will be available in printable form on NJT's website all year long; the first two schedules to be posted will be for two levels of rail service, according to NJT executive director Steven Santoro. Printed schedules will also be available at key stations, NJT said.

A shortage of locomotive engineers has bedeviled NJ Transit's rail operations, forcing an increasing number of train cancellations and making daily commuting even more unpredictable.  The situation reached a new peak on Monday, October 9 -- Columbus Day -- when NJT cancelled 35 trains, according to reporting by Larry Higgs for nj.com. NJT insisted that 20 engineers elected to take the day off; but the engineers' union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, disputed the number, saying only five engineers had laid off, and others had volunteered to run trains to take their place.

NJT's locomotive engineer staff  has been beset by retirements and by engineers leaving to work for the other two metropolitan area commuter railroads, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, which pay about 20% higher salaries than NJT. NJT says it has a plan to increase its engineer count, with 39 trainees "in the pipeline" to become qualified locomotive engineers; training takes about two years, but as many as two-thirds of the trainees typically drop out of the program. According to NJT executive director Steve Santoro, the training program is expected to yield five more engineers in November, and two more in January.  The railroad says it has 364 engineers on active duty, and needs 268 to field a full complement of trains on a given weekday.  It figures an engineer averages three runs per shift.

Recently, crumbling retaining walls near the Summit station interrupted service twice on the Gladstone Branch of NJ Transit, leaving commuters without inbound service for two weekday rush hours. Temporary repairs got the trains running the next day in each case, but NJT executive director Steve Santoro said on Wednesday, Oct. 11, that there are other places on the Morris & Essex lines that are troublesome and may need repair, according to reporting by Curtis Tate for the Gannett papers (Courier-News, Oct. 13).  Santoro cited particular concerns regarding the Roseville junction in Newark of the Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton lines, and near the Bay Street station in Montclair on the Montclair line. Additional reporting by Larry Higgs in the Star-Ledger (Oct. 12) disclosed that long-term plans at Summit include reconfiguring tracks there so that Gladstone Branch trains can use Morristown Line tracks through the crumbling wall area, allowing repairs to proceed without disrupting train service, and that NJT is now saying that in one or more of the earlier incidents in which trains apparently struck the concrete wall, it was actually an electrical junction box that was struck.   In Higgs' article, Lackawanna Coalition chair David P. Alan was quoted as saying "Some parts of the wall at Summit have already deteriorated and we don't know what will fail next," adding that the Lackawanna Railroad's use of concrete was an "engineering marvel" of the time, in the early 20th Century.

Repairs continue at Summit, where NJT continues to remove loose sections of the retaining wall, which dates from 1902.  At Roseville, the situation is similar: large portions of the wall have crumbled near the tracks.

While Amtrak officials knew that tracks at New York's Penn Station were deteriorating to the point of danger, getting permission to perform repairs was not easy. According to investigative reporting by Michael LaForgia for the New York Times (October 9), conflicting projects, with political overtones, hampered the urgent calls by Amtrak engineering and track maintenance personnel to proceed with repair work.  The situation finally boiled over with derailments of trains on March 24, April 3, and July 6, all at the complex junction of trackwork at the west end of the station. When the derailments started to occur, Amtrak declared that the only way to address the many problems was to reduce the capacity of the station for eight weeks during the summer, which led to massive rescheduling of trains and rerouting of commuters, notably on the Morris & Essex Lines of NJ Transit, where most weekday trains were diverted to Hoboken.

While money is a factor in getting the work done, an even more precious commodity is "track time," the closing of tracks so work can be done. Amtrak is forced to ration track time to several competing projects, to limit the disruption to scheduled train service. According to the article, a main competitor for track time needed for track repairs has been the construction of the Moynihan train hall -- the conversion of the General Post Office west of Eighth Avenue to a new facility that will mainly serve Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers.  The new train hall has been a pet project of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo; in turn, Cuomo's support has been critical to Amtrak's plans for a massive expansion of Penn Station called Gateway. So, the article suggests, Amtrak was sensitive to the needs of the Moynihan project -- to the extent that track repairs were sidelined until it was too late. Over a period from 2013 to 2017, according to the Times' calculations, contractors for Moynihan were granted 2200 hours of weekend track time, while Amtrak 's crews got only 1800 hours.  While the Moynihan contractors do not work on the tracks themselves, they need the tracks taken out of service so they can install columns and girders.

Competition for track time and other resources within Amtrak was intense. In March, 2017, as repairs were finally getting underway, Amtrak's head of track maintenance, Andrew Keefe, learned that the track project would stretch out for a year or more, and that Amtrak was considering giving even more priority to Moynihan. Mr. Keefe, the Times article says, lost his temper, pounding the table and saying, "You're not going to be happy until you put a train on the ground (i.e., cause a derailment)." Mr. Keefe was prescient; just weeks later came the first derailment.  Soon, an accelerated project, requiring the eight-week summer "blitz," was announced, although Amtrak "had long regarded disrupting weekday service as anathema," said the Times, quoting Amtrak co-CEO Charles Moorman. But this summer, that's what Amtrak concluded it had to do.

Although this summer's work achieved a lot of progress in the deferred maintenance at Penn Station, there is a lot more to do, and Amtrak would not foreclose the possibility that more weekday work intervals might be needed in the future.

On Tuesday evening, October 3, Gladstone Branch service again came to a halt; the cause was first specified only as "ongoing inspections near Summit, which need to be done during daylight hours," but later changed to "emergency repair work;"  the cause appears to be once again crumbling retaining walls west of the Summit station, which knocked out the Gladstone Branch's single track for almost 24 hours starting on September 20. The walls in question likely were built when the Summit area tracks were lowered from street level to today's below-grade railroad; this work dates from the 1902-1905 era, and this particular piece of infrastructure seems literally to be "crumbling."  A bus operation on October 3 began around 9 p.m. and got commuters home by taking them to trains at Murray Hill, but service remained suspended all day Wednesday.  That afternoon, NJT announced that normal service would resume Thursday, and the Thursday rush hour appeared to be proceeding normally.

The troublesome retaining wall at Summit extends for half a mile or more along the south side of the 1905-vintage depression or "cut" in which the three NJT Morris & Essex Lines tracks run. The track closest to the wall serves the Gladstone Branch, which has been the only line affected by the problem so far.  The wall is easily observed at the Summit station; it looks to be very old, with dark discolorations, cracked and missing concrete, and many patches where repairs have been done.  Near the west end of the station platforms, at the top of the wall, is a large section of fresh concrete, likely the results of the recent repairs; but there are many places where concrete has fallen and not yet been repaired, some of which are six inches deep or more, and can extend for several feet horizontally.  There is also evidence of crumbled pieces of concrete lying next to the track below.  Repairs may be complicated by the many electrical power and communications cables that are affixed to the wall.

The earlier September 20-21 incident started when Gladstone trains were struck by, or struck, pieces of a disintegrating retaining wall just west of Summit station, forcing NJT to suspend train service on the Gladstone Branch around 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 20, pending emergency repairs. The collapsing wall became a literal symbol for what has been called the crumbling infrastructure of the region.

Gladstone Branch trains resumed running in the early afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 21, after nearly a full day suspension. Gladstone commuters had a difficult time getting home on Wednesday as NJT instituted a bus bridge from Summit to the first three stops on the branch, and shuttle trains from the bus at Murray Hill to the rest of the Gladstone Branch stops. Thursday morning found no trains running on the Gladstone, and no substitute bus service was announced, but passengers could use Lakeland Bus service, which cross-honored NJT tickets, or other NJT rail lines.

Commuters who managed to get to work somehow on Thursday enjoyed a normal return home, as NJT resumed normal service on the Gladstone Branch around noon. They could reasonably expect a normal ride in on Friday, Sept. 22, but that proved to be a false hope, as a "trespasser incident" around 6 a.m. at Newark Broad Street snarled the entire morning rush, with trains delayed up to two hours. This affected all three lines routed through Newark Broad: the Morris & Essex, Gladstone, and Montclair-Boonton. Trains started moving again around 8 a.m.; several trains were cancelled outright, and delays were sure to continue well into the morning.

Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed, or so it seems.

 

With the completion of Amtrak's summer-long work program at New York's Penn Station, normal schedules have returned on the area's rail lines. NJ Transit issued new timetables effective September 2, which basically restored the schedule in effect in early July before the work program began. Morris & Essex Lines weekday trains to Penn Station will begin running again on Tuesday, September 5, after the Labor Day weekend; weekend and holiday schedules were unchanged during the summer. Coincidentally with the restoration of regular service, weekday midday busing on the Gladstone Branch came to an end; regular trains will now run all day on weekdays.  (Weekend busing on the Gladstone will continue until sometime in the fall.)

NJ Transit and the other rail operators into Manhattan generally received high marks for handling the schedule changes. A typical media report, by Patrick McGeehan for the New York Times (Sept. 2), says that the "summer of hell" widely predicted for commuters never materialized.  The article quoted NJT Executive Director Steven Santoro's testimony at a recent hearing in Trenton: Mr. Santoro said that New Jersey Transit riders “made an almost seamless transition from their old travel patterns to the temporary ones that were in effect throughout the Amtrak repair outage.” Riders on the Morris & Essex lines enjoyed a bonus of fare reductions of roughly 50%, and free transfers to and from PATH trains and NY Waterway ferry services from Hoboken. The experience of using Hoboken instead of New York as their gateway to Manhattan left some riders impressed with the alternative; the Times article quoted Karen Roth, a commuter to Manhattan from Rockaway, N.J., as saying that while she would resume riding to New York Penn once the trains began running again, she said that "the difference is I’m no longer averse to just getting on the train to Hoboken to get to work."  And while crew shortages caused the cancellation of many trains during the summer, Ms. Roth said that she had not encountered a single cancellation on the trains she rode.

According to Mr. Santoro, the cost to NJ Transit of the rescheduling, and for paying for riders' PATH and ferry fares, was about $25 million; he said NJT might seek partial reimbursement from Amtrak for NJT's expenses.  But he said there would be no NJT fare increase during the current fiscal year.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that NJ Transit did a credible job during the summer work program; however, the Coalition believes that even better services could have been offered if NJT had solicited advice from commuters and their advocacy groups in the planning stage.

On Thursday, Aug. 17, I left home well before sunrise—a novelty—picked up fellow Coalition member Bill Russiello (and his table) in Hackensack—made a quick stop at ShopRite Rochelle Park (open 24 hours!) for forgotten napkins and abandoned-at-home milk and almond milk (apparently my brain not being as fully awake as one would hope), and headed out to the Lackawana Coalition’s initial “Coffee and Commuting” event in Short Hills.  Meanwhile, Chairperson David Peter Alan was brewing coffee, members Gary Kazin, Simon Drake, and Tim Sevener were arriving at Short Hills station.  (Tim had printed up a page detailing his alarming research confirming the details of what we already knew: just how much service has been lost at Short Hills in the past 9 years).

Upon arrival, we found a few early commuters, and proceeded to set up between parking lot and platform, ready to offer a complimentary cup of coffee, a cookie, a bit of fruit, and an opportunity to reflect on the “Summer of Heck”, commuting in general, rail fares, NJT management, and all things railroad.

One of the most common questions we were asked was “Will this really be done by September 1st?”  As usual, NJ Transit has not volunteered any specific details, but we could say that they are still announcing return to normal service then—and that Amtrak has proposed more needed repairs for Summer 2018.  We found that most people were prepared for more trouble than they found—that the ferry options was much appreciated, and that if NJT were able to work with the legislature to keep fares down, it would likely be welcomed as an option—and we agree, particularly as it could be an automatic back-up in case of any unexpected delays on the rails.

As has also occurred in previous service changes, we learned that, once again, being forced to change standard commuting procedures has shown riders alternatives that they then use, regularly or on occasion, in the future—they are more “professional” commuters, knowing the system a little better.  A number of riders mentioned the value they discovered in commuting through Hoboken (which the Lackawanna Coalition has been championing for years).  We continue to request greater use of Hoboken Terminal, including  restoration of the many Hoboken trains that have been lost over the years.

We were particularly grateful to Deputy Mayor Jodi Rosenberg for stopping by; she eloquently spoke at a NJ Transit board meeting before the summer, complaining of the usual secrecy as NJ Transit gave towns along the M&E line no information to help them help their residents prepare for the disruption.  She told us of how she worked with a bus app company to offer riders a charter-bus option.

As commuters arrived a few minutes before each train, they were greeted with “It’s Coffee and Commuting Day!  Have a cup of coffee with us,” as well as conversation and literature as to how to continue to stay connected with the Coalition: via social media, e-mail, or joining us at our monthly open meetings, the 4th Monday of every month (unless moved because of a holiday) at Millburn town hall.  Look for us coming to your station, and join us for Coffee and Commuting!