Railgram

The Railgram is the Coalition's official newsletter, published every two months and packed with in-depth coverage of the issues. For past issues and printer-friendly versions, click here.

This will be a difficult summer for many of you, the riders of the Morris & Essex and Gladstone Lines. It is not just that New Jersey Transit is turning back the clock and forcing us to settle for the “Midtown Indirect” service we all had before 1996, but the secrecy that management observed and their “take-it-or-leave-it” approach constitutes a deliberate blow to our efforts to represent you and campaign effectively for better transit in our region.

We understand why NJT management specifically selected our trains as the ones that will be forced to vacate Penn Station in New York for 40 weekdays. We have Hoboken while other lines, except Montclair, do not. Having Hoboken for the people who want it and as a back-up terminal for riders who would prefer to go to Penn Station sets our railroad apart from others in the NJT system. We have a choice, and we have a back-up. We also understand that the track work that Amtrak will be doing at Penn Station is necessary. Amtrak has neglected Penn Station for too long, and it is falling apart. 

Still, the way that NJ Transit management decided how most of the riders on our line will be forced to change their riding routine is indefensible. Their attitude was one of “we will let you know when we want you to know” and that is exactly what they did. There was no effort to adjust schedules to make the trip easier for the riders, except that there will still be a few trains arriving at Penn Station before 7:00 in the morning, although all riders must return home through Hoboken. We are also not convinced that the additional service on PATH and other carriers will be sufficient to accommodate all of the temporary Hoboken commuters who will join the “regular” Hoboken riders this summer.

It is not only traditional commuters who will suffer. The last train will leave Hoboken at 12:59 a.m.; three minutes later than its normal departure time from Penn Station. However, because of the PATH schedule in effect at night, riders must leave the 33rd Street PATH station by 12:10, 49 MINUTES EARLIER! Forcing riders to leave the City that much earlier is outrageous, and demonstrates reckless disregard for our constituents. We have asked management to reschedule that train to leave Hoboken at 1:06, so riders can catch PATH at 12:45, and to have the last Montclair train leave Penn Station later.

We are not the only people who have complained about the secrecy during this process. So have a number of legislators, as well as the mayors of seven of the towns along the M&E Line. Transit management heard all these complaints, including ours, at a legislative hearing on May 31. This process has not become any more transparent since then.

The Long Island Rail Road has made service adjustments to accommodate the track work, too. In contrast to NJ Transit, the LIRR discussed possibilities with several stakeholders before announcing the changes the railroad would make. NJ Transit would have been wise to do the same. We could have helped, too. Maybe we could even have persuaded NJ Transit to run more trains into Penn Station! 

Since April, 2003, no member of New Jersey Transit’s Board of Directors has ever voted “NO” on an “agenda item” before the Board. This perfect record of the Board as a body that unanimously approved everything before it lasted for over 14 years, except for Commissioner Richard Hammer’s objection to a personal injury settlement when he first took the post late in 2015. That unbroken streak of unanimity prompted the Coalition and other advocates to criticize the NJT Board as a “rubber stamp” and call for reform.

Veteran Board member Flora Castillo broke that streak at the Board’s regularly scheduled meeting on June 14. She voted against two items. One would have authorized over $10 million for boiler and terminal repairs at Hoboken, and the other was an increase in spending of $2,750,000 on a contract concerning power substations. Castillo abstained on a third item. Coalition member Joseph M. Clift told the Railgram that he stated at a Board committee meeting that the items in question should have been sent out for competitive budding, and speculated that Castillo’s actions might have been related to his expression of that concern.

We strongly commend Flora Castillo for exercising independent judgment by breaking the 14-year streak of unanimous approval of every agenda item. For many years, we have called for robust discussion of issues that concern us as riders on NJ Transit, and for transparency by the NJ Transit Board and management, so we will be recognized as having a stake in the mobility that NJ Transit offers us. We sincerely hope that these two dissenting votes will be the first step toward that transparency and that recognition.

Twice in the past few weeks, Coalition Chair David Peter Alan represented our organization as an “invited” speaker at Bergen County hearings of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee; the first, at Bergenfield Borough Hall, and the second at the Bergen County Administration Building in Hackensack. I attended both hearings as Coalition Legislative Director and spoke as a private individual at the Hackensack hearing. Senator Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) presided at both sessions.

The Bergenfield hearing concerned the proposed 10-year capital program at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which we criticized. Our statement also called for money to be spent on new tunnels into Penn Station, rather than an extension of PATH trains to Newark Airport.

The Hackensack hearing was ostensibly about safety on the Pascack Valley line. We are all aware that on Sept. 29, many riders and people at the Hoboken station were injured and a young mother lost her life. That tragedy is horrible; it clearly should never have happened, and yet so many factors led up to it that an accident of some form was almost inevitable. We heard from an injured passenger on that train and his wife, two of many invited to bring their thoughts to the committee. The invited speakers took up the afternoon session, running through the dinner hour, and then riders had the opportunity to speak.

There was definitely a theme of the afternoon: NJ Transit needs dedicated operating funds for long-range planning—and simply to cover the needed costs of running the third-largest public-transit system in the country. Several of the invited presenters, including David Alan, mentioned it. There was also an issue which he raised for the first time at a legislative hearing. In September 2015, New Jersey Transit eliminated the last trains of the evening on several rail lines. In the wake of those cuts, the New Jersey legislature introduced a bill that would require notice and a hearing before any service is reduced. That law was changed to add an exception for service cuts of up to two hours. Chair Alan blasted that law, calling it “infamous” and “a travesty” and said that we will not rest until it is repealed. Following his statement, Senator Gordon said that he would look into the matter. We hope that the legislature will correct its mistake soon.

In the meantime, the Lackawanna Coalition has received new recognition from our lawmakers. Chair Alan said: “There is a big difference between making a statement as an “invited” presenter and making a statement as a member of the general public. Now that we are being taken seriously as representatives of our riders, we will do everything we can to improve our transit for you, our riders and our constituents.” 

The Gateway Program Development Corporation (GDC), formed to oversee planning and construction of new tracks and rail tunnels between New York City and New Jersey (and more controversially a large annex south of the existing Penn Station), continues to coalesce even as questions linger about its corporate structure and limited opportunities for public input.

The GDC’s board of directors contains New York and New Jersey representatives appointed by the Port Authority, one representative from Amtrak, and one from the U.S. Department of Tramsportation (and with Port Authority commissioner Richard Bagger as its chairman). This structure has the benefit of amalgamating the capabilities of its member organizations under a single roof, such as Amtrak’s ability to apply for federal grants and the Port Authority’s eminent domain rights. But the agency with the most to gain (or lose) is notable in its absence: New Jersey Transit. While NJT has been tapped to engineer the parts of the project intended to create redundancy for the existing tunnels damaged by Hurricane Sandy and their approaches (known as the Hudson Tunnel Project), it is unclear what if any role they will play in steering the rest of Gateway. The Coalition has often complained about NJT taking a backseat to Amtrak and other organizations when it comes to our Trans-Hudson mobility, as lack of input could easily translate to decisions that end up being to their (and the riders’) detriment.

We are also concerned a lack of transparency in the GDC’s operations. The lead member organization is clearly the Port Authority, whose decision-making and capital plan have been the subject of several rounds of hearings before the New Jersey Legislative Oversight Committee recently. The GDC’s first public meeting in January was announced only a day prior, which certainly isn’t a good sign. We have also expressed concern that the organization has not formed a Regional Citizens Liaison Committee, as was done with the aborted Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project and the former Portal Bridge project. The RCLC gave stakeholder representatives, including our organization’s chair David Peter Alan, the opportunity to give input early and often during the planning process.

Finally, the funding for Gateway is still very much in the air. So far the only firm commitment was by the Port Authority, which designated $2.7 billion for debt service only as part of its 10-year capital plan. Given that the price tag for all of Gateway is around $23 billion, we still have a long way to go.