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.

A deadly crash of Train #1614 as it came into Hoboken Terminal from the Pascack Valley Line forced the suspension of trains to and from the historic terminal for eleven days. The train was going 21 mph as it proceeded over the terminal interlocking tracks; an area with a speed limit of 10 mph or less. One person was killed and 108 injured, and part of the roof of the train shed collapsed. Fortunately, the historic terminal building was not damaged. Service was restored on Monday, Oct. 10, on a partial schedule.

Several trains that run during peak-commuting hours were not restored to the schedule, or combined with other departures. Tracks 1 through 9 were walled off, and only Tracks 10 through 17 were returned to service, which limited peak-hour operations. Most trains that ran during mid-day and evening hours were restored, but not all of them. Train #684, the 11:30 pm train from Dover to Hoboken, was not, but it was restored the following week, when full service returned.

Those 11 days had been a difficult period for riders. Other services: ferries, PATH trains, light rail and buses, came back later on the day of the accident or the next day. Except for two additional peak-hour trains from and to Port Jervis, NJT only operated the weekend schedule on the Main-Bergen, Port Jervis and Pascack Valley Lines. Montclair trains that normally ran from Hoboken were eliminated, and only those from Penn Station ran. Boonton Line trains beyond Montclair ran as shuttles on a reduced schedule. The Morris & Essex (M&E) Line lost about half its service, as only New York trains ran, while the entire Hoboken schedule was eliminated. Gladstone trains, which normally run to and from Hoboken, ran as shuttles west of Summit, but mid-day trains required waiting times of 50 to 55 minutes for connecting trains to or from New York.

It took a long time to get to or from Hoboken under the temporary operation. On the day of the accident, there were shuttle buses between Secaucus Junction Station and Hoboken. When the Hudson-Bergen light rail resumed Hoboken service the next day, shuttle buses ran to Liberty State Park Station in Jersey City, instead. This required an additional ride on the light rail to get to Hoboken from any other train. It took this writer 72 minutes to get to Hoboken after an M&E train arrived at Secaucus. When the trains are running, the ride takes 10 minutes.

To make matters worse, there was erroneous communication from NJT to its riders about the trains that were running. The “travel planner” feature on the NJT website, www.njtransit.com, the “next arrival” phone system and NJT’s mobile app all informed riders when the next train would come, according to the “regular” weekday schedule, which included full operation of Hoboken trains. John Bobsin, our Online Editor, described the situation as “Information Chaos.” That situation was not corrected until partial service to and from Hoboken was restored.

As late as the morning of Friday, Oct. 7, riders and their advocates wondered when trains would return to Hoboken, and speculated that the outage could last several more weeks. Then came word from NJ Transit that some service would be restored on Monday. It was, including most of the regular schedule, and using only eight of the station’s 17 tracks. Senior managers were on hand to welcome the riders back, and they appeared glad to have their Hoboken trains back, as well. The following Monday, Oct. 17, saw the return of full service to Hoboken, as well as the return of all except two tracks to service. We were pleased to see the full schedule return, and we strongly commend NJT managers and other employees for restoring Hoboken service so quickly.

Publisher’s Note: While we commend NJ Transit’s rail managers and employees for restoring Hoboken service as quickly as they did, there were still difficulties. Lackawanna Coalition Technical Director Jesse Gribin comments on the difficulties NJ Transit had keeping riders informed

The Hoboken train wreck caused havoc on the railroad, and some of it could have been avoided by more proactive management. The train reroutes, curtailments and cancellations, as well as the “bustitutions” were not implemented very well, and there may have been excuses for that. Whether those hold up is open for debate, but another mistake is not. That was NJ Transit’s communication with its riders. The posted schedules, phone information services and DepartureVision, in particular, kept showing inaccurate information. There is no excuse for any of this.

Hoboken Terminal is one of NJ Transit’s largest stations, and it was out of service. With the chaos revolving around the situation, it is understandable that trying to keep as much of the system as possible operating would result in circumstances constantly changing. It might be understandable that things like the phone status updates and DepartureVision could not be updated rapidity enough; I am not sure of that. So those systems should have been shut off. Besides informing passengers that there is a problem, providing no information is preferable to providing wrong information!

NJ Transit should have posted papers at each station, or displayed DepartureVision screens stating: “Due to the incident at Hoboken Terminal, trains are not running according to schedule. Many trains are cancelled or truncated, and may be making or skipping regular stops, as well as operating at significant delays or otherwise off schedule. Please visit our website emergency page or call this phone number to receive the most up to date information. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

All links to inaccurate information should have been immediately terminated or given 72-point red and yellow notices blasting their current inaccuracy. Papers should have been plastered over station paper schedules stating their irrelevancy. There is no acceptable excuse for why this was not done.

The expedient return of Hoboken to service is to be commended. The workarounds NJ Transit implemented are less praiseworthy, but given the apparent lack of preparedness may have been the best NJ Transit could have done. But for the communication of the situation, NJ Transit management should be holding their heads in shame and begging the riders to forgive them for the confusion.

The wreck of Train #1614 at Hoboken Terminal was not the first event that disrupted service on NJ Transit; they happen all too frequently somewhere on the system. Some of them, like Hurricane Sandy, were strong enough to disrupt service for weeks on some lines, and for more than a month on the Gladstone Line. There will be more such events in the future. Some of them, like more storms, will come with little warning. Others will come with no warning at all. Still others, like the impending closure of the two existing tunnels into Penn Station, New York, will occur several years from now. In all of these instances, NJ Transit needs to be well-prepared. It needs to prepare for the expected, like the eventual removal of the Penn Station tunnels from service for repairs, and the unexpected, including accidents and storms that can cripple a system that is not ready for them.

For several years, we at the Lackawanna Coalition have called on NJ Transit to improve its preparedness for unexpected events. Every event for which NJ Transit does not plan appropriately worsens its reputation as a transit provider. That happened when hundreds of locomotives and cars flooded from Hurricane Sandy because they were left in low-lying storage yards. It happened again after the Super Bowl in 2014, when thousands of football fans were stuck at the stadium for hours before they could get home. Clearly, NJT was not prepared for the sort of accident that happened at Hoboken. The managers who got service restored so quickly deserve our congratulations for their successful effort, but it seems to us that the days after the accident could have been easier on the riders if management had a plan for dealing with a complete service outage at Hoboken.

We call on NJT management to formulate contingency plans for events like a complete service disruption at Penn Station, New York, Hoboken Terminal or Penn Station, Newark. There should also be plans for situations when a line or group of lines suffers a service disruption, for any reason. Good preparedness is necessary for the safe and efficient operation of our transit system, and NJ Transit must formulate plans that bring it to a soundly-prepared state. As the representatives of the riding public, we offer our efforts to work with management toward formulating such plans, and we call on management to take us up on that offer.

The Legislature and Governor Christie recently reached a compromise deal to break the stalemate on the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), raising the user fee on gas by 23 cents, in exchange for a raft of tax cuts. This will provide several years’ worth of capital funding for building new road and rail projects and performing other heavy infrastructure improvements. However, it also seems likely that this will put yet another dent into New Jersey Transit’s operating budget, making another round of fare increases and service cuts likely in the near future.

The Good: Desperately Needed Capital Funding

New Jersey Transit has some significant capital needs in the next few years. The most prominent (and, likely, expensive as well) is the Hudson Tunnel Project, which aims to build new rail tunnels between New Jersey and New York Penn Station before the existing ones have to be shut down to repair residual damage from Hurricane Sandy. Engineering work is ongoing, but if NJ Transit meets its ambitious deadline, construction could begin in 2018.

Another capital need that has been in the news recently is Positive Train Control, a federally-mandated safety system that can force a train to stop if it passes a stop signal. This is an “unfunded mandate” and the deadline for installing it, the end of 2018, is rapidly approaching. 

The Bad: There’s a Hole in the General Fund

The tax cuts that accompanied the hike in the gas levy are likely to hurt NJ Transit’s Operating Budget significantly. TTF monies can only be used for capital projects, and NJ Transit diverts the largest portion of its capital budget to operating that is allowed under Federal Transit Administration rules. This means that the part of the budget that pays for actually running services will continue to be funded largely by two sources: money from the general fund and fares.

Over the last several years, state support for NJ Transit has been cut dramatically, and with the state general fund shrinking due to these tax cuts, it seems probable that the spiral of fare increases and service cuts will continue. So be prepared to pay more for fewer trains and buses for the foreseeable future.

Publisher’s Note: Because the TTF does not generally pay for operations, the Lackawanna Coalition has called for stable, secure and sufficient funding for NJ Transit’s operations and the operation of county-sponsored and other community transportation in New Jersey.