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.

When NJT eliminated the last trains on the Morris & Essex and Gladstone lines last year, we complained to the media and to our elected officials. We argued that eliminating the last train of the night constituted a “substantial curtailment” of service, which would have required notice to the public and a hearing. While NJT claimed that they could cut service on any line by up to two hours without telling anybody in advance, we managed to convince them to give us some of that time back.

Now, by law, we can no longer make the “substantial curtailment” argument. Assembly Bill 227 was recently enacted, and it allows NJT to cut service by up to two hours on any line without notice to the public. The bill was originally written to require notice and a hearing for any service cut. It was changed to allow NJT to cut service by one hour without notice, and then changed again to allow a cut of up to two hours without notice. It passed by wide margins; 78-2 in the Assembly and 38-0 in the Senate; the latter action took place on August 1.

We can no longer argue on your behalf, as transit riders and our constituents, that NJT cannot make the sort of cuts that they made last year. Even the elimination of the 1:00 train from New York on part of the North Jersey Coast Line, which makes the last train now 11:18, can be forced onto the public by surprise. If they wish, NJT can now eliminate the 11:56 and 12:56 trains and send the last M&E train out from Penn Station as early as 10:56.

This constitutes a severe setback in our campaign to move NJT toward being more transparent and responsive to the needs of transit riders. We are deeply concerned that our elected officials have given NJT such blanket permission to cut service without notice, and without consulting us or other representatives of the riding public. It is doubtful that these elected officials will lose any of their mobility, but we who depend on NJT can lose some of ours.

We consider it totally unacceptable that our mobility can be curtailed at any time, and without prior notice. We urge you to join the Lackawanna Coalition, so we can fight more effectively for new rules that will strengthen our position as transit riders, not weaken it.

Coalition members expressed their deep concern over the new rule in statements made on internal forums. One member, Sally Jane Gellert of Woodcliff Lake, who uses the Pascack Valley Line and lost her last evening train last year, said: “this actually removes rights of citizens to have input into a public agency’s actions; it further centralizes our transportation governance in the hands of unelected bureaucrats who may or may not use the service and are insulated from public displeasure by virtue of not needing to run for election.” We also note that it is elected officials who gave these “unelected bureaucrats” at NJT that authority.

At a recent meeting of New Jersey Transit’s Board of Directors, a Board member apologized for being late, blaming highway traffic for the delay. The following month, a member of the advocacy community living on the same rail line chided him for not taking the train, which got the advocate to the meeting on time and would have done the same for the Board member.

The Board member’s reply was that our transit is not very good, so you need a car to get around.

If there was ever a statement that summarized the plight of unfortunate New Jerseyans who must depend on NJ Transit for all of their mobility, that was it. It also summarized the most basic and farreaching defect in New Jersey Transit’s governing structure.

If an ordinary motorist disparaged the level of service available on NJ Transit, that would come as no surprise. Some schedules (including on the Morris & Essex Line) force riders to miss connections, there is little attention paid to New Jerseyans who wish to travel within their own state. The past decade has seen a number of service cuts on NJ Transit, even though other transit providers are increasing their levels of service.

The person who disparaged our transit was not an ordinary motorist, but a member of the NJ Transit Board, which is charged by statute with the responsibility to govern the agency that provides all the mobility that many Garden State residents have. Under sound principles of governance, it would stand to reason that Board members would fight to improve the organization and to serve the people who need the service which the organization provides. That means NJ Transit’s riders.

That does not happen here. Not a single member of the NJ Transit board depends on transit to get around. We do not know of a single voting member of the Board who, despite being licensed as a motorist, chooses to use transit on a regular basis. As far as we know, and we would like to be corrected if we are wrong, every voting member of the NJT Board rides NJT only occasionally, or not at all.

It is difficult to fathom how a person who never uses an agency’s services can effectively govern that agency. That person can impose service reductions and higher fares on the agency’s powerless riders with impunity. In short, members of the NJT Board are not required to live by the rules they impose on persons who are less powerful and less politically-connected.

It is time for major governance reform at NJT, which we know would require a change in the governing statute. The Board should have genuine rider-representatives; independent advocates who have established their credibility with significant experience fighting for better transit, regardless of the political fallout that could result and regardless of their own political connections or lack thereof.

In the meantime, it is essential that all NJT Board members use transit when they travel to NJT Board meetings and other NJTrelated activities, at a minimum. If that were required, the members of the Board would at least know what it feels like to use transit from time to time, and the particular Board member who disparaged our transit would have arrived at the meeting on time.

Summer heat tends to be a major stressor for New Jersey Transit’s infrastructure, but despite facing one of the worst heat waves in recent memory, the carrier got through the season relatively unscathed. Commuters and other NJT-watchers will recall that last summer (2015) was punctuated by a particularly brutal week from July 20-24, where problems in Penn Station, in the tunnels under the Hudson, and beyond caused major rush-hour delays four out of the five days. While our riders were spared any meltdowns of that magnitude this year, there is still ample reason for concern going forward.

A couple of statistics concern the Coalition particularly. The first is mechanical reliability, as measured by Mean Distance Between Failure (on average, how many miles do trains run between breakdowns). While the latest numbers are a slight improvement over the last couple of years, as Bloomberg reporter Elise Young has highlighted, they are still far below the numbers from New York area neighbors Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

The second metric is customer satisfaction. While the latest ScoreCARD survey again showed a slight improvement over last year, Larry Higgs of NJ.com and the Star-Ledger reports that Morris & Essex Lines had the lowest overall satisfaction, with the Montclair-Boonton toward the back of the pack as well.

This year, the Lackawanna Coalition has been celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Midtown Direct service into Penn Station New York. As our former Chair, Albert L. Papp, notes, the service has been far more successful than New Jersey Transit had expected, even though the Coalition expected that level of success.

Ten years later, on July 17, 2006, the one-mile extension of the Newark Light Rail line (formerly the Newark City Subway) between Penn Station and Broad Street Station opened for service. According to NJ Transit, the project cost $207.7 million. When the new segment opened, service ran every 10 minutes during peak-commuting hours, every 15 minutes during mid-day and most of the evening on weekdays, and every 20 minutes on weekends.

A news release recently issued by NJ Transit claimed that service on the extension was “thriving” and quoted Executive Director Dennis Martin as saying: “The Extension provides a faster, more convenient commuting option for the thousands who are going to downtown Newark or points beyond.” Today’s level of service on on the line renders Martin’s claim questionable. Since 2010, the line runs only every 15 minutes during peak commuting times and every half-hour at other times on weekdays. Cars still run every 20 minutes on Saturdays, but only every 25 minutes on Sundays. The result is that riders who wish to connect between Morris & Essex Line trains at Broad Street Station and Trenton or Raritan trains at Penn Station on a Sunday can only make those connection once every five hours without needing an additional 60 minutes to make their trip.

The Lackawanna Coalition has called for NJ Transit to restore former service levels on the Extension, so riders will again have the connectivity that the line’s original schedule promised. We have also called on NJT to establish a special fare for riders using the Extension between the two train stations. Current fare rules do not allow riders to use the line between the two stations in Newark for train connections at each end, unless they pay a Secaucus fare, which is the same as a New York fare.