Another 17 new locomotive engineers graduated after 20 months of NJ Transit training Thursday, and the agency says it is on track to finally have a full roster of the train operators by early next year.

Kevin Corbett, the president and chief executive officer of NJ Transit, said at a ceremony in Iselin ending their formal classroom training that the 78-week program was “one of the most challenging” because of the coronavirus pandemic, which adjusted classes to having to be conducted remotely.

Corbett said that once the class completes its field training and final check rides this month, NJ Transit will have added 76 new locomotive engineers since 2018, bringing the active roster to 373.

“Over two years, we have graduated the same number of (locomotive engineer training program) classes as the previous five years combined,” Corbett said. “By no means are we done yet. And we won’t be until we have that roster full, which is projected to be early next year.”

The next class is scheduled to graduate in January.

Gov. Phil Murphy said NJ Transit has a role to play in “getting this state and our economy not just back to where it was but beyond that to where we know it can be, to a place we’ve never been before.”

“New Jersey is getting back to work, back to school and back to play. And that return may be deliberate and cautious, but it is happening,” Murphy said.

“But we’re also mindful of the unique challenges that NJ Transit faces because of the ongoing pandemic and the public health and economic crises which it has fueled,” he said.

NJ Transit ridership plunged during the pandemic, costing it hundreds of millions of dollars in lost fare revenues.

The Murphy administration plans to use $30 million from its $2.39 billion federal CARES Act allocation to reimburse NJ Transit for eligible costs. NJT was directed awarded $1.4 billion in emergency federal aid in May, which can cover operating costs to maintain service, lost revenue and equipment purchases.

NJ Transit and other transit agencies are pushing for another round of federal assistance. It said it needed another $1.2 billion.

But the state also plans to shrink the fiscal 2021 subsidy to NJ Transit by $71.3 million, sending it $386.1 million, down from the $457.5 million provided in fiscal 2020. In February Murphy had proposed a $132 million increase to $589.5 million – so the total difference is more than $203 million.

Still, Murphy framed the reduced subsidy as adequate at Thursday’s event.

“One of the mistakes that we think we made in the Great Recession is we cut ourselves to the bone and we gave up all of our options on future programs,” Murphy said.

“And one of the decisions we made collectively, you’ll see it in the budget we proposed, is we’re not cutting back on programs like this,” he said. “We’re not cutting back on our investment in the future because we know we’re going to get through this. We’re not going to get through this unscathed, but we will get through this. And we need to have something there when we come out the other side. We need to be standing.”

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NJ Transit spokesman Jim Smith said that compared with pre-pandemic levels, ridership remains down approximately 80% on rail, 50% on buses and 60% on light rail. For the bus service, ridership is still down 67% on service to and from New York but down 20% to 30% in local routes within New Jersey.

Corbett said NJ Transit “is now coming back” and expects that to continue, over time.

“We’re the most densely populated state in the country,” Corbett said. “I have no doubt one year, two years as we come through this crisis and you get back out, people are going to return to transit and we will continue to grow.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.