NJ Transit ‘summer of hell’ by the numbers: The impact to your commute
TRENTON — Lawmakers and mass-transit executives say the damage has been minimized in the first 10 days of schedule disruptions needed for New York Penn Station tracks to be repaired – though that doesn’t mean there haven’t been problems.
Even in the best-case summer scenario, riders on the Morris & Essex Line’s Midtown Direct, roughly a fourth of NJ Transit’s rail commuters into New York, must modify their commutes.
Some 10,000 Midtown Direct riders are switching to PATH or ferries in Hoboken. The number taking early-morning trains that still make it into the city has doubled. And more than 650 people are using supplemental buses into New York from Maplewood, South Orange and Summit.
“The ‘summer from hell’ has not been quite as hot as expected, although we have over seven weeks to go,” said Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, who co-chaired a Wednesday legislative hearing regarding the progress of the Penn Station repairs.
“Although the ‘summer from hell,’ if you will, hasn’t been the Armageddon we were all concerned with, nonetheless on the average, it’s costing the commuter at least an hour collectively of their time,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo coined the “summer from hell” phrase to describe the impacts on NJ Transit and Long Island Rail Road commuters from disruptions scheduled to last through Sept. 1.
NJ Transit executive director Steven Santoro said the “summer schedule is working,” though noted that’s only 10 days into the impacts.
“The overall experience of the first week and a half has been good, but I want to stress New Jersey Transit is not allowing that to make us complacent,” Santoro said.
Among the unanticipated hiccups – though Gordon said it should have been foreseen – has been an insufficient number of engineers, causing 58 trains to be cancelled in the first nine days after the rail schedules were altered on July 10. Forty were cancelled on Sunday and Monday alone.
There had been just seven cancellations due to crew shortages in the prior nine days.
Santoro said part of that is because of vacations picked at the start of the year, long before Amtrak’s emergency repairs were known. Part of it is due to sick days and optional days off. And part of it is due to engineers having an allotted time to change their shifts whenever the train schedules change.
“We do not normally schedule service changes in the summer due to the fact that during every schedule change, engineers select their job shifts, and this takes several days for all engineers to settle their work assignments,” Santoro said.
Santoro said some of the absences were unexcused. When Gordon asked if it could have been an “unofficial job action” taken by people “annoyed because of disrupted weekend plans or vacation plans,” Santoro said that’s possible.
Senator Joseph Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, urged disciplinary action.
“We’re really talking about people not showing up to work and screwing the passengers of New Jersey Transit in the process,” Kyrillos said.
“The people that decided to blow off work, do you think they understand that most of the passengers that were sitting on the hot sidelines, if they didn’t show up to work, they’d get fired?” Kyrillos said.
Santoro said the agency has an aggressive disciplinary process that could be used.
“We are looking at all absences on those days, whether they be excused absence, whether they be unexcused absence or they be in the pick position to pick additional positions,” he said.
Santoro said he will meet Friday with the head of the engineers’ union, who has said the issue is a shortage of employees. At least 13 of the 383 spots for engineers in NJ Transit’s budget are vacant, though the union says the number is higher than that.
Santoro said he wants to make sure the pattern isn’t repeated in September, when the train schedule changes back to its normal pattern when track repairs are completed.
“Our customers certainly are impacted, and it’s not fair to them to be impacted in such a way that it causes hardship for them.”
The intensive track and switch work at New York Penn Station is on schedule to be done around Sept. 1, with weekend work continuing through June. But Amtrak’s vice president of operations for the East region, Michael DeCataldo, said this is just the start of what’s needed.
“We still have signals. We have electric power. We have traction power. So this is just the start of a very long process to renew the components in and around the complex,” DeCataldo said.