In this way, NJ Transit trains no safer now than a half century ago
TRENTON — If you ride NJ Transit trains, a sobering reminder from members of the National Transportation Safety Board: Trains are no safer from the crashes a critical braking system could prevent than they were almost 50 years ago.
That may be news to commuters, who were told by Gov. Phil Murphy last December that the agency had met a critical deadline to install Positive Train Control. PTC is the system that can automatically slow or brake a train to avoid a derailment or collision. Had the system been operational in 2016, a deadly NJT crash might have been prevented in Hoboken.
It is still not operational. NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy reminded the public in a press conference Monday the risk for a PTC-preventable accident is the same as it was 50 years ago.
"We are closer to installation, but there is a big difference between installation and being operational," she said.
The "milestone" Murphy referenced in December was not to declare PTC was operational, but that NJT had completed enough installation work to qualify for another two-year extension.
Almost half a century ago, the NTSB first recommended PTC. The recommendation grew out of its probe of a crash of two commuter trains in Connecticut in 1969. Each year, the NTSB makes safety recommendations and issues a "wish list" of most wanted improvements. Every year since 1969, a speed control system has been on that list.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt in Monday's press conference lamented "delay after delay" for installation of technology that could literally save lives.
The argument can be made that NJ Transit had been underfunded and ignored for years, but the mess is Murphy's to clean up. Rider anger continues to build over the lack of progress on safety, reliability, and overcrowding.
It doesn't help that Murphy was less than truthful when he blamed federal regulators for delays in restoring full train service, including the Atlantic City line.
"We need FRA approval of a reboot" to get the trains running on the AC Line again, Murphy said two weeks ago, at the time blaming the partial government shutdown for why that hadn't happened, according to an NJ.com report. A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration took issue with that.
"New Jersey Transit does not need approval from the FRA. ... NJ Transit may, at any time, resume commuter rail service on those lines," spokesman Warren Flateau told NJ.com, noting any NJT service reductions or suspensions were voluntary, and not mandated by the FRA. AC service is not expected to resume before spring.
Murphy is asking for patience, but that patience was exhausted long ago. State and local lawmakers are also wondering aloud about delays. Some lawmakers are now suggesting legislative hearings to investigate the failings of NJ Transit.
Murphy once called NJT a "national disgrace." It's his job to fix it, and so far, progress has been difficult for the average rider to see.
Eric Scott is Vice President, Senior Political Director and Director of Special Projects for New Jersey 101.5. He anchors "New Jersey's First News" and weekday morning newscasts from 5 to 10 a.m., in addition to hosting a bimonthly Town Hall series.
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